(New York Times, January 27, 2010)
Haiti’s Children Adrift in World of Chaos
By DEBORAH SONTAG
CROIX DES BOUQUETS, Haiti — Not long after 14-year-old Daphne Joseph escaped her collapsed house on the day of the earthquake, she boarded a crowded jitney with her uncle and crawled in traffic toward the capital, where her single mother sold beauty products in the Tête Boeuf marketplace. “Mama,” she said she repeated to herself. “Mama, I’m coming.”
Abandoning the slow-moving jitney, Daphne, petite and delicate, got separated from her uncle and jumped onto a motorcycle-for-hire. She arrived alone at a marketplace in ruins and ran, in her dusty purple sandals, toward a pile of debris laced with “broken people,” she said.
Growing closer, she saw her mother, lifeless. She froze, she said, eventually watching as her mother’s body was dumped in a wheelbarrow and her only parent vanished into the chaos.
“I wanted to kill myself,” Daphne said in a whisper.
Haiti’s children, 45 percent of the population, are among the most disoriented and vulnerable of the survivors of the earthquake. By the many tens of thousands, they have lost their parents, their homes, their schools and their bearings. They have sustained head injuries and undergone amputations. They have slept on the street, foraged for food and suffered nightmares.
Two weeks after the earthquake, with the smell of death still fouling the air, children can be seen in every devastated corner resiliently kicking soccer balls, flying handmade kites, singing pop songs and ferreting out textbooks from the rubble of their schools. But as Haitian and international groups begin tending to the neediest among them, many children are clearly traumatized and at risk.
“There are health concerns, malnutrition concerns, psychosocial issues and, of course, we are concerned that unaccompanied children will be exploited by unscrupulous people who may wish to traffic them for adoption, for the sex trade or for domestic servitude,” said Kent Page, a spokesman for Unicef.
Many children, like Daphne, bore direct witness to horror or survived destruction that killed their relatives, their schoolmates and their teachers. But even those who did not are experiencing vertigo. When the ground shifted beneath them, the landscape of their universe changed forever, and not just at home: 90 percent of schools in the capital, Port-au-Prince, are damaged or destroyed, according to Unicef.
“The children of Haiti, unless they get help, they will have lost their childhoods, their innocence,” Elisabeth Delatour Préval, Haiti’s first lady, said Tuesday, pledging to get schools running as soon as possible, a daunting challenge.
Many children are struggling to make sense of what they are experiencing. Danielle Schledy, 13, who has been living with her family in the courtyard of a destroyed primary school in Port-au-Prince, said she kept telling her parents that the earthquake was “not the end of the world.”
Then, in her soiled turquoise dress and chipped pink nail polish, she skipped over to where her mother, Margarita Dayitus, who had bloody and infected wounds covering her body, lay in misery on the ground.
“I am sad about my mom,” Danielle said.
Poor, middle-class and affluent children are all destabilized, even those who get to spend nights indoors. Marie Alice Craft, a school psychologist, said her 11-year-old daughter had been sleeping with her — in a bed at a relative’s intact house — and waking up with a start when her mother got up to use the bathroom.
“She plays, she smiles, she laughs but she doesn’t want to be alone,” Ms. Craft said, adding that “a lot of group therapy” would be needed to make the children of Haiti feel safe again.
Child-welfare organizations have focused their initial efforts on orphaned children and those who have been separated from their families. They started Tuesday to compile a registry, sending workers into the streets to collect information for a database, in which each child would be assigned a numbered file to help track their cases, said Victor Nyland of Unicef, a senior adviser for child protection and emergencies. Such a registry was used in the Indonesian province of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami to help reunite separated families.
Some children who have nobody willing to look after them will be taken to one of three orphanages in the capital where Unicef is establishing interim care centers — that process began Monday with 60 children — or to safe spaces being established by other organizations.
In this city, Daphne was one of 25 newly orphaned children in the care of a local organization called Frades, a collective that does everything from providing microloans to serving hot meals.
“I know we can’t replace their parents,” said Pierre Joseph, a psychologist there. “It’s an intimate loss. But we will do our best to help these kids have a future. We will find a way to create an orphanage for them.”
Early this week, the children, ages 4 to 14, slept huddled together for warmth under bed sheets slung over branches in a tent city on the paved grounds of a damaged school. Young adults took turns looking after them. During the day, the counselors brought them to a walled construction site strewn with rusty cans and broken glass — the only private space they could find — and tried to distract them with singing and clapping games.
Daphne smiled occasionally as she watched the younger children, but mostly she looked stunned. When she told her story, she spoke so softly that she was barely audible. She explained that after she had watched her mother’s body being carted away, she wandered Port-au-Prince in a daze. A distant relative found her and put her in a taxi back to Croix des Bouquets, where she has nothing, she said.
“He told me to be tough,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
She and her mother had lived with her uncle, but her uncle was shattered by his sister’s death — “They had to tie him up to calm him down,” Daphne said — and her uncle’s wife did not want her to stay with them. “She has always been mean to me,” Daphne said. “When I would get water, she’d tell me to use a coconut shell and not to dirty one of her glasses.”
Shortly after midday, the volunteers, who had been scraping together their own money to feed the children, gave them their first food of the day: sweet coffee and bread. Later, they fed them rice and beans. Then Mazen Haber, child protection officer with Save the Children, showed up with a large houselike tent and promised to find some mattresses, too.
Watching a dozen grown-ups struggle to erect the tent, Daphne said that adults had told her not to think about her mother. But she could still feel her presence, she said, “like a wind at my back.”
She said she was happy to be with the other children — the sisters with the wilted bows in their hairs, the tiny boys with the terror-stricken eyes — but she said she felt sorry that most had lost both parents.
“Before the earthquake, I only had but Mama,” she said.