Haiti: After basics, many survivors need post-trauma care

Marie Sylsalve cradled her 9-day-old son, McAnley, and reflected on three weeks that have taken an almost incomprehensible toll. Sylsalve last saw her husband, Mackenson Andre, in the moments immediately following the 12 January earthquake. The family's home was destroyed and Sylsalve saw a wall fall on Andre. She presumes he is dead it has been three weeks now.

kids dancing
Children practice capoeira in a camp for homeless families in the Belair section of Port-au-Prince. The program, run by alliance partner Viva Rio, is helping children affected by the quake recover their emotional well-being. The CWS-supoported ACT Alliance is providing tents, water, CWS Kits, and psychosocial support for families living here.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Marie Sylsalve cradled her 9-day-old son, McAnley, and reflected on three weeks that have taken an almost incomprehensible toll.

Sylsalve last saw her husband, Mackenson Andre, in the moments immediately following the 12 January earthquake. The family’s home was destroyed and Sylsalve saw a wall fall on Andre. She presumes he is dead – it has been three weeks now.

The Jan. 24 birth of McAnley cheered her some. But Sylsalve, who worked as a vendor and now lives at a displacement site in the Belair neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, is faced with supporting her infant son and three other children. She has no immediate prospects for work.

Sylsalve retains some hope for her infant son, saying that “everything that comes his way will be good.” But life right now is hard, she said tersely and dispassionately, continuing to cradle McAnley.

Sylsalve's dispiriting experiences and lament are all too common in Haiti today, and the assistance being provided by the ACT Alliance in Belair – including tents, water and CWS Hygiene and Baby Kits – while needed and appreciated, is only a first step toward recovery.

Another is in providing psychosocial support – the process by which those who have been traumatized begin to resume normal life.

Sylsalve’s displacement site has a long association with the Brazilian organization Viva Rio, which is supported by ACT members working in Port-au-Prince.

One of the psychosocial programs for children involves the practice of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art taught by Viva Rio staff that is used as therapy for young people recovering from trauma. Drawing is another form of trauma therapy.

On a recent afternoon, several children involved in the program gathered and talked about their experiences. Capoeira was generally more popular than drawing – seven-year-old Ricardo Jacques and 10-year-old Mario Pierre said the dancing and exercise of capoeira made them feel good – “ready for the future,” Pierre said.

But Jean Ritson Mertilus, 9, said he preferred drawing because it was more peaceful than capoeria.

The need for survivors to find some semblance of normality and peace undergirds the ACT members’ plans for adult psychosocial programs.

Bjorg Roedland, a Norwegian nurse and a consultant with ACT/Norwegian Church Aid, acknowledges that psychosocial work is not what survivors like Sylsalve need immediately. “If the people don’t have food, how can they do other things?” Roedland said. “They have lost a lot of weight. They get angry if they don’t eat. You have to start with the basics. “

But dealing with trauma must eventually be addressed, especially in areas where Port-au-Prince residents, particularly women and children, were vulnerable before the earthquake.

Fear of sex trafficking is one concern, as are rape and sexual abuse. Compounding the need for protection of Haitians is the fear that children may be trafficked out of Haiti as orphans, as evidenced by the recent arrest of a group of U.S. citizens for attempting to take Haitian children into the neighboring Dominican Republic.

A U.S. government report on trafficking notes that as many as 300,000 Haitians, ages six to 14, were trafficked in 2008. Many were forced to work as domestic servants both here and overseas. The report also noted a “sharp increase” in the number of Haitian children trafficked for the sex trade.

Roedland said ACT Alliance staff in Haiti are working with local partners and community leaders, as well as with the Haitian government, to ensure that children most vulnerable to trafficking are identified and protected.

Trafficking is just one worry. There is also the ever-present possibility of another earthquake in Haiti. Tremors are felt daily even now, three weeks later.

“Their fear is increasing. It’s in their stomach all the time. When the aftershocks come, it’s right there,” Roedland said. “They are starting their lives over again. But some people can’t handle this, and our most important job now is to identify those people who can’t resume their lives.”

Adults bear the most psychological scars; children seem more resilient, though that also depends on a number of factors. “If the mother and father are there, they can cope,” Roedland said. “But if the parents are missing, it’s much more difficult for the children.”

The children involved in the ACT-supported programs spoke about their lives with a poignant mixture of sadness and optimism. Though none lost immediate family, all realize the enormity of what has happened in Haiti.

“Too many people died in our country,” said Mario Pierre.

Asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, 10-year-old Nacilien Josue replied, “Become a ship captain.” Why? “To bring in medical supplies.”

CWS staffer Chris Herlinger is on assignment in Haiti for the ACT Alliance. ACT Alliance Communicator Paul Jeffrey contributed to this report. 

Church World Service is a member of the ACT Alliance. ACT Alliance

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More on CWS Haiti earthquake response


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Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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