I awoke to the sound of a baby crying.  Covered in sweat, my feet itching from a thousand mosquito bites, I sat up and looked around.  In the dim, pre-dawn light, I could make out the sleeping body of my translator, Denis.

Over his right shoulder lay Pierre Moise, Kenchise, Williamson and Ismail.  Their mother, Laneze, slept on a blanket just outside the tent flap.  Beyond her was Presilma, the father of the family, sitting up with his arms wrapped around his knees.

I was surprised to see another person awake so early, but as I listened carefully to the soft words coming from Presilma’s direction, I understood.  He was praying…

——-

When I first had the idea of coming to Haiti to live among IDPs (Internally Displaced People), I knew it would be uncomfortable.  I knew that I would see countless images of heartbreak and pain.  And I knew that I would hear many unforgettable stories of Haiti’s forgotten refugees.

But what I did not expect was how much I would learn from the everyday moments – those mundane, unglamorous snapshots of life in a tent camp – that would leave a mark on my heart forever.

Dadadou

Right now, I am staying at a tent community called Dadadou.  Once a soccer pitch, it is now home to over 10,000 refugees.  You can see a satellite image of the camp here, but remember… this is a photo from January.  Today, every square inch of the property (except the track) is covered in tents.  And each tent holds anywhere from 5-15 people.

Some of the Dazma family after playing a little kickball in the morning (the little one on the right is a neighbor).

Let’s just say it’s crowded.

The connection to Dadadou comes from my translator, Denis, who used to live just down the street from the camp.  In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Denis actually lived in Dadadou for a period of time.  During those chaotic and frightening days, he shared a tent with neighbors that used to live right above his small, two room apartment… the Dazma family.

Now, the Dazmas have graciously welcomed Denis to stay in their tent once again, this time with a weird Blan (white person) in tow.

For the next two weeks I will be living with them, eating with them and observing what goes on in the tent village now that many aid organizations have moved on.

A New Kind of Normal

Almost seven months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, life in the country’s many IDP camps has taken on a somewhat strange and unique feel.  From what I’ve seen so far, day-to-day life in the camps is a mix between ongoing crisis and a new kind of normal.

For example, the Dazmas barely have enough food to eat.  My heart broke the other morning as I watched the children eat small handfuls of cassava (a potato-like root vegetable), knowing that their only other meal for the day would be lunch/dinner at 3pm – a plateful of rice and beans topped with a small portion of mackerel.

Dadadou is perched on top of a soccer pitch.

But in the midst of this hardship, Presilma (the father), daily heads back to his old neighborhood to work.  He is a tailor, and although there is very little business these days, he has no choice but to set up shop in the hopes that a customer or two might come along.

Presilma’s tailor shop is on the ground floor of the building in which his family used to live (their ruined apartment was on the third floor).  As he works, friends and neighbors stop by to visit and chat.  Occasionally, his kids will swing by on their way to visit cousins down the street.

If it wasn’t for the fact that they were living in a tent and clinging desperately to the bottom rung of extreme poverty, you would think that the Dazmas were back to life as usual.

A new kind of normal, indeed…

Under the Surface

As I’ve watched the family through the many uneventful moments in their lives, I’ve developed a deeper picture of the life they are now living.  And although they have settled into a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day routine, I can feel the stress of their situation brimming just under the surface.

One afternoon, as the youngest of the Dazma kids were taking cover from the mid-day sun, I sat and watched them play jacks with a few stones.
———-

This would have been a totally ordinary image from any number of places around the world except for one thing: the only shade they could find was a tiny alley between two tents.  Every few minutes, their mother would step over them, taking pots and pans back and forth from the charcoal stove she was using to cook dinner.

The Dazma’s kitchen. It’s too small to cook in, so Laneze has to cook about 30 feet away, outside a neighbor’s tent.

With such little space, the Dazmas have to put up with all sorts of inconveniences (playing games crammed into a tiny alleyway, trying to cook food 30 feet away from your kitchen, etc.).  For a short time, these things can be overlooked.  But how long can someone really live in a home where you can’t even stand up straight?

Another of these moments came in the evening, as we were sprawled out on the ground behind their tent, enjoying the evening breeze.

The Dazmas’ “back yard,” for lack of a better term, is a 15’ x 15’ square formed by neighboring tents.  The ground is made of Astroturf (remember, they’re living on a soccer pitch!), so it makes an ideal place to hang out once the sun goes down.

But even in this moment of respite from the heat, I can see how their situation is taking a toll.

Their neighbors have a rambunctious two year old boy.  His inquisitiveness (and recklessness!) is always good for a laugh.  In the evening, however, when his energy starts to disappear, he turns into a whining, crying mess.

