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Grace in Haiti: At Work in One Tent City
By Jason Friesen

This description was written by an America relief worker in Haiti, a member of the Rock Church, just days after the country was flattened by a 7.0 earthquake January 12, 2010. Jason Friesen is a paramedic from San Diego who volunteered as part of a 6-person team from Giving Children Hope of Orange County.

Two walls used to surround the grounds of Grace International in Carrefour, Haiti, only a few miles west of the capitol, Port-au-Prince. The exterior wall once enclosed the ten-acre Grace Village compound, which includes a small medical clinic, a large open-air church, a school and the unfinished, two-story Grace Haiti Children’s Hospital. The inner wall, situated in the southwest corner of the compound, surrounds the Girls’ Orphanage, which is home to 54 girls, ages 3 to 26. But since the 7.0 earthquake shook the country on January 12, 2010, only the inner wall is still standing. Little else looks the same.

What was once the spacious, green lawn of the compound has become home to a dusty, teeming Tent City of close to 20,000.

What was once the spacious, green lawn of the compound has become home to a dusty, teeming Tent City of close to 20,000 internally displaced Haitians. There's little likelihood that they'll be able to return home any time soon either, since many have no home to return to, and those who do were warned by the government to keep out of them for fear of aftershocks.

The term “Tent City,” is a bit of misnomer itself, as the tents are made from little more than whatever cloth big enough to create a barrier could be found: bed sheets, blankets, table cloths, rugs, tarps and even flags are strung up and pinned to sticks or poles or rebar that was pulled from the piles of concrete that once constituted their walls. “Refugee Camp” would be a more suitable term, though there's little refuge found in a make-shift tent.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

For all intents and purposes, these tents are now the official and permanent residences for hundreds of thousands of Haitians, filled whatever material possessions they could salvage from the ruins. TVs, radios, toaster ovens and other home appliances are stacked inside the tents, some intact and some not, though perhaps able to be sold for scrap or parts. Beside the appliances lay mattresses, make-shift grills, wash basins and dusty piles of clothes. Outside the tents, along the narrow, trash-strewn corridors that wind through the camp, other signs of a small city have popped up, with vendors selling food and goods. Some sell deep-fried vegetables or chicken or soup, while others sell candy or produce or MREs that they’ve gotten from the US Army. Still others have set up small stands with power strips connected to car batteries so you can charge your cell phone or iPod, two essential items for the long, purposeless days if you have them. Like any black market, everything is for sale at an ever-increasing fee.

And while the tent walls are hung in hopes of finding some privacy, and to protect their possessions from would-be thieves, nothing escapes the elements. No matter how well built the tent is, the heat still wears you down, the humidity makes everyone feel crowded and closer, and the dust leaves nothing untouched.

It’s a unique type of dust, though, not comprised only of the kicked-up dirt from the beaten, dry grounds, but also from the ashes of the burning trash piles, and from the still unsettled rubble of what was once a seaside neighborhood. The rubble is probably the biggest contributor to this dust, and it creates a thick white-gray film that layers everything, as though someone had taken all the schoolhouse erasers in the world and beaten them together at once over all the city.

All day long Haitians are in an endless fight with the elements, trying to keep the sun off their brows and out of their eyes, the dust from their lungs and the wind from their parched, thirsty lips. But the elements are as relentless as the despair, continually dragging them down as though a constant reminder of everything they’ve lost.

Fighting for Food, for Hope

Yet the elements aren’t the only thing the Haitians are fighting – they’re fighting each other, too, though not always violently: for food to eat and water to drink, for space to live, and for dignity to preserve. They fight the constant threat of infection and sickness from each other’s trash and excrement, and they fight with the dead, with the depression and sadness of having lost their loved ones. Many fight against the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and of having no way to help themselves, and the whole country, once proud for having fought off the foreigners who enslaved them, must now fight the humiliation of having to turn their country back over to foreigners, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

There are many, too, who are now fighting to provide for new mouths in their family - the thousands of orphans left behind, whether they are the neighbor’s children, or a child they found just roaming the streets. Children are proving to be one of their most difficult fights, too, as it is the children who are most vulnerable to sickness, dehydration, starvation and abduction.

Though it is only a few miles from the capitol, the Tent City in Carrefour has been slow to find any relief or assistance. Most of the supplies are used up by the people who are closest to the airport where they come in. But help has been increasing. Deemed safe by relief workers because of its steel beams and aluminum roof, the open-air church has been turned into a temporary clinic, with its benches and pews used for supplies and examinations, and its wooden tables used for beds, or even operating tables if necessity demands.

The medical workers who come in are only as good as their supplies and creativity allow them. Sometimes they are able to do the miraculous, like perform an emergency C-section; while other times they are only able to sit and watch, as when an elderly woman had a stroke for lack of blood pressure medications. “Take her back to the tent and let her lie in peace – she won’t live much longer.” Assuredly, very few people remembered to grab their medications before they ran out the collapsing house.

And still other times the medical workers are reduced to the archaic, using vodka for sterilization, and even for anaesthesia.

Dusk to Dawn

At night the Tent City becomes another place, and the relief workers remain behind the inner walls of the Girls’ Home, though they can still hear what is going on outside the walls, and are often woken by those sounds in the night. Each evening there will be some type of worship service coming from somewhere near the church, and it’s common to hear the people in the camp break out in spontaneous worship, singing songs in both French and Creole, both soft and desperate. Other times, the sounds are of a different kind of adulation: one night it is the raucous cheers coming from a nearby tent which has hooked up a TV to watch the Arsenal soccer match, while another night it’s a loud dance party that a different tent has set up.

It is a young man carrying the limp, cold body of his newlywed wife, screaming and begging the doctor to tell him it isn’t so.

Still other nights the sounds are less uplifting: from time to time there is the deep rumbling of an aftershock which may shake you right out of bed, and will leave the camp in an eerie silence for many hours after, interrupted only by hushed sobs and children’s cries coming from distant corners. Other times, the relief workers may be woken by a desperate pounding upon the orphanage gates. And when the gates are opened it is a young man carrying the limp, cold body of his newlywed wife, screaming and begging the doctor to tell him it isn’t so, and twenty minutes later it is the sound of the gate closing behind him, sending him back to his dusty, stench-ridden tent alone forever. But as the night grows deeper, the sounds might become still more sinister: the gunshots from an ill-equipped community patrol trying to stop an abduction, and the squealing tires of the getaway car; or the tortured, possessed screams from a voodoo séance.

But behind the walls the girls in the orphanage are safe, yet never let outside, and each morning at six, the girls and their caretakers gather the relief workers in a circle to sing songs of worship and give thanks to God, and to pray for grace, international.

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Some of Jason's photos of Haiti are viewable on the Facebook page for his own nonprofit, Trek Medics International, which develops emergency medical services in underserved countries: