First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

Pieces of normal

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Coco McCabe interviews children at a camp for displaced people in Port-au-Prince
Coco McCabe interviews children at a camp for displaced people in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 30; this blog is part one of a two-part series.

Buildings lie in heaps. Rubble blocks the roads. Streets serve as beds at night. But still, people here in Port-au-Prince are reclaiming bits and pieces of the old normal.

At a car wash, men hose the dust off their SUVs, delighting in the glimmer of the enamel beneath, some of it bashed by falling concrete. Nearby, I see a man bent over the spikes in an iron fence holding a paintbrush. He’s carefully touching up the nicks in the bright blue paint that dresses them up. Dust and chunks of collapsed buildings stretch along both sides of the street, but I get the feeling he sees only the strokes he applies, and finds relief in making his fence perfect.

With bravado, a shopkeeper has hauled his stock of upholstered chairs, vacuum cleaners, and toilet bowls out to the road’s edge in front of his store. Forget what’s happened, seems to be his message—as if people still had homes for these goods.

And a pair of teenagers—the girl about six inches taller than the boy–experiment with holding hands as they walk back and forth through the camp that’s now their home, blind to the tents and sheet shelters where parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends all crowd together for sleep at night.

In just seconds on Jan. 12, the world as Port-au-Prince had known it collapsed. All that had seemed so permanent—the concrete buildings, the stone retaining walls, the cinder block homes lining old alleys—was suddenly, terrifyingly gone.

And while some in Port-au-Prince are able to find ways to feel a bit of normalcy, I wonder about the children and how this disaster may have altered their perspective—and sense of security—forever.

I can’t shake the look on the face a 5-year-old girl who came up to me in a camp and tugged on my pant leg. She was tiny and grave, her brow wrinkled with a worry deeper than any I have ever seen in a child. She wanted to talk, to tell me—a total stranger—what had happened.

My house fell down, she said quietly.

Continue to part 2.

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  1. mikecrawley@cox.net'michaelmfc

    It is unfortunate that it takes a dramatic event such as an earthquake or a tsunami to focus the world’s attention. Millions of people die needlessly from extreme poverty every year, and yet there is no concentrated effort to save them. A large part of the Haitian population was living in poverty before the earthquake hit. When disaster struck, the death toll was driven up because of the poverty that already existed. But in the weeks before the tragedy there was no coordinated effort to save the lives of Haitians. We gave no thought to the orphans. There was no star studded telethon to solicit donations to provide food, water and medical care to the region. Haiti was a place many people could not locate on a map. But the Haitians were already suffering. They lived in squalor and filth. They lived with hunger and disease. They tried to survive on less than two dollars a day. They lived in makeshift shelters. They drank unsafe water. They were ravaged by HIV/AIDS. And they were ignored……After the dust settles on the earthquake, we can’t forget Haiti. They will need our help for years to come. We have to make the long term financial commitment to help them rebuild their country and their lives.

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  2. terrawi@gmail.com'Terra W.

    Thank you, michaelmfc for eloquently stating what my friends and I have been discussing. Whether due to apathy, overwhelm, self-absorption, or a combination of these and other elements, many of us seem to need a shock to trigger our “compassion-response.” Now that we’ve begun to respond to the people of Haiti in their hour of extreme crisis, let’s commit to being their partners for the long term.

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  3. Anna Kramer

    Thanks to you both, Terra and Michaelmfc, for your thoughtful comments. You might be interested in this story we just posted about Oxfam’s long-term plan for rebuilding Haiti: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/articles/first-phase-of-haiti-rehabilitation-to-focus-on-water-sanitation-and-shelter. It’s still early in the response but i know our staffers here and in Haiti are already thinking about how the quake can be an opporunity to help communities become more resilient in future calamities.

    Also, michaelmfc, my colleague Chris working on a blog about many of the things you raise regarding the root poverty issues in Haiti – keep an eye out for that in the next day or two.

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