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"We are eating dust" - Haitians put pen to paper

Suggestion boxes in Port-au-Prince's tented camps

Published on 7 January 2011

Author(s): Alertnet/Katie Nguyen

Type:  News

Written in French, Creole and occasionally English, the letters express carefully worded frustrations about being forced to survive

Some ask for a house, others seek protection afraid their daughters will be raped, many ask for work so they can provide for their families.

Ever since suggestion boxes began appearing in Port-au-Prince's tented camps more than five months ago, Haitians left homeless by the January 2010 earthquake have been putting pen to paper, hoping their voices will be heard. The response has been remarkable with 3,000 letters received so far, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) which came up with the idea of placing the boxes by its information kiosks in 140 of the capital's camps.

Written in French, Creole and occasionally English, the letters express carefully worded frustrations about being forced to survive without enough food, solid shelter or a way of earning a living, and fears of what tomorrow will bring. "Since January 12, things have only gotten worse and worse. We do not have work and we do not have money. There is no supervision. We are shown hope, but nothing has come to us except the hurricane season. Must we wait for another January 12, for another disaster, when things are so difficult for us?" Amboise Fleuristil, a 29-year-old camp representative says in his letter.

"What will be done for those of us living in tents? We are eating dust. We want to go home. How can you help? There are talks of a rebuilding process since IOM carried out a registration in the camp but nothing has happened. Must we wait for ever? We want to find work, because it is very painful to wait and be dependent on others for help. When we work, we suffer less. We believe that if IOM could give us work, things would be better for us and our families. Thank you for your understanding, we hope that our request will result in something positive."


Some letters express timid hope of help, others gratitude to be alive despite the hardship that continues almost a year after the earthquake struck the Caribbean island nation, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Hilaire X, whose husband died in May is bringing up their three children alone. "I have to work to get the money I need to get my business going and to look after my children. Please do something for me...," she writes. "We do not want to die of hunger, and furthermore I need to send my children to school. In any event I give homage to the Glory of God that I'm still alive." The letters are collected by community outreach workers, who go through them, grouping them by categories such as protection, education and health, says IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle.

A Haitian man waits inside his tent as Tropical Storm Tomas hits Port-au-Prince November 4, 2010. REUTERS- Eduardo Munoz.jpg
A Haitian man waits inside his tent as Tropical Storm Tomas hits Port-au-Prince November 4, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz

IOM responds to all letters with an SMS text message. If it's an urgent matter, an IOM worker calls the letter-writer or sends someone from the relevant field to see what can be done.
Letters are read out on a daily radio show, and there are plans to publish many more of them on the Citizen Haiti website. Collectively, they reflect the spirit and strength of ordinary Haitians.

"People who are displaced are often portrayed as noisy, angry, frightening people ... so what we've found with this is highly articulate, considered opinions, thoughtful, demanding - sure, (but) you can see the complexity of the person," IOM's Doyle told AlertNet by telephone from Port-au-Prince.


IOM's La Voix de Sans Voix (The Voice of the Voiceless) project is part of a growing trend within the aid community to try to solicit the views of people receiving assistance. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in particular, sparked criticism that much post-tsunami development aid was prescriptive and being designed without the input of local communities hit by the disaster.

"This is like a spontaneous opinion poll, which in some ways would avoid some of the problems of opinion polls because it's not like somebody coming around with a clipboard and you immediately get exaggerated answers," Doyle said. "It should be a useful sounding board on the mood of the camps, and the mood of the people in the camps."

But what happens to those appeals for help? Are individual requests followed up or do they fall on deaf ears? Doyle said the project was not meant to just help the "people who write nice letters", rather it was to encourage people "to communicate in a meaningful way, not to shout, not to be aggressive, to make their point in a way that will be listened to by the humanitarian community and by the government and by the other actors ... to bring about the changes they want and need".

However, there are those in Port-au-Prince who think their voices are still being ignored by aid organisations and the Haitian government. Renald Derazin, an earthquake survivor, credits aid groups for helping to tackle the country's cholera epidemic. He says without them, the outbreak which has already killed thousands, would be worse. But things could be better.

"The organisations just decide themselves to do what they want ... sometimes they show they hear you and want to do things for you but when you see them act, you see they do what they want to do," he told AlertNet by telephone. "It's not for the people to decide ... the most important things could be done if only our president wants to decide, wants to ask the organisations to do something ... but it seems that he doesn't care also."

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