Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A mother struggles, bereft of arm and leg

A mother struggles, bereft of arm and leg

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, July 29, 2010

By Toby Simon

The Providence Journal


(Read the original article here)

Twelve miles north of Port-au-Prince is Corail Camp, a planned relocation community home to 5,000 of the 1.5 million displaced people of Haiti. Corail is a vast and treeless plain with sun-bleached gravel instead of dirt. There, each family has a white semi-cylindrical tunnel tent. These are arranged in neat rows and organized by blocks. Compared with other camps and other outcomes, Corail is not such a bad place to end up. That’s where I, working in Haiti as a short-term disability consultant for the Women’s Refugee Commission, met Loufin, who is a resident of Block 4. It was the six-month anniversary of the earthquake and my first visit post-quake.

A beautiful woman with short hair and an expressive face, Loufin is a single mother living with three young children. When she does smile she has huge dimples. She had been a street vendor in Port-au-Prince, selling small household goods. On the day of the earthquake the store next to her stand collapsed on top of her. She was crushed beneath the concrete. When she was pulled from the rubble three days later, she was rushed to Santo Domingo where her right arm and left leg were amputated. She remained in the hospital for about a month, and was sent back to Haiti with a wheel chair. Someone gave Loufin a prosthesis for her leg. She doesn’t use it because she’s received no rehab services, occupational therapy or physical therapy.

In her tent she is alone with her kids. Her oldest, Tanya, is a darling 8-year-old with a lot of spunk. Loufin can’t use the latrines or showers in her camp because she can’t access them — her wheel chair doesn’t roll on gravel and it’s hard to negotiate on crutches. So she has a bucket inside her tent that she uses as a toilet and Tanya takes care of emptying it each day. Tanya also assists her with bucket baths, in her tent. The cash-for-work programs in the camp don’t hire disabled people. So Loufin has no income and dim prospects for the future.

Women in Haiti run the households. Men expect women to bear children, care for them, cook, clean and, of course, be sexually available to them. The assumption is that a woman living with a disability in Haiti can’t be a real woman because she can’t possibly fulfill her daily functions as provider.

Where does that leave Loufin and other newly disabled women? She feels abandoned and isolated. She said that she fears she might be left inside her tent to die since she can’t leave the tent without assistance. She says she’s received no program services because she would have to go and find them. None of the NGOs in Corail have paid her a visit — we were the first. Abaky, a young man around 28, is the president of Block 4. He looks after Loufin and is worried about her safety and well-being.

Our first day in Corail, everything was eerily neat and orderly. When we returned two days later to conduct the focus group with disabled residents, there was a distinctly different feeling. It seemed very chaotic. We found Abaky, who was very agitated. Apparently, just 24 hours earlier, strong winds went through Corail blowing tents away, collapsing others, and ripping many to shreds. Possessions were strewn everywhere. And it’s not even hurricane season. Corail — the model camp — had hundreds of collapsed tents.

I went to find Loufin. She was waiting for our focus group to start. She flashed her lovely smile when she saw me, and I asked her what happened the day before. She, of course, was inside her tent with her three kids. Theirs was one of the tents that collapsed entirely, on her and the kids. She says she was frightened because she wasn’t sure what would happen next, but soon Abaky arrived to help her.

The plight of Haitians living with disabilities has always been difficult. Exclusion and isolation have been the norm. Special-education schools do not exist. Few policies ensure the full participation in society of disabled people. In some families, these children are abandoned. The streets of Port-au-Prince are difficult to negotiate — someone walking with crutches or in a wheel chair often is the recipient of angry comments about taking up space in the street.

People with disabilities possess valuable skills, knowledge and experience. The disabled people we talked to in the camps want access, opportunity and inclusion. They seek educational opportunities to develop new skills and ways to generate income. Perhaps Haiti’s crisis will bring attention to the needs of the disabled.

One of the rare “positives” that may emerge from this disaster is that advocacy for the disabled might grow, since now, it seems, everyone knows someone who became disabled after Jan. 12. The psychologists in Haiti now talk with survivors about the “nouvo nomal” — the “new normal.”

And the Haitians refer to that day as “douz janvye” (Jan. 12) just as we refer to 9/11. As journalist Michael Deibert writes, “all Haitians want is a decent country.”

Toby Simon is director of the Bryant University Women’s Center.

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