Friday, July 9, 2010


(Vancouver Sun) - By Sheldon Alberts

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — From the sidewalk above the Bremont camp for displaced Haitians, the air is filled with an orchestra of awful sound — the tinny blare of car horns, the deep roar of diesel engines, and the plaintive appeals of beggars in need.

But inside a white canvas tent tucked away in the farthest reaches of this modest tent community, the cacophony of the street is silenced by the voices of children in song.

There are about two dozen of them, age five to 18, and they sing with apparent joy about the need to protect the planet and its environment.

Their optimism contrasts with the starkness of the surroundings. Long lines of grey tarps convey a drab sameness found in dozens of other camps scattered across the capital.

In the six months since the Jan. 12 earthquake, most of these children have lived cheek to jowl among 1,900 other people on the grounds of this former soccer field in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville.

Surrounded by cinder block walls almost four metres high, and set below street level, Bremont camp has the appearance of an overcrowded prison yard.

And yet, the residents of this makeshift community rank, remarkably enough, among the luckier of the 1.5 million Haitians still without permanent shelter after the earthquake.

Unlike some of the more desperate and populous camps, Bremont is the site of two "child-friendly spaces" and an early childhood development area that provide a place of refuge, recreation and intellectual stimulation for its young residents. The facilities also provide some relief for parents, who can leave their children for the day and search for work.

"It is a way for the children to relax. The real objective is to have a safe place for children where they can play and where we can address their psycho-social needs," says Frieda Mwebe, manager of children in emergency programs in Haiti for World Vision International.

"Most of these kids, they have a behaviour change due to disaster, so we open areas where they can play. They can draw. They can sing. They can do anything."

According to UNICEF, an estimated 1.26 million children were affected by the January earthquake. Schools remained closed for months, leaving many kids to endure the tedium of life under the tarps of temporary shelters.

The disaster took a psychological toll. The prospect of another earthquake or a summer hurricane tops a long list of daily anxieties.

"People are feeling a little bit better now," says Danilo Brutus, a 20-year-old law student who worked for several months as a volunteer teacher at World Vision's child-friendly space in Bremont.

"I myself was afraid all of the time of another earthquake. There was some little shaking all the time. People were spreading rumours about bigger ones coming to Haiti, but now I am feeling more safe."

While in many cases it took aid groups several months to address community needs, dozens of child-friendly spaces now exist throughout Port-au-Prince and other affected communities.

The Canadian International Development Agency provided funding for World Vision's child-friendly space at Bremont, which — modest as it is — is bursting with daily activity.

In one corner, toddlers giggle during a performance by a hired puppeteer. In the middle of the tent, a dozen young boys listen in on a talk about the importance of sport in health — but their necks are craning to see four young girls perform a World Cup soccer dance nearby.

About 70 children spend several hours each day under the white tent at Bremont, which is staffed by five "animateurs" — older youth in the camp who lead the programs.

The daily itinerary is evolving. Initially focused on play activities to take children's minds off the tragedy, volunteer staff members are now emphasizing non-formal education.

"The activity is very important for the children," says Altus Anthony, 32, who is president of the Bremont camp resident's committee. "Some children could not go to school after the earthquake. This is a way for them to have fun and to be educated as well."

But even in this tiny oasis, the reality of the outside world threatens to intrude.

Bremont camp is located on private property and, in recent weeks, the landlord has begun demanding the residents leave.

An initial July eviction deadline has been avoided through ongoing negotiation with camp leaders. But uncertainty remains and, with it, comes worry about the impact of another move on the camp's children.

"I think overall, conditions are improving. We have cases where children were very scared," says Mwebe. "A small little girl that we have in the child-friendly space. She couldn't cope. She could only be with her mother. But now she is fine."

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