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Kids on the frontline of Haiti's fault line: Working with children in post-earthquake camps

Guest blog by Talitha Stam

On January 12th, 2010 an earthquake shock Haiti for 35 seconds. My child-centered research immediately took off as I tried to understand how the earthquake affected the social networks of children.

From January until August 2010 I lived in Port-au-Prince, Belladere and at the Haitian-Dominican border conducting child-centered-research on the earthquake relocation of Haitian children. 

Their stories provide an insider perspective on how children shaped and negotiated their social networks in the immediate post earthquake environment.

I just came home from school together with my three sisters (12, 14, 15 years old). The route from school to our home is only a 30-minute walk. We do this walk every day. My youngest sister and I were arguing about what we shall watch on television. Before we arrived at home my two oldest sisters went to the market. My youngest sister and I started to run to our television. She is always faster than me, but I’m stronger.

My mother called my youngest sister from the kitchen to help her preparing the food. Now, I had the television all by my self. Then, I heard a strange background noise, goudou goudou. The floor moved as well. I knew something bad was going on. As quickly as I could, I ran outside of our house. I saw our house collapsed behind me. Mwen pè, mwen pè anpil! (I was scared, very scared!) I didn’t know what to do.

On the streets a lot of people were screaming. Other buildings collapsed too. I went back in my house and I saw my mother and youngest sister lying dead next to each other. My mother was trying to protect my little sister. I saw her arms around her. My other two sisters were dead as well. I found them in the kitchen too. Their groceries were spread all over the floor. In the bedroom I found my father dead. He was trying to escape, but he got stuck. I cried a lot.

I cannot even remember when I cried before. I ran away as fast as I could. On the streets I followed some people heading to an open sports field. ‘Isit la gen sekirite’ (It is safe here), people told me. At least there were no buildings there that could fall on my head. People slept on the streets or on the sports field, so I did the same. I was so tired that I slept there for almost 2 days. I didn’t even feel hungry or think about food at all. -- Obert, 13 years old

Obert is a 13-years-old Haitian boy who has been left behind after the deaths of his parents and three sisters during the earthquake. His earthquake story shows us how he arrived at a sports field that transformed into a tent city for internally displaced Haitians. Within this newly developed community, Obert and other boys left behind were able to establish new relationships with people who they believe could protect them.

This is a significant coping strategy that left behind children employ in order to survive in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake as Haitian kinship ties are not strictly defined in terms of "blood".

Within their search to find and recreate new social networks, my field data demonstrated that children without families were more dependent on the consistency and predictability of their environment and the people around them than other children.

These left behind children could not independently register themselves with official aid organizations. As a result, children were forced to associate themselves with non-related adults, which created a situation of dependency for the boys.

Also, their coping mechanisms were tempered by the pre-disaster systems of power that continued to affect the community formed within camp Delmas after the disaster. In this camp, pre-existing gang members named themselves as camp managers in order to control the social organization of the camp.

Nevertheless, these children were still able to find opportunities for survival in unexpected realms of social interaction; through work and liaising with key figures such as substitute family members, including me.

My masters thesis, 'Kids on the Frontline of Haiti's Faultline: Children's Perspectives on their Earthquake Relocation' explores the stories of Haitian children as a lens through which to frame earthquake experiences from their own perspectives.

Biographical Sketch

Talitha Stam was born in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti and raised in the Netherlands. She graduated from the Fontys University (the Netherlands) with a bachelor degree in Journalism, and recently received a MSc. degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands). In March 2011 she returned to Haiti to work on a youth documentary with Obert and other orphans about their changing lives after the 2010 earthquake. The film documentary is expected in January 2015, five years after Haiti’s earthquake and also the year that Obert will be 18-years-old.