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Forging a new future in Haiti

Frantzyse Erisma was one of more than 100 homeowners who Habitat volunteers helped during the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

Frantzyse Erisma was one of more than 100 homeowners who Habitat volunteers helped during the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. “Now,” she says, “I can think about a new future for me and my daughter.” Photo by Ezra Millstein

Continuing work in Haiti, including the 2011 and 2012 Carter Work Projects, helps families envision a different world at home.

On Jan. 12, 2010, Frantzyse Erisma returned home from teaching kindergarten. Inside the house owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Erisma spent the afternoon tutoring a neighbor’s child, a 7-year-old who wanted to learn how to read.

Teacher and student were working their way through a children’s history book of Haiti. Christopher Columbus had just reached the island of Hispaniola when concrete blocks began falling around Erisma. She made it out of the house with the child as the blocks continued to crack, crumble and thud behind them.

In those first hours after the earthquake, Erisma found her 6-year-old daughter Kerry, who had been at a relative’s house. Erisma gathered scrap wood, suddenly plentiful in her devastated community of Carrefour, just west of Haiti’s capital in Port-au-Prince. She tied bed sheets between the pieces of wood to create cover for herself and her daughter.

This past November, Erisma thought back often to those first days after the earthquake, and her first anxious attempt at building her own shelter. She was once again at work on a new structure for herself and her daughter — this time, a permanent core house built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

“It was very important for me to build my own house.” —Frantzyse Erisma

In early November 2011, more than 400 international volunteers helped 100 Haitian families, including Erisma’s, build new homes during the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Named Santo by its new residents, the new community is situated on a former sugarcane field just outside Leogane, Haiti, very close to the epicenter of the 2010 quake. Families moved into their homes in February.

Today, with its 155 Habitat houses, Santo is a symbol of newfound stability and permanence for families starting life anew. And the community will continue to grow. In November 2012, the Carter Work Project will return to Santo, as volunteers and families once again work together to build 100 more houses. The ongoing effort is part of a larger Habitat shelter program funded by the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank and many other donors.

“It was very important for me to build my own house,” Erisma says. “I was very glad when Habitat explained that we would work on our own houses. If they are to be our homes, we should work on them ourselves.”

During that November build week, instead of scavenging wood scraps, Erisma used a saw to cut boards for the walls of her new home. Instead of tying bed sheets together, she helped install metal roofing.

“Now I have a home. Now I know I am secure,” she says. “I can think about other things. I can think about a new future for me and my daughter.”

More than 400 international volunteers helped Haitian families build the homes that now dot this former sugarcane field in Santo.

More than 400 international volunteers helped Haitian families build the homes that now dot this former sugarcane field in Santo. With 150 Habitat houses already finished, Santo is a growing symbol of residents’ newfound stability. Photo by Nevil Eastwood

Keeping a promise

Within weeks of the Haiti earthquake, Habitat pledged to help 50,000 families move toward safer, more secure, permanent places to call home by 2015.

In the first year of that pledge, Habitat donors, volunteers and partners ensured that more than 24,500 emergency shelter kits got into the hands of Haitians who needed them the most. The kits included tools and shelter supplies that enabled survivors to clean-up debris, make basic repairs and create emergency shelter for their families. Habitat Haiti staff also conducted more than 12,000 housing-damage assessments to determine which structures should be torn down and which could be saved.

“Haiti still needs you. Prayers, resources, your voice — sustained support is what we’re looking for.” —Claude Jeudy

Since then, more than 5,000 families have received transitional or upgradable shelters. Upgradable shelters feature timber frames, treated walls, tin roofs and concrete perimeter foundations — a structure that can continue to be enhanced as a family’s situation improves. Habitat also has empowered families to complete more than 350 repairs or rehabs.

Habitat quickly realized there were other ways to aid Haiti’s recovery. “Many people here lost almost everything, including their ways to make a living,” says Claude Jeudy, national director of Habitat Haiti. “In a country with more than 80 percent unemployment, we decided to put an emphasis on training skilled laborers here and helping local Haitians get jobs.”

