Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Earthquake shatters Haiti: worst in 200 years

(Photo: EFE/ If you haven't been on another planet this morning, you will have heard about it. The poorest country on the American continent and one of the poorest in the world, has been devastated by an earthquake, 7.0 on the Richter scale. Thousands are dead and there is as yet no firm number of injured. Spanish NGOs have already sent advance contingents to help in rescue operations; local aid organizations can't operate as most buildings in the capital Port au Prince are rubble. One quote: "If the President's mansion is destroyed, what could have happened to the adobe shacks?" See more photos on RTVE and about Haiti on Wikipedia). Prospero comment:>
"It's always the poor. Every time." One hears it every time there is a catastrophe, but in the case of Haiti, nothing could be more true even though the presidential palace built by that bloodthirsty dictator François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier has come down like the pack of cards he constructed around his Ton Ton Macoutes voodoo cohorts.

In another life, back in the 1980s, I was in charge of Health and Sanitation for a catering company at Miami International Airport. At the time, there were boatloads of Haitian refugees fleeing from poverty and persecution in much the same way as they now flock from North Africa into Southern Europe. They came to earn some dignity, to better themselves, but they had to start from scratch: most of them, for instance, had to be taught to use a toilet as they'd never seen one at home. They learned and they earned their quiet dignity. Their only language was French Creole, which placed them at the very bottom of the employment ladder, competing at the time with the Cuban refugees who were also flooding Miami into the arms of their erstwhile refugee compatriots. The Haitians were not well received but they were cheap labour, willing to work for less than anyone else.

By the end of their first year as cleaners at the catering company, I was being invited to their homes as an honoured guest. Honoured I certainly was.

The first to ask me was Fleur, whose large black eyes and doe-like demeanour belied a strength of character that had brought her across the treacherous Caribbean straits in a boatload full of frightened compatriots, only to end up as an 'illegal alien' in a muddy camp near the Everglades. She had been joined at her very modest apartment home by her mother and a daughter, leaving a son behind in Haiti. We ate a peppery stew that she claimed was 'teepeecol' of her home village, whose name I don't remember. The food, excellent though it was, was not the best part of the meal. It was her story, which I won't go into here because it's the same story I've heard from so many refugees. It was her dignity that allowed her to learn a heavy accented English, that allowed her the courage to prostitute herself to survive in the early days after being released from the camp. It was the quiet way she spoke, though I knew from her supervisors that she had a quick temper when it came to the injustices she encountered every day. It was her way of thanking me for teaching her the rudiments of life in a 'civilized country', to use a mop, a toilet, a lift (of which I recall her being petrified).

When I left the catering company I lost touch with her. That was almost twenty years ago. I can only hope that Fleur never returned to her God-forsaken country, as so many of her compatriots did full of good intentions. And I pray that, if she did, she is safe today.

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