‘I don’t see my mum’: Haiti’s earthquake leaves new generation of orphans

By Joe Parkin Daniels in Les Cayes
Children line up to receive food aid at the refugee camp in Les Cayes, Haiti
Children line up to receive food aid at a refugee camp in Les Cayes, a week after the earthquake hit Haiti. Photograph: Matias Delacroix/AP

Lilian, six years old and alone, still asks when her mother will return from the market on the edge of Les Cayes in southern Haiti.

When last month’s earthquake struck, Lilian was at home, occasionally checked on by her neighbours as her mother, Genieve, was selling fruit a few blocks away. When the ground began to convulse, the market partly collapsed. Genieve was hit by falling concrete and buried under rubble. Her death has left Lilian without anyone to care for her.

“I don’t see my mum,” Lilian would repeat, according to Ketia Loraus, 40, a social worker who has been overseeing her case. “It was heartbreaking to hear her say that.”

The human tragedy of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake has yet to be fully counted. More than 2,200 people died and 30,000 homes were destroyed across towns and villages still cut off from relief workers. Hundreds are missing, and survivors suspect many will never be found. Tropical Storm Grace, arriving two days later, only piled on the misery.

Amid the carnage, an unknown number of children such as Lilian – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – have been separated from their parents and caregivers, who were either killed or disappeared.

“Most stay at a neighbour’s house, or in a makeshift shelter,” says Loraus, at a school on the outskirts of Les Cayes, a port badly affected by the earthquake.

A girl checks her cell phone in front her house destroyed by the 7.2 earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti
A girl checks her phone in Les Cayes as she sits among the ruins of her home, which was destroyed in August’s earthquake. Photograph: Orlando Barría/EPA

Loraus is working with AVSI, an Italian charity, to provide psychological support for children who survived the disaster. “There’s at least 15 children whose parents haven’t been located that have passed through here today.”

Lilian was at first taken in by a neighbour, whose young daughter was injured in the earthquake and remains in hospital, then sent to an uncle.

Social workers say the authorities are unlikely to resolve anything quickly, given that the limited resources they had before have been depleted by the earthquake. Relief workers have also reported more children on their own.

Ketia Loraus, a social worker
Ketia Loraus, a social worker, says: ‘There’s at least 15 children whose parents haven’t been located that have passed through here today.’
Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels

“These cases are practically normal now, we’re always finding them,” Loraus says, as a group of young children play behind her, singing in a circle. “In the hospitals, there’s kids being treated without knowing where their parents are. When we go to shelters, we see kids looking for food, again separated from their families.”

The risks for unaccompanied children in Haiti are myriad. Street gangs are always on the lookout for young recruits, while distant relatives who end up caring for them could put them to work, begging or selling on the streets. Girls are at particular risk of suffering sexual violence.

In Haiti, children often choose to flee disaster zones, and wider insecurity and poverty, alone. After Hurricane Matthew ravaged southern Haiti in 2016, leaving 546 people dead and causing $2.8bn (£2bn) damage, rights groups saw a marked increase in unaccompanied children moving to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s chaotic capital.

One shelter on the border with the Dominican Republic – with which Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola – said that more young boys arrived in the months after that disaster. The earthquake that struck the capital in 2010, killing 220,000 people, also triggered a wave of child migration.

Complicating the response for vulnerable children is the damage sustained by so many of the region’s schools. In Camp Perrin, a town 13 miles from Les Cayes, the Immaculate Mary school, run by missionaries since it was founded in 1945 and with 900 pupils at the time of the earthquake, was completely destroyed.

“We have no idea when we will open again, we have to rebuild from scratch,” says Jean-Pierre Loubeau, 60, one of the school’s governors, as a group of volunteers works to shift the rubble. After working frantically in the scorching sun, some take breaks sitting on salvaged school desks.

“Whenever we open our classrooms again, that’s when we’ll know the extent of how many separated kids we’re dealing with,” says Loubeau, who like other teachers has been sleeping in his car since the earthquake damaged his home. “The kids will need somewhere to go, because they are at great risk of exploitation if they don’t.”

The schools that survived are closed for the summer holidays, which have been pushed back at least a week to allow communities more time to reckon with the disaster. But when they open again, survivors who have been sheltering in the buildings will have to be evicted.

A worker assesses the damage to the Lycee Phillipe Guerrier after the earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti.
A worker assesses damage to the Lycée Phillipe Guerrier in Les Cayes. The earthquake destroyed or wrecked at least 300 schools in Haiti. Photograph: Richard Pierrin/AFP/Getty

“It is so crucial for children who have just gone through this traumatic earthquake-plus-extreme weather experience, to have the normalcy and stability of being in a classroom with their friends and teachers,” says Bruno Maes, Unicef’s representative in Haiti, after visiting a damaged school in Mazenod, near Les Cayes, in the days after the disaster.

More than 300 schools across the three quake-struck provinces in Haiti’s south were destroyed or partly damaged, affecting 100,000 pupils and teachers, according to the UN agency.

Meanwhile, children are at risk of going hungry. There are 4.4 million people in the country of 11.5 million deemed to be “food insecure”, with 1.9 million children believed to be among them.

“People aren’t going to have anywhere to go, so the kids will look for aid from charities,” says Loraus, as a lorry of aid passes by on the road outside the school without stopping.

“Every time there’s a natural disaster in Haiti – and there’s a lot of them – it’s always the kids who suffer most.”


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