By the end of 2011, more than 4,500 Haitians had been trained in construction or construction business practices, damage assessments, disaster risk-reduction, financial literacy and business development. More than 700 Haitians have found work through Habitat Haiti’s recovery efforts, as well, helping produce, assemble and organize the materials needed for Habitat’s local rebuilding. As the focus shifts to more permanent housing, Haitian workers also assist volunteers in new construction and repair work.

Habitat's pledge to assist 50,000 families was not one made lightly. Habitat has been at work in Haiti for 28 years, but even for veteran organizations, the difficulties in rebuilding have been well-documented. A lack of infrastructure, the slow process of debris removal and the ineffectiveness of local governments have all hampered recovery efforts. Perhaps most significantly, the lack of secure tenure — established land rights so residents don’t live with the fear of eviction — has been hugely problematic in Haiti, where few clear land records existed even before the earthquake.

To address that issue, Habitat is part of the Haiti Property Law Working Group, an initiative that brings together a broad range of representatives from the national government of Haiti, lawyers, notaries, NGOs, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and the Haitian private sector who are involved in property and land title.

A grant from Digicel will allow the working group to create and distribute a manual describing the procedure, both legal and customary, to sell or lease land. The working group has partnered with the University of Quisqueya's Law School, where a group of students are developing the text for the manual under the guidance of notaire and law professor Gilbert Giordani. The draft manual will be circulated among a wider range of stakeholders for comment and validation, and the amended version will be both printed and published online.

The working group will also develop training materials from this manual, which will be used to help run training workshops with public officials, judges and other interested parties around the country. Ultimately, these manuals will help simplify and systematize the process of buying and developing property in Haiti, thereby reducing the risk of doing business and facilitating reconstruction efforts.

These days, Haiti is no longer in the forefront of the news. More than half a million Haitians still live in informal camps, but the international community’s sense of urgency has largely disappeared.

“It’s normal,” Jeudy says. “Every time a disaster happens, people pay attention. But the next disaster comes along and the focus goes somewhere else. It’s an obligation for us, for those who support Habitat’s mission, to say, ‘Hey, Haiti still needs you.’

“The first thing we need is prayers,” he continues. “The second thing is resources. The third thing is your voice. Talk to people about Haiti. Ask them to contribute. Sustained support is what we’re looking for.

Homeowner Jean Louis Merissois, left, and volunteer George Stanton developed a bond while building Merissois’ new house.

Homeowner Jean Louis Merissois, left, and volunteer George Stanton developed a bond while building Merissois’ new house. “I will take your friendship into my new home,” Merissois told Stanton. Photo by Allen Sullivan

‘I will take your friendship into my new home’

Today, the more than 400 volunteers who served in November’s Carter Work Project are back home. In the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Great Britain, Mexico and many other countries, those volunteers are sharing their stories, raising money and convincing others to get involved. Many hope to continue fundraising and return as volunteers to Santo this fall for another weeklong build.

“I think I can say that this week in Haiti is the most important Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project we’ve ever had,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told volunteers last November.

“Every one of us, when we go back, will be ambassadors to tell the world how great the need is here.” —President Carter

“We hope that every one of us, when we go back, will be ambassadors to tell the business world and the political world and the humanitarian world how great the need is here. So that everyone can continue to help the Haitian people have the kind of life that they certainly deserve.”

For many volunteers, the most special part of that beginning was connecting with homeowners while laboring together under the searing Haitian sun. George Stanton helped Jean Louis Merissois build his Santo home. With very few words, the two bonded quickly, exchanging as much information as they could through hand gestures, written drawings and facial expressions. They constantly teamed up to tackle different aspects of the project.

