2 November 2016

Community centres offer a haven in hurricane-battered Les Cayes, Haiti

SOS Children’s Villages provides children with care, food and playtime

Children at the Ti Kok Community Centre in Les Cayes Photographer: Marie Arago

In the weeks after Hurricane Matthew battered southern Haiti on 4 October, residents of Les Cayes were struggling to clear piles of debris. The scars Matthew left behind look nowhere close to healing – and that includes the personal trauma children have suffered.

Inside the Ti Kok Community Centre in Les Cayes, supported by SOS Children’s Villages, a group of preschool-aged children gathered with staff of the centre and SOS staff to do some repairing of their own.
 
“Good morning children!” said Nancy Toussaint, an SOS co-worker at the centre.
 
She gathered all the children in one of the two rooms that still had a roof – the third room in the centre had part of its roof missing. Toussaint asked the 50-odd pre-schoolers to sit in a large circle, and then called each child to get up and say their name in front of everyone. She held each child close. After each introduction, the child would receive the enthusiastic applause of classmates. Each of these children was a victim, in one way or another, of Hurricane Matthew, but in that moment they could forget their trauma and just be joyful children.
 
“Even if they have moments when they’re sad, when they start engaging in the activities, that gives them some relief,” said Loulouse Hercule, an instructor at the Ti Kok Community Centre.
 
  Nancy Toussaint from SOS Children's Villages in Les Cayes with children at a community center in the La Savane neighborhood of Les Cayes, Haiti. Photo: Marie Arago
Squévarah, 5, lost her home when the hurricane came. “We have to put a roof on it,” she said. She remembers wind, and a lot of rain. She wasn’t there to see the wind tear her house’s roof off – she and her family were evacuated to a nearby school.
 
“A lot of kids lost their homes,” said Hercule, an educator at the Ti Kok Community Centre. “Seawater flooded the insides, took everything their parents possessed. All the learning materials we had in the centre, all the books and all the educational posters we prepared, everything was lost.”
 
A lot of children have also been ill in the weeks since the hurricane, and many looked exhausted from not having slept well in weeks. There is also a risk of cholera. Rain and the cool breezes of the coming winter were feeding colds and respiratory illnesses, like pneumonia.
 
“I was coughing a lot yesterday,” said Werlande, a 5-year-old at the nearby Bordemer Community Centre, where SOS Children’s Villages is helping to provide food for families whose homes were destroyed by Matthew.

Food kits for affected families

SOS supports three community centres in Les Cayes, and they have played an important role in reaching families in some of the more vulnerable areas of the southern city. The food kits – containing rice, spaghetti, canned salmon, beans, cooking oil, salt, sugar, milk, and bleach for cleaning and water purification – fulfil a dire need in this period of emergency, and are keeping many from going hungry.
 
Destruction caused my Hurricane Matthew along the southern coast of Haiti. Photo: Marie Arago
Many of these families depended on their gardens and farms. But Matthew destroyed nearly all crops in Haiti’s Sud department, of which Les Cayes is the capital, and in neighbouring Grand’Anse, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. The storm also took a toll on fishing and livestock.
 
“It’s a major risk,” Volny Etienne, director of the SOS Children’s Village Les Cayes, said of the storm’s impact on food production. He stressed the need for long-term solutions, and the importance of being sustainable. “We can’t give them food to eat for a year or two,” he said. “People need to replant, and to stand on their own two feet again.”
 
The community centres supported by SOS Children’s Villages provide children two daily meals and clean drinking water, along with instruction, playtime and emotional care. The children are also helping one another heal.
 
“They ask each other questions,” said Hercule at the Ti Kok Community Centre. “’Was your house destroyed? What did your mom do? Where did you go?’ They love each other.”