|Jayne Fleming* receives Maricia Jean of FAVILEK in New York for a multi-state speaking tour|
Photo by Michelle Karshan
March 4, 2011
I'm sorry for the long silence. I just arrived home from our beloved Haiti. This makes my sixth trip in twelve months. I delivered another hundred pounds of your donations to our families, including baby clothes and supplies for our tiny cherubs, a hundred stuffed teddy bears for the sweet children, and belated Valentines for their courageous mothers and grandmothers. Toys and chocolates may not be as practical as flashlights and water purification tablets, but they are a rare indulgence and bring priceless smiles.
I did my usual round of interviews at KOFAVIV and the Bureau of Advocates International, met with the leaders of FAVILEK, visited our safe houses, spent time talking with women living in the camps, and met with UNHCR. I talked to more than a hundred people over six days and conducted thirty-two in depth interviews. Long days, sobering stories, courageous women.
Two of our mothers told me that police officers wielding clubs attacked them at their camp in Champs Mars (across from the National Palace), ordering them to clear out. Of course they would if they could, but they have nowhere to go. The assault on them was part of a sweeping police raid on their whole camp and it reflects the ever-increasing problem of forced evictions, even at the hands of government officials. The attack is no secret, but there has been no government accountability. I asked our clients if they made a police report. They said they were too afraid to do so because the perpetrators are part of the police, but they agreed to speak with a team of IJDH advocates working on wrongful eviction issues.
Housing is not the only problem. Rape of women and girls in camps continues to be an under-addressed crisis. On Saturday one of our clients told me about a 45-year old woman who had been so brutally raped she could not walk. She could not get to the BAI because she had no money for a cab. We sent a car to pick her up. The woman told me she was trying to rescue her teenage daughter from rapists. Her daughter escaped, but then they turned on her. After I interviewed her, the driver and a KOFAVIV agent took her to the General Hospital with her brave teenage sons. She was hospitalized (still is) and the boys slept in the hospital courtyard, taking turns sitting at her bedside. Despite all of the promises from the head of the hospital and Ministry of Health, her care was not free. We paid over $200 (US) for x-rays, prescriptions and exams.
Hers was not the only tragic story. I interviewed a 22-year old rape victim who is an orphan and has no place to go, an 18-year old victim who gave birth and is too malnourished to nurse, an orphan with malaria and no money for medicine, a dozen elderly women with no access to food, housing or medical care. We gave all of them money for food and medicine, but our safe houses are full so we could not provide shelter.
Although the challenges are enormous, the women and children I interviewed showed remarkable resiliency. They are survivors. Still, the light has gone out of their eyes. They have suffered hunger, homelessness and brutality for more than a year. Many had suffered harsh conditions and violence before the earthquake. They have not given up, but I felt a deepening sense of despair this week, a wearing down of the inner reserves needed for survival. Where is hope?
While it's easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of their suffering, my philosophy has always been "one woman, one child". If we can give one woman the tools to reclaim her life, we will have taken one step forward on the path to social justice and we will have made a difference in the world.
With this idea in mind, I met with a small group of 18 women on Sunday afternoon and brainstormed about how they could move beyond tragedy towards empowerment, from a situation of dependence to one of self-support. The reaction was initially grim. They have nothing, they said, no more than a dollar in their pocket. Where would they get the resources needed to rebuild their lives? My offer to help build bridges
to resources was met with skepticism. They'd been victims of false promises for too long. I swore I would not betray or mislead them. I confessed I don't have millions, or anything even remotely close, but I promised to advocate for them for as long as it takes. I have become very close to all of these women over the last year because they are in my safe houses. They decided to give me a chance.
Their "homework" for Sunday night was to come up with a personal plan of how they could reclaim their independence. I urged them to dream, but cautioned that pragmatism is an important ingredient to success. I suggested that each woman come up with a business concept that could be launched with a modest investment (around $1500) - a small beginning,
but very significant in Haiti. We reconvened the next day. It seems that once the idea started to sink in, their creative juices started to flow.
Everyone arrived with an outline of their plan on paper. At first people were quite shy, a bit uncertain of what was expected of them. I could see they had worked hard on their "homework." Rather than calling on anyone, I asked for volunteers. One young woman who has been terribly discouraged for the last few months timidly raised her hand. I urged her to tell us her idea. This talented young widow and mother of two said she wants to open a beauty shop. She described the types of products she would sell, wigs and hair extensions and cosmetics. She also envisioned styling hair and doing nails at her shop. Turns out she already has a degree from a beauty school. She had a shop before, but it collapsed in the earthquake. She has a booth reserved at the downtown market, but no merchandise. All she needs is a helping hand to get re-launched. We all gave her our full attention. Some of the women offered ideas and words of encouragement. I can honestly tell you I have never seen this woman smile before. As she talked, I watched her eyes light up. She broke into the most radiant smile. We all praised her vision and talent. We were off to a good start.
After our bold beautician broke the ice, we went around the table. Four women said they want to resume vocations as shopkeepers selling groceries and household items, something they feel confident they can do with a bit of help getting started because they did it before the earthquake. Two women said they want to be chefs and open their own restaurants. I learned they are celebrated cooks within their circle of families and friends. Another young woman wants to open a fashion boutique. Her sister wants to open a cafe. The girls are orphans raising their four younger siblings.
And so it goes ...
The most beautiful thing about our meeting was how animated everyone became. I have become so used to the flat expressionless demeanor that goes hand in hand with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was taken aback by their change of mood- from darkness to light. As we shared ideas and brainstormed about how to make their plans a reality, I watched the women's expressions soften, their eyes become brighter, their shoulders lift as they sat taller in their chairs and felt validated. It was moving beyond words.
I grew up with very little, but I was always told I could achieve my dreams if I worked hard. I feel the same is true of these courageous women. They just need someone (us) to believe in them. The goal now, and our responsibility, is to give them the tools and resources they need to achieve their dreams.
My plan is to identify 18 mentors for these 18 women. The role of a mentor is to cheer them on, kind of like a pen pal. I'll provide an interpreter for the mentors as needed. Mentors can be from anywhere, in the U.S. or Haiti or elsewhere. The only qualification required is compassion and enthusiasm.
I also plan to work with an NGO called "We Lead" to help the women develop their business plans and fine-tune their skills as small business owners. We Lead is based in Haiti, but affiliated with Heartland Alliance in Chicago, an organization my firm has worked with for a long time. I'll also work with Lisa Davis of MADRE in NYC. Lisa is a women's advocate with enormous talent and wisdom. Finally, I'll do everything I can to raise enough money to allow each woman to start her business and fulfill her dream. If you'd like to work with us on this project, in any capacity (mentor, supporter, expert), please let me know. I would deeply appreciate your support.
I know this email has become long, so I will conclude with a happy story. Three of our young clients have given birth since the earthquake.
The babies were conceived through violence, but received into the world with open hearts and tremendous love. On Sunday morning we celebrated the baptism of the three newborns at the chapel at St. Damien's Hospital. I had the honor of becoming the Godmother to one of the babies. They are so precious, our tiniest miracles. Not one baby cried.
They were all awake and alert and wholly mesmerized with the priest.
They were angelic in their white baptism gowns. These precious ones deserve all that life has to offer. I pray we will do our utmost to honor and protect them.
In closing, thank you for your ongoing support and friendship. I am blessed to have such a wonderful circle of friends and colleagues. I can't do this work without your emotional support. I hesitate to ask for more than this, but know you will not fault me for inviting financial support for our families, too. You all know by now that the guardian angel of this project is my mom. If you wish to make a contribution to her foundation, you may do so here:
This is what makes the work possible.
With friendship and my deepest gratitude, Jayne