Haiti: Refugee Camps May Model Future Society


While it should never be the case that a high percentage of the Haitian population remains living in refugee camps ten months after the earthquake, still camp residents have managed to create in a few of those camps a small-scale model of the type of future society that many would like to see. Their camps have achieved democratic participation by community members, autonomy from foreign authority, a focus on meeting the needs of all, dignified living conditions, respect for rights, creativity, and a commitment to gender equity.

The Petite Riviere Shelter Center (CHHPR by its French acronym) camp, near the epicenter of the earthquake outside Leogane, contains some of these elements of community strength. For one thing, it is run by a group of women whose full attention is on the well being and dignity of the community.

Another notable factor is that the camp was started by and remains run by Haitians, both those directly impacted and their grassroots allies. Most Haitian camps are managed with the heavy involvement, if not the leadership, of foreigners, either non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or individuals. Certainly, outside help has proven crucial to these displaced people who frequently struggle on the edge of survival. But in Haiti’s thousand-plus camps, that help has all too often come in the form of management that represses Haitian decision-making and participation, as well as the potential for community advocacy for a systemic response to the crisis based on justice for homeless survivors.

Part of what makes the Petite Riviere Shelter Center camp work so well is that it is composed of members of a preexistent community which relocated en masse after the earthquake. Relations are based on knowledge, if not always full trust, among individuals. The relationships of the camp’s members have made it possible for governing committees to quickly emerge and function well, and have facilitated agreement on a set of rules to maintain calm and order. Strangers trying to enter the space are questioned and may not be allowed in, thus offering security from violence and theft.

Another advantage this camp has is its physical environment; it sits in fields under a grove of lush mango trees in a clean, quiet, rural area. Elsewhere, more than a million people are forced to lodge in smog-choked median strips amidst whizzing traffic, in remote, broiling deserts, or in overcrowded urban spaces with no sanitation or utilities. Survivors remain in these inhumane locales because neither their government nor any agency has initiated better options for them, and they have no funds to make other plans on their own.

Elizabeth Senatus is an unemployed journalist who now serves as general coordinator of the Petite Riviere Shelter Center. Below is her description of how the camp functions.

This camp started on January 12, the day of the earthquake. In shock, everybody in the area went to sleep in a field without sheets or anything. They spent three days like that, affected emotionally and psychologically because of the strong aftershocks. Some people were scared because of the rumors that it was the end times, that God was coming. Some didn’t even bother to find out if their houses were collapsed or if they had people who died; they just went to the field. After four days, they came to this area under these mango trees; they made little houses out of sheets.

I heard that these people were abandoned and humiliated. I used my leadership and met two or three friends who were from Leogane. We decided we couldn’t let this situation continue. I asked them to help form this committee, and that’s how we started.

One thing that makes this camp different from most others is that we formed the management committee – not an NGO, but young volunteers who believe that Haiti is a country like any other. What’s also different here is the close collaboration between the members of the committee. It has 16 members; I’m the general coordinator and we also have a general secretary, plus coordinators of other committees on issues such as human rights and civil protection, public relations, communications, and evangelism. We didn’t wait for people to come give us orders; we organized ourselves.

The camp management committee was formed by invitation quickly because we were in an emergency situation. It wasn’t a favorable time to have elections because it was a disaster.

We’ve used what resources we have. We don’t wait for millions to arrive – we just create. There’s lots of creativity. We’ve done extraordinary things with the means we have at hand. That’s how we established a children’s space, for example. There are Canadian military who were building an orphanage behind us, and another woman and I went and asked them for materials for the children. They gave materials, some tools, and a case of blue plastic tarps. CARE gave us tarps to create a children’s space, too, and a podium. We used cement blocks from the collapsed houses to build that space. We use that space for dancing and theater, too.

We borrowed a drum from a vodou priest. We had people dancing with the drum, like an old lady who lost her son. You know in Haiti, folklore is a big deal. The drum is the sign of music and the sign of happiness; it allows people to recreate. The drum makes everybody dance; even if you have problems, you dance. †We started the folkloric group dancing like this in the ancient way, everybody dancing and singing like crazy with no control. We had kids who went down to dance for May Day by the sea; we even signed a contract with a team from Canada for one of the little girls to go to participate in a cultural event in Canada in August.