Working in tandem, the two formed an unlikely pair: A stout, bearded, former U.S. Army soldier from Virginia and a slight, bespectacled 48-year-old farmer and carpenter. Nailing roofing sheets together, Stanton worked along the roof’s edge while Merissois navigated the roof’s ridge. When they moved to the house’s front porch, they lifted boards into place together.

Later in the week, the two men sat down on a bench under the dining tent, having secured a translator to learn each other’s stories. Merissois told how he made a living, both as a builder and as a farmer. Before the earthquake, Merissois worked another man’s land and received half of what he cultivated there: corn, beans, rice and sugarcane.

He was in that very field when the earthquake struck, Merissois told Stanton: “I thought the world was ending. I saw the ground shake, and I saw houses fall. I saw my own rental house fall with my own eyes.”

Stanton had his own stories of Haiti. In 1994, as part of a U.S. peacekeeping mission sent to Haiti, Stanton spent most of his time in the country building roads.

“I always remembered how nice the people were and how well they treated us,” he told Merissois, pausing as tears began to descend into his beard. “When I saw the earthquake, my heart broke. I felt very sad. I just wanted to help some way. Coming here was a chance for me to build something else much more permanent.”

Merissois told Stanton he had done that in more ways than he could imagine. “I will move into a new house soon,” Merissois replied, “and I will take your friendship into my new home. You have shown me a lot of true love. You are already my closest brother, my new friend.”

The November week in Haiti marked the 28th annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

The November week in Haiti marked the 28th annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. “I think I can say that this week in Haiti is the most important we’ve ever had,” Jimmy Carter said. Photo by Steffan Hacker

More than homeowners

Back in Leogane’s Santo community, families are turning their new Habitat houses into homes — and sharing their own stories from the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

For Frantzyse Erisma, she remembers the moment she had to say goodbye to all the volunteers who helped build her house. “This is a very sad moment for me right now,” she had told everyone as they gathered in a circle inside her home, holding hands as they dedicated their finished project. “I feel like I am around family, and I have to say goodbye to my family now.

“I love you a lot. You are in my heart, and I will not forget you. I will remember this last time that we are together, and I will think about it so that we remain together in spirit. I know you have made some big sacrifices to be here, leaving your jobs, your families. I will never forget that. I will work here to make this community a good one.”

“I know you made sacrifices to be here. I will never forget that. I will work to make this community a good one.” — Frantzyse Erisma

Today, Erisma is general coordinator of the Women’s Solidarity Association in Santo, an advocacy group made up of women heads-of-household. The group’s mission is to ensure the safety, health and education of women and children in Santo.

The group has given its members confidence that they can influence the direction their new neighborhood takes. “We feel like we are stronger when our voices are brought together,” Erisma says. “The older women, they are good examples for me and many of the younger mothers here. They teach us to share ideas freely, how to raise our children, organize our houses and prepare to live here independently.”

A new home and a newfound sense of purpose already has her thinking of a far different future than the one she imagined when she was living under bed sheets two years ago. Most vividly, she dreams that her daughter Kerry, now 8, will one day attend university. “I tell her I want her to be a doctor,” Erisma says with a laugh, “and she asks me if a doctor can play in movies, too, because she wants to be an actress also!”

Mother and daughter read to each other most days. They have a routine, Erisma says. “I teach her some lessons, and then we play games. She usually teaches me how to play the games. She comes up with some crazy ideas, but that’s ok with me.”

Erisma’s mind still flashes back to the day of the earthquake. By now, though, she is more often able to think about what she has, rather than what has been lost. “What is my most important possession today?” Erisma asks, repeating a question. “I am a mother. I’m very happy about that, more than any other possession.”

Habitat’s work in Haiti continues.

How can you help?

  • Stay updated. Find out how you can raise funds and build homes in Haiti during the 2012 Carter Work Project.
  • Learn more about the Haiti earthquake and Habitat’s recovery program.
  • Donate.
  • Advocate on behalf of Haitian families in need of permanent housing.

Thank you for all you do to help Habitat help Haiti!

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