The Visitors

They lost everything. Now thousands of internally displaced Haitians have come to the Northwest in search of new beginnings.

Originally published by Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, April 2010.

Story and photos by Andy Olsen

PORT-DE-PAIX, HAITI – Almaide Joseph remembers when she was the breadwinner, a source of hope for her family. The 38-year-old was an urban entrepreneur, buying and selling goods across the border with the Dominican Republic while mothering her family in their comfortable Port-au-Prince home – a place with lights and electricity, wrapped in street noise and big-city bustle.

With the help of her husband, a schoolteacher, Joseph regularly sent money to her less-fortunate relatives in Port-de-Paix. They counted on Joseph’s support to help pay their rent and feed their families.

At a bus stop in Port-au-Prince for buses departing to Northwest Haiti, passengers arrive well before sunrise to claim their seats. Though the flow of earthquake survivors leaving the capital has slowed, the displaced are still striking out in search of opportunities elsewhere.

That was before the earthquake, 60 seconds of hell that robbed Joseph of her house, her husband, and nearly everything else. It forced her to move back to her hometown, Port-de-Paix. Now she sits restlessly in the dark home she once helped to pay for, dependent for food on the same relatives her income once fed. She has no job, no goods to trade, no money to spend.

“Things are bad in Port-de-Paix now,” Joseph said, balancing her 3-year-old daughter, Fabi, on her lap. “There are no jobs, and everything is very expensive.”

Joseph is part of a massive return of Haitians from Port-au-Prince to the countryside, a reversal of a three-decade trend where small towns bled their populations into the nation’s sprawling capital city in search of education and jobs. Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, more than 600,000 people fled Port-au-Prince to return to rural towns and cities across Haiti, according to government and United Nations figures.

A survey of displaced individuals in Port-de-Paix revealed little eagerness to return to the capital anytime soon. For most, the reasons were the same – being destitute among family is easier than being destitute among strangers.

The Strain of Providing
About a mile from where Joseph is staying, Solange hobbled up the steep, rocky hillside where her rented two-room house is perched. Left nearly paralyzed in an accident as a child, Solange walks with great effort on her half-folded legs.

Built amid swampy puddles on low ground along the shore, residents say the poor neighborhood of Gris Gris is one of Port-de-Paix’s largest destinations for displaced people from Port-au-Prince.

The middle-aged woman from Port-de-Paix is no stranger to begging – she cares for herself and her six children, and work does not come easily to women with disability in Haiti. Still, when four nieces from Port-au-Prince showed up at her door looking for a place to stay in the city where they grew up, Solange welcomed them warmly.

The girls, who lost their parents in the earthquake, sleep packed like sardines on the dirt floor of the cramped home. Three of them, in their twenties, were college students before their university collapsed. The fourth was in high school but has been shut out of local schools because she cannot pay the tuition.

Each day, Solange and the girls fan out across the city and outlying areas to beg for food. It is full-time labor for the family. What each one gets, they bring back to the house to share with the rest.

“I have to do what I have to do,” Solange said, gesturing in the rehearsed manner of a woman who has lived most of her life hand-to-mouth. “Only God knows how long I can do this.”

The majority of the displaced settling into Northwest Haiti are dependent on government assistance and the charity of a few good Samaritans and NGOs. The mayors of Port-de-Paix and nearby Saint-Louis du Nord, in partnership with Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, have provided food and petty cash to hundreds of displaced families in the area.

UN reports say roughly 50,000 internally displaced Haitians have landed in Northwest Haiti. Roughly 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix has about 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Haitian government. As the largest city in the Northwest Department, the city’s population has swelled by as much as a third since the earthquake, by some estimates.

Those numbers are difficult to verify. But step into the street and ask someone to point to a household sheltering displaced people, and they are likely to point somewhere just a few steps away.

The influx has strained the city and the region. Relief food and supplies are in far scarcer supply here than in Port-au-Prince, which has prompted some families to return to the capital city. The cost of living in the northwest is also higher than in Port-au-Prince, because goods must arrive here by way of long, expensive journeys over some of the worst roads in the country. Of the dozen households surveyed by NWHCM staff in Port-de-Paix, only two claimed to have any food in the house.

Others have already returned to Port-au-Prince in search of opportunities that just don’t seem to exist in the Northwest Department, especially in the small towns west of Port-de-Paix. If too many displaced Haitians return to Port-au-Prince, however, it may make the nation’s problems even worse and undermine the goal of the international community to revitalize Haiti’s rural towns.

Many relief organizations and policy experts argue that focusing on economic development and assistance in rural areas like the Northwest is more important than ever. Many of the roots of Haiti’s economic woes, they say, lie in the disproportionate concentration of government services and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince. “Decentralization,” the idea of focusing a large part of rebuilding efforts on improving opportunities and agriculture in the countryside, has been touted widely by President René Préval as a top priority for his government.

“If we can give these people a reason to stay in the Northwest, a.k.a. ways to make income, then we can change the dynamic of Haiti,” said NWHCM Community Development Coordinator Curtis Rogers. “Job creation, agricultural development, and economic development can all play a large role in giving rural Haiti its voice back.”

Signs of Hope
In many ways, the displaced in Northwest Haiti are hidden. There are no sweeping tent cities here, no rows of public latrines, no long food lines outside military compounds.

Yet there is no mistaking the signs of change. Community members say they see new faces everywhere. On a sunny afternoon, a woman stood alone at the bus station in Port-de-Paix, waiting to meet a niece who was arriving from the capital, one of the few people still trickling into town each week.

In Gris Gris, a poor neighborhood in Port-de-Paix, Melota Timothee sits behind a counter at a small store she’s set up in the living room of a home she’s renting. She lost her store in the capital when her house collapsed, but the family has scrapped together some money with the help of relatives in Miami. A young girl walked into the store to buy a piece of candy, which Timothee sells alongside a humble assortment of drinks, crackers and lye soap.

“It’s too soon to say how much we’ll earn from the store,” said Timothee, 44. “We’ve only been open a few days.”

A few blocks away, in a home on the main road through town, 13-year-old Christ Armelle Davis studied notes from class that she wrote two months earlier, before the quake. She copies them nearly every day to another page, even though she cannot get into a school in Port-de-Paix because her family has no money.

She will still have to take the national exams someday, Davis explained, so she wants to be prepared. She is a teenage portrait of the resolve of many of the displaced. They say they are willing to work and study hard to get back on their feet, if they could just get a chance.

“Hopefully, this disaster will cause supporting agencies and other NGOs to turn their focus to the farmers and workers of rural Haiti, without whom Haiti cannot survive,” Rogers said. “When this happens, NWHCM will be there to help.”