Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tents - August 2010

The summer of 2010, most of the women I cared for lived in tents or with relatives.  That summer, it is estimated, that 1.5 million Hatiens were living in tents and that 25% of the population had been displaced.  They were refugees living within their own country; moving from place to place to find food, shelter, clean water,work; the things we all need to survive.

I sat on a small wooden bench and wrote down their stories in medical charts as woman after woman, with the help of translators, told me where they lived and who was left living.  These are standard questions on any health history form;  address and people in your family.  Almost everyone had lost a child, a husband, a sister or parent.  They had no real address.  They were in motion.  They were afraid to go into their houses, if they had them.   One translator told me they set up a tent next to the house and slept in at night.  Others wanted to move a tent into a relatives yard but were not allowed.  Many came from Port Au Prince and many wanted to one day return.  Some came to give birth away from the city and many would move many more times looking for work and stability.

I watched them walk up the hill and wait for their appointment with grace and charm.  They were stunningly beautiful with clean, pressed clothing.  I understood that I never looked that thoughtfully groomed or put together- ever; even with a house, water and electricity.  I

Perhaps, giving birth in a large geodesic dome tent then was not so unusual.  It was clean and private and the volunteers were kind and attentive.  At night it glowed with a soft, white comforting light.  Perhaps it offered some reassurance to the nearby tent communities.  I saw women, babies in arms, slip back into that community.  They walked proudly with their babies as people came out of the tents to admire the new baby who would return to a tent crowded with relatives.  Most often they left with new baby gift bags packed by some school children in a far away country that they carried in a bag over their arm.

By the summer of 2012, the dome birth center was closing down and the 2,891 people who were still living in 36 camps were moved out.  The traditional houses that had four rooms were divided into four sections; one for each family.  Rents for even these small rooms with leaking roofs and mud floors became more and more expensive as the need for housing increased.

I have not yet made my way back to Jacmel.  Friends say that there are no tents in the public square that overlooks the Caribbean and that there is no concrete.  The babies born that summer in a tent and went home to a tent, are three years old.  I know that their chances of being alive are 1 in 4; that even after a safe, clean birth that life in a tent city posed the many problems related to sanitation, camp violence, malnutrition and the well being of the parents.

Here in Oregon, we go camping with friends and family.  When my Vietnamese and Cambodian children were young they would  question why anyone would choose to sleep in a tent.  They complained that they had slept in enough tents in refugee camps. They had slept outside in the jungle under Phal Pot.  They had cooked over many open fires.  But now, thirty years later the camp-out is composed of almost entirely immigrant families and their children who never slept in refugee camps.  Their parents put up tents and cook over fires.  They talk about the foods they loved back home and how their children will never really understand what they went through. Even for them it seems like a long time ago.

I know that in many place in the world, including Haiti, a tent is a shelter when there is no other and not a choice on a beautiful summer week-end.  My tent, light and lovely on a June morning would not do well in hurricanes, storms and many seasons of rain and sun.   I know that many people in many part of the world are waking up in tents because they have fled war or natural disasters.   When the children complain of the heat, my daughter tells of life in the jungle with no water, or shelter or food and how how hot it was then but I can see that this is well beyond their understanding just as it is difficult to comprehend the many intricate reasons why three summers later people, in Haiti, are still living in tents.

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