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Hope and Solidarity: An Interview with Fiammetta Cappellini, AVSI-Haiti Country Representative
Friday, 12 March 2010 14:52

Source: Giornale del Popolo (Lugano, Switzerland)

March 12, 2010

1. It has been two months since the earthquake.  What is the situation like?

The situation unfortunately remains very grave.  So many people have been affected; there isn’t one family in Port-au-Prince that has not been touched by this tragedy.  We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who have lost everything and now live in makeshift shelters.  Currently, only a small portion of these people have been accommodated in tents.  All of the others are limited to one or two square meters under a shelter of sheets.  And the rainy season is about to begin.  Unfortunately, despite the efforts of so many, the tragedy that has hit Haiti is so grave that not even the great commitment of the international community has been as of yet able to give a coherent response to fit the needs of the people.  The principal problems at this moment remain coordination among the various agencies of the United Nations and international organizations along with the identification of a common strategy, accepted also at the governmental level, to address lodging for the homeless.

Concerning the provision of food and water, 30% of the homeless receive them regularly from donor organizations, while it is calculated that about 30% have not received any during these two months; unfortunately, feeding hundreds of thousands of the earthquake victims is an enormous challenge.  For the entire urban area of Port-au-Prince, school has not yet restarted (practically all of the school buildings were destroyed) and children are often left to themselves because the parents dedicate their day to the search for food.  Thus, the risk of child abandonment and the child trafficking has increased exponentially.  An important part of the population of Port-au-Prince has left the city in these two months, moving to the countryside, toward the provinces of their origin.  The official figures show that 300,000 people have moved from the city into rural areas of Haiti. This phenomenon, while it is understandable and perhaps has some positive aspects, presents however, a risk that the rural communities, already living at the edge of their resources, will be overburdened by the increased population for which the local resources will not be sufficient.

To close, the government is discussing with some large donors the future of the city center.  In this zone, the destruction has reached a level such that the only choice appears to be that of razing entirely the city center and eventually reconstructing it, after having cleared the rubble. This work could require months and maybe a year, dealing with an area that is a third of all of Port-au-Prince.  Unfortunately, there are still many unresolved problems and still so much to do.


2.  In the first days after the earthquake, you said that your task was “to reconstruct the human”.  What does that mean in this particular moment?  And are you succeeding?

We believe that the true reconstruction should begin from the person, from each single individual.  We believe that each person in this tragedy has felt destroyed in his/her entirety.  In the midst of this despair, the community also has lost its own points of reference and its own certainties.  We want to begin to reconstruct from here.  We are trying to give a targeted response, keeping in mind each person and each situation, giving each person the space and the possibility to express their own necessities, so that the response may be personalized.  We want to give the right tent to the right person, to place each family in a tent next to their own neighbors, so that relationships might reconnect more easily, so that the system of solidarity among families might be reinforced.  In short, we would want to reconstruct the social and human fabric, not only and not principally the houses.

I cannot say if we are succeeding.  In reality, the demands are so many and our strength unceasingly limited.  But there are small results every day that encourage us in this choice:  for example, a mother who goes to look for her tent neighbor to go together to the “nursing tent” or the camp committee that voted on what names to give to the “streets” between the tents.  These are signs of a need to recreate a picture of life on a human scale, constructed not only from emergency manuals and on the number of square meters that should be provided to each person.


3.  Thanks to a collection launched by our newspaper, in collaboration with AVAID, we were able to collect almost 200,000 francs to support AVSI in Haiti.  Do you feel the closeness of the entire world?  And how is it lived by the people that you are helping?

The response of empathy and of solidarity from the entire world has moved us.  Haiti has been for so many years considered a “forgotten crisis”.  We greatly feared that this might happen also with this catastrophe.  We have been amazed at the willingness and attention that the entire world has dedicated to the Haitians.  Truly, the people who have allowed their hearts to be touched by this dramatic situation have been so many, one can feel it and see it.  This encourages our humanitarian workers and gives hope to this people, in a moment in which hope is our most valuable good and our greatest resource.  People in this moment depend completely on aid.  Even their hope depends on our capacity to not forget, to not “move on”.  For this, we are truly very grateful for all of the individual efforts, for all of the sacrifices, great and small that so many people have made in order to permit us to help these people.


4.  Distance Support:  can you explain to us the importance of a gesture such as this (we are trying, as a newspaper, to launch a project)?

Distance Support means to make the commitment to sustain a particular child in his/her scholastic journey, assuming the costs within an educative project made on a single case.  The Distance Support Program is a small great resource that permits us to do incredible things.  The reasons for this exceptionality are in the structure itself: a targeted aid, upon the person, and therefore permits us to respond to specific needs, evaluated each time on the specific situations.  It is aid that arrives right away to the child, without having to pass through complicated processes of project negotiations with donors.  It is an aid with a wide prospective: it opens with the child and ends up embracing the family and for that reason, becomes even more meaningful.  In urgent cases, Distance Support has allowed us, through individualized records, to easily search for the children in our care and to find, together with their families, a response to their needs.  It is, through Distance Support that we have been able to open the tent school, to build desks, to pay the teachers, and to see, a month after the earthquake, our children return to their school desks.  It is important for us to broaden this program to the new children we’ve met in the camps, who have need of aid, of support, of an individual relationship with the social worker, of someone who believes in their future.


5. What are the most important works that you have done and those that await you?

One of the most important activities has been the activation of an ambulatory service in each camp, with a program of prevention of and a fight against malnutrition.  Thanks to this program, we have in a few short weeks reached nearly 4,000 children who receive adequate food supplementation, while nursing mothers find a place reserved for nutritional counseling and the promotion of nursing as the best strategy for preventing the epidemic of diarrhea during the now imminent rainy season.  Our volunteer doctors are working untiringly both with mothers and with children.  Because of these efforts, child mortality in the AVSI camps is among the lowest throughout the tent cities, which for us is a very important result.

The challenges for the near future…are so many! Restarting school for all children, obtaining latrines (we still do not have), evaluating the possibility to returning to and reconstructing home, constructing new housing, reconstructing schools, expanding the nutrition program, enhancing community dining facilities, reinforcing programs for psychosocial support for vulnerable and at-risk children…. There is just so much to do.


6.  How do you judge these two months of your life?  What have they given you as a person?

I believe that these months have required a great deal from each of us.  I think about the untiring work of my colleagues, some of them much younger than I.  I think about their interior strength, and to the equanimity that they have displayed.  It has been very difficult, for those of us who were already living in Haiti, to mobilize without knowing the fate of many of our friends and colleagues... and then to have known that they did not survive.  To face the pain of those losses, to face the horror of the catastrophe as it presented itself in the first days and to continue to work has not been easy for anyone.

I judge these months as a great trial, certainly the greatest that I have ever had to face as a person.  Certainly this experience has greatly changed me and the pain and suffering that remain within me will never be erased.  Nonetheless, to see every day the concrete help that our work and our presence could bring causes me to have hope, to believe that solidarity is the true answer to the catastrophe.


More information about AVSI's "Rebirth of the Human in Haiti" relief efforts

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