Haiti Archives 1995-1996
10/01/96 CHILDREN-HAITI: Churning Water to Make Butter By Peter Costantini

Copyright 1995 InterPress Service, all rights reserved. Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 10 (IPS) – Haiti’s current president, Jean- Bertrand Aristide, founded it, and met and became friends there with his successor, President-elect Rene Preval.

Lafanmi Se Lavi (”The Family Is Life” in Creole) is not a university or a big corporation: it’s a home for street children.

Last Christmas day, the courtyard was alive. Barefoot boys played with their presents. In the background compas music provided a rhythmic backdrop.

The boys had just ended a feast of fried chicken, rice and beans and salad. Every boy received a small gift: miniature car, toy dinosaur, play radio. Younger boys put their presents back into the bags they came in and pulled them out again.

‘’There’s a Haitian proverb, ‘I churn water to make butter,’’’ says counselor Jean-LaBonte Delicieux. ‘’We try to make a real home with whatever we can beg or borrow.’’

Ten years ago, Aristide, then a parish priest, joined with others to work with Haiti’s street children.

‘’Aristide’s basic philosophy is strong and alive today,’’ says administrator Joanne Keogh. ‘’If children’s needs and values and the wisdom of their life experience could be heard and responded to by adults, the world would be a very different place.’’

In the intervening years of repression, the number of homeless children in Haiti has doubled, the staff estimates. The 1991 military coup that overthrew Aristide’s democratically elected government killed thousands of parents or forced them into hiding or exile. Over the past eight years, Haitian life expectancy dropped from 54 to 47 years.

Building a safe environment for these children under military dictatorships was a dangerous business. A 1988 fire forced the home to move to a new location.

In 1991, five days before Aristide’s inauguration as president, Lafanmi Se Lavi was firebombed. Four boys were killed along with a staff member who tried to rescue them. Yet another fire struck in 1992. Most observers believe the arsons were the work of paramilitary death squads, who also killed many adult associated with Aristide.

Today, Keogh puts the ‘’reality figure’’ of homeless children at 500,000 in a country of 7 million. With the abolition of the army and the return of constitutional government, Delicieux believes the phenomenon may have peaked. Yet Haiti’s economy remains a smoking ruin, with 75 percent unemployment and decimated public services.

To choose boys for the home, outreach workers spend time on the street getting to know the kids, then invite them to visit. Finally, the staff selects for residence the youngest kids – those with no family, and those who have spent the longest on the street.

When they asked resident boys how to handle the new kids, one told them: ‘’Be patient; don’t throw them out the first time they mess up. Remember, it took us a while to learn the rules.’’

The staff continues to work with the remaining boys on the street, and encourages resident boys to invite them in for meals.

For its 110 residents, Lafanmi Se Lavi provides meals, medical care, education and vocational training, says Keogh. Eight years of in-house education begin in Creole, the language of most Haitians, and transition into French, the main language of higher education.

‘’The type of education we do is very concrete,’’ says education director Lionel Etienne. ‘’We read about something, say animals, in books that use pictures as well as words, then we take the boys out to see animals.’’

Lafanmi Se Lavi also offers vocational training in carpentry, cabinet-making, electronics, sewing, and cooking, useful survival skills in Haiti’s largely informal economy. The home is about to reopen two enterprises that give work to kids still on the street and show society that the kids are productive members: a car wash on the airport road and a farm. The boys sell excess produce in poor neighborhoods at reduced prices.

The older boys (aged 16 to 20) go to high school outside. While they still receive support from Lafanmi Se Lavi, they have to find a place to live in their communities.

Delicieux, who works with these ‘’transitional’’ boys, helps those with parents move back in with them and others to find housing with relatives or friends. All 96 boys returned to the community so far have found a place to live, he says.

While the home has relied primarily on private support from abroad, executive director Elien Joachim now hopes to receive some backing from a broke but sympathetic government.

Right now, says Keogh, Lafanmi Se Lavi is trying to acquire a neighboring house, which would allow them to extend schooling and health care to homeless girls, many of whom work as domestics in wealthy homes, and to non-resident boys. Demand for similar programs is tremendous around Haiti, and Lafanmi Se Lavi plans to open another home in the southwestern town of Jeremie in 1996.

The home is also starting a radio station, which will provide broadcasting training and amplify street kids’ voices. Several boys will receive training in radio programming next summer in Berkeley, California. The home’s band has toured the eastern U.S. and participated in exchange programmes with U.S. schools.

Aristide remains active, often inviting boys to the National Palace, and his fiancee, lawyer Mildred Trouillot, does sessions with the boys on Haiti’s constitution and on children’s rights. The home’s work continues to attract idealistic young Haitians.

Jean-Role Jean-Louis, a young law student, was threatened by death squads with a hand grenade for his work there. ‘’My mother told me that we were victims of an unjust system,’’ he says, ‘’so we had to change the system to benefit everyone.’’ (ENDS/IPS/PC/DC/FN)

Origin: Amsterdam/CHILDREN-HAITI/ ----

[c] 1995, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved

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