Kenchise Dazma. Always ready with a smile.

Anyone in the world who has had a two year old will tell you that he/she can sometimes bring out less than the best in a family.  Patience wears thin, tempers flare, frustrations can’t be covered over any more…

But in Dadadou, these moments of everyday family strife cannot be hidden away.  There we were, sitting three feet outside of this family’s tent, seeing and hearing everything that was going on.  I saw the dirty looks and short tones.  I heard the anger and the arguments…

When thousands of people are living in such close proximity, there is no such thing as “airing your dirty laundry.”  It’s already out there for the world to see.

I could go on.  Every day I see more and more mundane details that reveal the pain, stress and fear that lay just below the surface in Haiti’s many IDP camps.  These are not the food riots and disease outbreaks you might hear about on the news.  These are not the massive crowds and endless seas of tents.

These are the day-to-day struggles of a people living on the brink.

And Yet

And yet, let me tell you what I do not see in Dadadou.  I do not see despair.  I do not see resignation.  When I sit down and talk with refugees about the future, they all talk as if some day things will be better.

Haitians will not give up. Here they have set up their kiosks in the rubble of a fallen building. Amazing perseverance…

Take the Dazmas for example.  This is a family that lost everything in the quake.  To repair their home, they’ll need to come up with $2000.  But right now, they don’t even have enough money for food.

And yet, despite this hardship, Presilma gets up before the break of day to pray for his family’s well-being.  Every morning he washes his face and heads off to work.  Every time I see him, I’m greeted by a bright smile and a firm handshake.

This is not a man without hope.  Like the many other Haitians I have talked to so far, Presilma believes that someday things will be better.

And with a country seemingly full of people as dedicated as him, I’m starting to believe.

There is hope for Haiti, even if it means getting used to a new kind of normal…

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Next Steps
    • Pray for the Dazma family. Pray that Presilma’s work would pick up, that he would be able to provide for his family and that they would be able to start reconstructing their home soon!
    • Consider donating to an organization that is providing long-term support to earthquake victims, Nehemiah Vision Ministries. Click here to give.
    • To get a better idea of where I am staying, check out Dadadou’s appearance on ABC News here. Shots of the camp start at 1:20.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie mueller said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 7:29 am  

    Wonderful article. I feel like I could be sitting right next to you. Dennis is an amazing person. I’m glad you are with him. Prayers for you and them. I miss Haiti so much.

  2. Jim M said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 7:48 am  

    “but as I listened carefully to the soft words coming from Presilma’s direction, I understood. He was praying…”

    This word picture in the midst of such hardship is simply beautiful. I see David and Psalm 86, and other humble servants in scripture.

    We can dwell on that image as we pray this morning and join Presilma in asking God’s protection, and provision for the Dazma family and all in Haiti who suffer.

  3. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 8:16 am  

    I’m struck by a couple of things. First, the tail end of the jacks video. Seriously? The crowded conditions are unbelievable. And, here’s what I am wondering. With their new normal how on earth are they not all so depressed as to not be able to function? It’s clear that tension must dominate (the 2 yr old for instance) but I wonder how they even get up in the morning. The prayer? Faith? Hope? I’m embarrassed by my own petty discomforts.

    Thanks Barry for the unvarnished look. Looking forward to more insights into the new normal.

    btw…I’d love to hear from the U.N. or government workers if they see any change on the horizon for these folks.

  4. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 9:30 am  

    The Haitian people are so resilient…this is the theme over and over again. No matter what gets thrown at them, they still hope.

    What is the hope, Barry? Can you find that out?

  5. Shelli said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 10:26 am  

    Hope is a powerful thing that must not, cannot, be dismissed. Without it surely dispair would rule. Barry, you are amazing for doing this. I have just read this article three times in a row, perhaps living a bit vicariously through you. Amazing stuff. Will be praying for the Dazma family.

  6. Aaron Elliott said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 10:50 am  

    I feel like I can picture family life there in the way you tell the story. Can’t wait for more!!

  7. joe b said... 

    Reply

    September 4th, 2010 at 10:44 pm  

    thanks for sharing your experiences. As difficult as it is to express the smells, the heat, the noises and the overall chaos your vivid descriptions are truly remarkable.

    We will continue to pray that God will be their refuge.

    jb

  8. Rob said... 

    Reply

    September 10th, 2010 at 10:13 am  

    Now that’s depth of faith and character. It stops me in my tracks. Thanks for being in the midst of such incredible people, so that we can know and be deepened in our own faith and courage.

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