A sense of family: The quiet, localized efforts of Haitians assisting fellow Haitians

As Fontil Louiner sees it, faced with the reality of damaged homes and lost income, he and more than two dozen family members and friends had no alternative but to pull up stakes and leave the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Fontil Louiner
Displaced from Port-au-Prince, Fontil Louiner has helped to establish a community meal program for 500 others displaced by the January earthquake.
Photo: Nils Carstensen

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

Petite Riviere, Haiti – As Fontil Louiner sees it, faced with the reality of damaged homes and lost income, he and more than two dozen family members and friends had no alternative but to pull up stakes and leave the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

“We had no other choice. We couldn’t stay,” said the 39-year-old video technician who recently returned to his hometown of Petite Riviere, in the northern department of Artibonite.

But in doing so – and helping establish a 500-meals-a-day feeding program in Petite Riviere -- Louiner not only became part of a wider exodus out of Port-au-Prince; he also became part of a story that has often been overlooked in the rush of recent images and narratives of international aid workers assisting Haitians.

While those images and stories convey part of the reality of the global response to the recent earthquake in Haiti, another reality is often ignored by outsiders: the quiet, localized efforts of Haitians like Louiner who are assisting fellow Haitians.

Recent back-to-back visits to Haiti’s north and south helped illuminate that story.

First some background. According to the United Nations, more than 500,000 people have left Port-au-Prince for outlying provinces – or, departments, as they are called in Haiti. Among the most popular destinations during the initial weeks following the Jan. 12 quake has been Artibonite, where an estimated 162,500 arrived – including Louiner and 30 friends and family members.

Louiner was not a stranger returning home to Petite Riviere, which was not hit by the quake. Though Louiner had worked in Port-au-Prince for 20 years, he had maintained his ties with his home town by serving, since 2004, as a part-time manager and DJ of a local radio station, Family Radio.

The station is committed to not only playing music but providing a useful public service function, airing news and educational programming. That is no small role – in Haiti, radio is a significant social player, with some calling it the "engine of society."

Family Radio has ties with CONHANE, a consortium of Haitian community-based agencies that, in turn, has a relationship with Service Chretien d'Haiti, a long-time partner of Church World Service. In the past, the station had worked with CONHANE in responding to floods in the region.

Now, in the wake of the earthquake and the sudden arrival of thousands – by some estimates, about 8,000 have arrived in Petite Riviere in recent weeks -- the station has served the role of galvanizing public support for a grass-roots-run meals program.

A woman cooks a meal for hundreds of people at homeless camp
A woman cooks a meal for hundreds of people at a homeless camp in Jacmel, a town on Haiti's southern coast that was ravaged by the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

Working with CONHANE and another radio station, RTA, Family Radio has sent out an appeal for food donations and for money to pay for food. One of the appeals goes like this: "If you have a family of six people, please donate a goblet of rice."

The effort has paid off, with local residents dropping off rice, other foods and cash donations in order to provide 500 meals daily for the displaced Port-au-Prince residents, many – though not all -- of whom have ties to the region. Station employees and volunteers provide the meals at a feeding center located adjacent to the Family Radio offices and studio.

"We know they need these meals," Louiner said, but added that among all – employees, volunteers, those benefitting – "there is a lot of sharing."

Louiner and his Family Radio colleagues know this is far from a permanent solution to the displacement issue; what the future holds for the displaced, who are staying in family homes, in tents and public spaces like schools, is still not clear.

“Nobody knows how long we’ll be here," Louiner said of the experiences of the displaced. "But we do know it’s not possible to go back to Port-au-Prince."

Louiner downplays any possible tensions between the new arrivals and the community, saying the arrivals have been warmly welcomed.

"They’ve become 'naturalized,' citizens here," he said, a feeling he and other family members have experienced themselves. "We're very proud to be back here."

Another example of Haiti's indigenous self-help activities can be found in the southern coastal city of Jacmel which, like Port-au-Prince, was badly affected by the quake but whose efforts to recover from the disaster have not received the same level of attention as those of the capital.

Still, locally-based efforts have made a difference as this colonial city begins to recover from the quake.

From the first day, the Haitian non-governmental organization KROSE, a partner of ACT Alliance member Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, mobilized a network of workers and volunteers that did everything from assessing damage to providing emergency assistance. Work has focused on two camps within Jacmel that to an outsider's eyes, are noticeably cleaner and better organized than most of the displacement sites elsewhere in Haiti.

Tents provided by Diakonie are one reason for that; another is that KROSE’S local ties in Jacmel put it in a good position to assist in running the camps. "There is nothing we can do if we don’t have a relationship with local authorities and residents," said Gerald Mathurin, KROSE director. "It's a whole process."

That means everything from involving camp residents in the maintenance of the sites to having local Boy Scouts volunteer in the camps to deliver water.

The efforts of a non-Haitian humanitarian group like Diakone need to mesh with local realities, Mathurin said. "All of these efforts have to find roots in a local base. Without that local base, the situation would be far worse. There has to be 'synergy,'" he said.

Care must also be given to uphold notions particularly dear to Haitians: participation and dignity.

Dignity is a watchword in Haiti, and to some in Jacmel, that means staying together as a community and not moving into the displacement camps.

Among "Groupes Solidarités,” or solidarity groups, friends and neighbors decided that it made more sense to stay together, even on borrowed land and space, and in conditions that are noticeably more exposed than those of the camps, in order to have access to their homes, which have been either damaged or destroyed.

Their numbers are not small. There are typically between 50 and 200 people in the solidarity groups, and in Jacmel alone there are more than 400 solidarity groups, representing an estimated total of some 31,505 persons.

"There are some people who want to see their house everyday," said Francilaire Jeudi, 34, a leader of a solidarity group staying in and around the grounds of Jacmel's Wesleyan (Methodist) Church which is receiving assistance from KROSE and the World Food Program. "Even if you can't go into it, you want to see it."

While conceding their stay on the church grounds could be months, and stretch out even further, the members of this solidarity group are determined to remain together within the city rather than relocate to a displacement site on Jacmel's outskirts.

"This place is better than the camp because here we can organize ourselves," said Thifaut Jean, another community leader.

Other reasons cited: a sense of security, unity and belonging.

"Here," said Francilaire Jeudi, "we're one family."

Chris Herlinger of ACT member Church World Service was recently in Haiti on assignment for the ACT Alliance.

How to help

Contributions may be made at www.churchworldservice.org/haiti or by phoning 800-297-1516 or by mailing to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515 (please indicate Haiti Earthquake). 

ACT Alliance  Church World Service is member of the ACT Alliance, an international coalition of churches and related organizations responding to emergencies, collaborating in development work, and providing a shared voice for advocacy.


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