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With 17 guests, one Haitian family reflects the struggles of many in the months since the quake

By Coco McCabe
Members of the Perard family and their guests crowd into the central room of the house they have been sharing since the January 12 earthquake.

Swallowed in the stuffing of a big yellow chair, Jenny, 7, and Sarah, 8, sit side by side, their faces somber, their feet dangling. Matching red bows bob in their hair. They could be sisters. And in a way they are, though blood is not what binds them. A shared sorrow does: Each lost a mother in the January earthquake that crippled Haiti and left 230,000 people dead.

Like hundreds of thousands of other survivors, they fled the ruins of Port-au-Prince to seek shelter in the countryside, squeezing in with family and friends and relying on them for support in the weeks—and now months—after the disaster.

It’s early May, and the girls are among the 17 relatives and friends Jean Claude and Rose Marie Perard are hosting in their house in Saint Michel, a four-drive from the capital. The household numbered nine before the quake. Now, 26 people—many of them children—crowd the Perards’ small dark rooms and courtyard.

“Day by day we cope,” says Rose Marie Perard.

It’s a refrain repeated across the rugged provinces as Haitians, living in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, open their doors and share what little they have.

But here, on a sweltering afternoon in the main room of the Perards’ house, the strain for some of the family members is beginning to show and the target is NGOs, the non-governmental organizations that offered a patchwork of basic services—education, health care, agricultural support—before the quake and have now ramped up, with billions of dollars at their disposal, to help meet the needs of some of the three million people affected by the disaster. Some locals charge that the NGOs have long been in Haiti to help themselves more than they are to help the Haitians—and they question whether there are lasting benefits to the projects aid groups launch.

Oxfam’s goal is to make a durable difference, one that leaves people with the skills and knowledge to ensure their own growth and success, and that means a long-term commitment that empowers communities to meet their own needs.

Hungry for independence

Cereste Perard has been waiting, grim-faced, for his turn to talk. He’s 27 and was in Port-au-Prince when the quake hit, along with some of his siblings who were studying there. About 81 percent of Haiti’s schools are private, and many of those at the upper levels, including universities, are concentrated around the capital. Parents often send their children there for better opportunities, which means covering the added expense of room and board along with school fees—a commitment that can severely strain finances, forcing kids to drop out until their families can marshall the resources to allow them to return.

Sinking into an empty spot on the sofa, Cereste Perard offers his opinion about Haiti’s recovery.

“What we need is for us to be independent,” he says, with bitterness in his voice. “The international community is giving us orders on how to live our lives.”

Cereste is pretty clear about how he wants to live his: his goal is to go to university and study industrial engineering, like an older brother, Jean Rodney Perard, who is now working toward a medical degree. 

Two meals a day

In the long hot months ahead and it’s up to their mother, Rose Marie, to manage the crowded household on a budget stretched by borrowing and pleading with friends for help.  Rose Marie collects a small monthly salary from the ministry of public health for which she works five days a week as a technologist in a lab. Her husband serves as the municipal director for Saint Michel, an appointed post.

Having jobs puts the couple in the minority among Haitians who, by some calculations, face unemployment rates as high as 70 percent. But with 26 mouths to feed and a crowd of children to help educate, the Perards’ salaries don’t stretch far.

“I buy food on credit and whenever money comes in, I pay it all back,” says Rose Marie, adding the household eats just two meals a day. And when night comes, everyone stretches out wherever there is room: some in the beds, some on the floors.

As full as this house is, it’s not the only one in Saint Michel packed tight since January. After the quake, more than 11,000 people reportedly made their way to the town and the smaller communities that surround it, and a survey conducted in a month later found that 5,000 of them were still there.

The rice is gone

A sudden downpour hammers the metal roof of a small mill in Verrettes, a few hour’s drive from Saint Michel. The rain drowns the voices of 13 men and women sitting in the hot gloom, but their raised hands tell the story: all but one of them has been supporting  people from Port-au-Prince and the rice, and all the other seeds, the farmers had hoped to plant have gone, instead, to feed the newcomers. Rony Charles has four of his wife’s relatives staying him; Pierre Riguens had five, now four—sisters and a cousin; Simadieu Descombes is hosting seven.

With planting season upon them—and no seeds to sow—the farmers are hoping  they can get access to some microcredit to tide them over. Raising agricultural production levels is the first thing people in his community need, says Charles. And creating jobs for the newcomers is also near the top of the list.

Looking ahead

While some people appear to be returning to the capital, Anouce Myrtil predicts that plenty of others will find it easier living in the countryside.

“Even if Port-au-Prince had golden streets, no one’s going to live easy in Port-au-Prince because of fear,” he says, sitting on the site of a new sugarcane mill Oxfam is helping to build in the community of Lacedras, near Saint Michel. It’s part of a range of small-scale initiatives designed to support economic development and improve agricultural output in the region—objectives that are more important than ever as Haiti struggles to overcome the devastation caused by the earthquake and rebuild itself on a stronger foundation. In a country where agriculture employs two-thirds of the workforce yet produces only 28 percent of its gross domestic product, modernizing farm work and expanding production opportunities will be crucial for Haiti’s reconstruction.

And for farmer Elcida Estinat, the chance to learn new skills and expand her earning power are vital now that she is caring for young relatives displaced by the quake. Recently, she participated in an Oxfam-supported training on beekeeping. Equipped with a modern hive, she could potentially produce six times the amount of honey that she could using traditional methods.

And every gallon of honey that Estinat harvests from her hives could fetch as much as $24 at the market. Converted into school fees, that honey is better than gold: it will help her buy a brighter future for her kids.

“I know the value of a good education,” says Estinat.