We had people living in misery under little sheets. You know the world was seeing Haiti’s image through little sheets. And it kept raining. People from elsewhere asked me, “Elizabeth, how can they survive like this?” I said, “It’s all because of the drum.”

At that time we had more than 150 people, and every time it rained all the people had to go like sardines underneath one big tarp that someone had borrowed to create a health center. So we used the tarps the Canadians gave us to create spaces for kids to sleep with their parents. Later MUDHA (the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women) approached an international agency and helped us find tents.

Besides the drumming and dancing, we do theater to help people’s state of mind, popular theater that expresses whatís happening in the community. We help farmers organize; we have a women’s group; we have an education space for kids because a lot of schools were destroyed and some of the kids had never gone to school. We don’t follow the same pedagogy as a formal school because we lack the means. We do something like the clubs where the kids can learn and recreate. We have workshops, like jewelry-making, where people learn skills that can help them economically.

We made uniforms for May 18, Flag Day, and with our sense of patriotism we went to the street. The kids wore red and blue uniforms -the colors of the Haitian flag – to give a lesson to hypocritical NGOs and an apathetic state that is not responding to our needs. We showed them that what our ancestors left us as our heritage, we still have it. The kids marched in the street, singing the national anthem, and everyone – parents, people from the diaspora, students and teachers from other schools – accompanied us in the streets. People thought that the organizing had to have been done by a big school in Leogane; they couldn’t believe that a camp of displaced people could do that.

Like I said, we use whatever resources we can find. For example, for the dance trainer and the two drummers, we pay their transportation fees to come here by motorcycle. We collect money between ourselves to do it because we don’t have money from NGOs or from the government. We’ve never even been visited by a government representative, not even once after January 12. We’ve told other camps with committees not to wait with a begging bowl but to create, to go out looking for what they need.

The women’s organization Shining Star came about when I sat down with several women who were dancing together. They exchanged talk about their lives, about what they used to do when they went to the market together. Men were sitting around not participating, so one afternoon I said to the women, “Why don’t we form a women’s organization?” We did it. Our first activity was for Mother’s Day, with all the mothers of the camp. CARE helped us find 200 gifts for 200 mothers. We also got support from a German mobile clinic and MUDHA. We did theatre; the mothers were in it. The kids and adults danced, and we had a buffet where everyone ate. This was Shining Star’s first action as a women’s organization.

The women of Shining Star are shadow advisers to the camp committee. Most of the camp committee is women, too; the men are a little apathetic. You know that society is made up of men and women and we need the balance, but you also know that Haitian women are really put down. It has taken so much effort for women to become doctors and lawyers and such. We want to hold that balance. But we don’t exclude the men.

We know that in this camp, within the families under the tents, women are being abused by their husbands. This is the reality even though these same women stand up when we do women’s activities.

[Regarding rape] I would say this area is calm. The residents were living together before. They know each other, there are things they won’t do. If something like a rape of a woman or girl were to happen, it would be by someone from some other place.

We have a mission here to prevent children and young girls from falling into danger. We don’t allow young girls to have their own tents here that would attract young men and facilitate rape. Here kids stay with their parents in their household. That’s how we try to limit sexual violence.

I think it’s true that the role women play in this camp makes it different, but I don’t think that male chauvinists see it that way. Frankly, if we didn’t have a group of women in this committee we would have failed already. Holding together people who are living under a piece of sheet, homeless, is not easy. The men are crossing their arms and waiting. The women get dressed and go out to see what resources we can find, while the men are waiting to see what we bring back.

We’ve done so much with this site. When we look at the conditions in some of the camps in Port-au-Prince, we’d have to say that we’ve created a model for how things could be in the other camps. Others could look at our way of organizing the camp and use it to do something on a bigger scale. We think that our camp could form part of the dream for national reconstruction.

It’s about understanding, patience, educational training. It’s also about wisdom, credibility and all that to succeed. Yes, you could say we’re a model.

Many thanks to Agathe Jean-Baptiste for translating this interview.

Beverly Bell has organized, advocated, and written for justice movements around the world for three decades. Much of her work has been with Haitian movements for democracy, women’s rights, and economic justice. She has written a regular series of articles since the earthquake (www.otherworldsarepossible/alternatives/another-haiti-possible), as well as Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance (Cornell University Press). Bell coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes economic and social alterantives, and is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.