Haitians Cry in Letters: ‘Please — Do Something!’
Sandra Felicien dropping a letter seeking help into a collection box at the camp for displaced earthquake survivors where she lives.
Published: September 19, 2010
CORAIL-CESSELESSE, Haiti — It was after midnight in a remote annex of this isolated tent camp on a windswept gravel plain. Marjorie Saint Hilaire’s three boys were fast asleep, but her mind was racing.
Jake Price for The New York Times
Ms. Felicien read one appeal for help as other camp residents listened. “It is like we are bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved,” she said.
The camp leader had proposed writing letters to the nongovernment authorities, and she had so much to say. She lighted a candle and summoned a gracious sentiment with which to begin.
“To all the members of concerned organizations, I thank you first for feeling our pain,” she wrote slowly in pencil on what became an eraser-smudged page. “I note that you have taken on almost all our problems and some of our greatest needs.”
Ms. Saint Hilaire, 33, then succinctly explained that she had lost her husband and her livelihood to the Jan. 12 earthquake and now found herself hungry, stressed and stranded in a camp annex without a school, a health clinic, a marketplace or any activity at all.
“Please — do something!” she wrote from Tent J2, Block 7, Sector 3, her new address. “We don’t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive — but I would like to stay that way!”
In the last couple of weeks, thousands of displaced Haitians have similarly vented their concerns, depositing impassioned pleas for help in new suggestion boxes at a hundred camps throughout the disaster zone. Taken together, the letters form a collective cri de coeur from a population that has felt increasingly impotent and ignored.
With 1.3 million displaced people in 1,300 camps, homelessness is the new normal here. Two recent protest marches have sought to make the homeless a central issue in the coming presidential campaign. But the tent camp residents, miserable, weary and in many cases fighting eviction, do not seem to have the energy to become a vocal force.
When the International Organization for Migration added suggestion boxes to its information kiosks in scores of camps, it did not expect to tap directly into a well of pent-up emotions. “I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,” said Leonard Doyle, who handles communications for the organization in Haiti. “But to my absolute, blow-me-down surprise, we got 700 letters in three days from our first boxes — real individualized expressions of suffering that give a human face to this ongoing tragedy.”
In some cases, the letters contain a breathless litany of miseries, a chain of woes strung together by commas: “I feel discouraged, I don’t sleep comfortably, I gave birth six months ago, the baby died, I have six other children, they don’t have a father, I don’t have work, my tarp is torn, the rain panics me, my house was crushed, I don’t have money to feed my family, I would really love it if you would help me,” wrote Marie Jean Jean.
In others, despair is expressed formally, with remarkable restraint: “Living under a tent is not favorable neither to me nor to my children” or “We would appreciate your assistance in obtaining a future as one does not appear to be on our horizon.”
Several writers sent terse wish lists on self-designed forms: “Name: Paul Wilbert. Camp: Boulos. Need: House. Demand: $1,250. Project: Build house. Thank you.”
And some tweaked the truth. Ketteline Lebon, who lives in a camp in the slum area called Cité Soleil, cannot read or write. She dictated a letter to her cousin, who decided to alter Ms. Lebon’s story to say that her husband had died in the earthquake whereas he had really died in a car accident. “What does it matter?” Ms. Lebon said, shrugging. “I’m still a widow in a tent with four kids I cannot afford to send to school.”
At this camp’s annex, Corail 3, Sandra Felicien, a regal woman whose black-and-white sundress looks as crisp as if it hangs in a closet, has become the epistolary queen. An earthquake widow whose husband was crushed to death in the school where he taught adult education courses, Ms. Felicien said she wrote letters almost daily because doing so made her feel as if she were taking action. “We are so powerless,” she said. “It is like we are bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved.”