Haitians Cry in Letters: ‘Please — Do Something!’

Jake Price for The New York Times

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.


    sandra felicien

    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.”


    Fashion Week!

    Come to the  launch of Dresses for Haiti at the Empire Rooftop Hotel in NY. The event takes place from 5-11PM on September 13th 2010. You can RSVP at http://fashionweek2010-autohome.eventbrite.com/

    All guest must be 21 years or older. We look forward to seeing you all there!!!

    Inspirational Poem of the Day

    Phenomenal Woman by:Maya Angelou

    Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
    I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
    But when I start to tell them,
    They think I’m telling lies.
    I say,
    It’s in the reach of my arms
    The span of my hips,
    The stride of my step,
    The curl of my lips.
    I’m a woman
    Phenomenal woman,
    That’s me.

    I walk into a room
    Just as cool as you please,
    And to a man,
    The fellows stand or
    Fall down on their knees.
    Then they swarm around me,
    A hive of honey bees.
    I say,
    It’s the fire in my eyes,
    And the flash of my teeth,
    The swing in my waist,
    And the joy in my feet.
    I’m a woman
    Phenomenal woman,
    That’s me.

    Men themselves have wondered
    What they see in me.
    They try so much
    But they can’t touch
    My inner mystery.
    When I try to show them
    They say they still can’t see.
    I say,
    It’s in the arch of my back,
    The sun of my smile,
    The ride of my breasts,
    The grace of my style.
    I’m a woman

    Phenomenal woman,
    That’s me.

    Now you understand
    Just why my head’s not bowed.
    I don’t shout or jump about
    Or have to talk real loud.
    When you see me passing
    It ought to make you proud.
    I say,
    It’s in the click of my heels,
    The bend of my hair,
    the palm of my hand,
    The need of my care,
    ‘Cause I’m a woman
    Phenomenal woman,
    That’s me.

    Poem Of the Day

    A Prayer for Haiti
    Today, our friends from Haiti weigh heavy on my mind…
    An impoverished country where life has often been unkind.
    Shanty houses, little food, civil unrest for years.
    All of God’s people, with all their mighty fears.
    A 7 point earthquake today rattled this place…
    Shook it at the very core, did not miss a trace.
    Innocents buried in the rumble, death toll not yet known.
    Please pray for the hearts of the world to be shown.
    Let’s get rescuers, food, and water swiftly to their aid.
    Let’s bring them help so they don’t have to be afraid.
    Families torn apart, innocent children left alone.
    Bodies lying in the streets of this destroyed zone.
    Offer our hands in friendship to aid in their plight…
    Bring hope in the wake of their dark, dreary night.
    Sometimes I think God says ” You know what to do…”
    When we open our hearts, they will know it too.
    This poem is so touching to me and I think it really shows the pain that everyone felt the day the earth shook in Haiti. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I do. You can check out this poem and many others at http://www.writers-network.com/index.cgi?view=90064

    Our Hearts Go Out to the Women and Children of Pakistan

    Many of you have already heard about the tragic flooding in Pakistan.  According to the RHRC (Reproductive Health Response in Crises Consortium) about 3 million people have been affected by this flood and over 1,500 have been killed. And as we all know in disasters like this it is always the women and children who suffer the most. 85 percent of the people who have been left homeless are women. In disasters such as this women are more prone to suffering from starvation, exposure, sexual assault, and water-borne diseases. The women in Pakistan also have very limited access to health aid as well. According to the RHRC seeking aid is especially difficult for women in areas with cultural norms that place shame upon receiving aid or medical care from a male. Women may avoid seeking needed care if there is no woman to provide them.

    Here is an excerpt from Shmyalla Jawad’s blog about the cultural shock the women in Pakistan are facing in the camps:

    The camps are also culturally shocking for women and girls. Many have never been around a man who isn’t a member of their family. Now they are amongst hundreds of men who are complete strangers. In some sectors of Pakistan society, apart from the religious notions of covering up and not mingling with males outside one’s family, women are considered to be the custodians of male and family honour. This notion of honour is linked with women’s sexual behaviour so their sexuality is considered to be a potential threat to the honour of family. Therefore, the systems of sex segregation known as purdah are used by the society to protect the honour of the family. But in the camps there are no provisions for purdah. Young boys and girls have to sleep in the same room, at times next to each other, most mothers and families do not feel it’s safe for their daughters, especially in the current circumstances.

    As women we are forced to be strong, independent, and fend for ourselves and our children. Even in times and tragedies like this we will not fall we will not be defeated we will stay strong and get through this.

    Quote of the day

    Here are some words from the amazing Soujourner Truth. ALL women should know who she is. She fought for the rights of women at a time when the divide was not just gender based, but racial as well. She fought in the battle lines with other feminist such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but still was treated as second class because of the color of her skin. She was still required to sit on the back of the train. She tell the stories of countless women of color who were not only fighting discrimination as women but also as people of color.  This speech is so inspirational to me. Read and enjoy the power of her words!!

    Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Ain’t I A Woman?
    Delivered 1851
    Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio

    Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

    That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

    Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

    Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

    If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

    Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

    Excerpt taken from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.html

    Hello world!

    Dresses for Haiti is an organization committed to the rights of women disadvantaged by the strains of poverty, colonialism, industrialization, and natural disaster. Our mission is to change the life of women around the world with every stitch and seam we create. We aim to combine fashion and charity to help the women of Haiti at the moment and other countries as we expand. Dresses for Haiti is an exchange of change for worldwide change, where everyday citizens, like yourself, can make a contribution by buying vintage dresses and knowing that your purchase will be donated to organizations committed to helping women and children all over the world. We want to take a vain concept and make it into a charitable one. Dresses for change will provide help for the disadvantaged, a spotlight for young designers, and fashion for those who wish to help our mission.