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As hurricane season beckons, politics stymie relocation efforts

The most obvious sign that big changes are afoot inside the camp at Eglise Wesleyenne is the sign itself.

A huge new banner screened with the words "Renaissance Jacmelienne New York Inc." now trumps the homemade cardboard signs listing the aid groups that have helped families living in the camp over the past few months.

Renaissance Jacmelienne New York Inc., is the new official name of the camp, but it can be a mouthful, so RJNY has become the handle.

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Just saying it out loud brings a smile so wide to Midi Jackson's lips that, for a moment, it obscures the bleariness clouding his eyes after another rainy, sleepless night and a long morning spent shovelling gravel to sop up the watery gullies that formed between tents.

Although Mr. Jackson and his comrades have grown more adept at navigating the complicated web of aid groups servicing needy people in Jacmel, conditions in their tiny camp, which houses 78 families, had been getting worse, not better.

Ringworm is rampant among the camp's little boys; a mother of two in her 20s died of an asthma attack because there was no medication for her, and lice were found stuck to the eyelashes of two young girls.



At one point, water trucks had failed to show up with a delivery for more than three weeks because drivers were feuding over pay. With the camp cisterns dry and the water bladder tank empty, Mr. Jackson began leading groups of residents on daily trips to Jacmel's muddy river. They fill up buckets and wheelbarrows to supplement the rainwater they collect each night to use for cooking and drinking, even though they have no way to purify it.

In the midst of the water crisis, the camp also received word from the World Food Program that free food donations were tapering down; if residents wanted to continue receiving supplies of rice, beans and oil they would have to sign up for work-for-food programs that reward rubble-clearers with food payouts at the end of two weeks' work.

The problem with those programs, Mr. Jackson said, is that they're not sustainable: people want to do more than shovel rubble in a job that will feed their families only for a few weeks.

And if most men join the program, he found himself wondering, who will help him figure out how to relocate the camp, which remains in grave danger of flooding when the rainy season picks up?

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The answer, he now knows, is the original architects of RJNY Inc.

A group of Jacmel-born New Yorkers with roots in the city, the U.S.-incorporated charity made its second post-earthquake trip to Jacmel recently. They first visited the group living at Eglise Wesleyenne shortly after the earthquake, having discovered them on a walk through one of the most ruined neighbourhoods in the city.



The group's founders, all of whom are linked by blood or marriage, promised they would bring back real help. And they did, toting 44 suitcases crammed with supplies and a shiny new RJNY banner, which they handed over to Mr. Jackson and other leaders of the camp as a symbol of the organization's adoption of all of 292 camp residents, big and small.

Bearing stethoscopes (some members are nurses) and shovels, the group then began methodically assessing the needs of the camp on a host of metrics, ranging from health to shelter, so they could make the most of their week in Jacmel.

"I tell them we have taken this on for life," said Marcie Dubûche-Lhérisson, co-founder and president of RJNY. "We're going to teach them how to sustain themselves, how they can get jobs … and we have said they are responsible for continuing the process," she said.

Such a direct approach, she said, might have been off-putting to camp residents if RJNY didn't have Haitian roots, which are "a big, big deal."

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"Foreigners don't know the way of life as we do," she said. "We know how to speak Creole … and because we're here, it makes it way easier."

Maybe not way easier.

Dayana Oriol-Bistoury, a co-founder and determined secretary of the group, spent a good chunk of her time arguing with Jacmel city hall, where she told her cousin, the Mayor Edo Zenny, the camp urgently needed permission to relocate to higher ground.

"We came specifically to move them," Ms. Oriol-Bistoury said of the group's trip. "Edo says there is no land to move them to. We have land in our family," she said, flashing a Cheshire grin before explaining her family decided they wanted to give away a chunk of land they have no plans for near Jacmel's airport.

However, they were told their altruism would do no good.

"But we were advised by our attorney," she said, slowing to vocally underline the word, "that if we were to move them [the camp], it would look like a political statement."

The subject of relocating camps of displaced people in Jacmel has become a highly politicized issue as hurricane season nears, given the scarcity of available land. Because of the supply issue and fears that perceptions of favouritism could ignite uprisings, the city has worked to limit exclusive relocation opportunities such as the one RJNY offered to the camp.

The group was told, however, that they have the mayor's blessing to "build a proper village" for the camp on their land in the long term, something they were already planning to do.

"Edo said go ahead, it's your land. You can do whatever you want on your land," Ms. Oriol-Bistoury said. "If we move them now, it's political. But if we build houses for them, it's different," she said, shrugging.

"It's like every time you turn a corner to try to do something better, there's something blocking us, and so these people have to suffer," Ms. Dubûche-Lhérisson said. She spent most of her week trying to coral a dozen truckloads of gravel the group ordered for the camp site in the hope spreading it over the yard would create enough elevation to reduce flooding in tents and help with drainage after heavy rains.

After several days of work – just hours before RJNY's Long Island crew threw a surprise party for camp residents – it was hard to tell if the effort was going to pay off.

"I just hope we really are going to make a difference," Ms. Dubûche-Lhérisson sighed.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Before taking on the global food beat, Jessica reported extensively from Haiti to document the nation's recovery from a catastrophic earthquake that struck in January, 2010. The resulting multimedia series, Project Jacmel, won a National Newspaper Award. Jessica has also reported from Afghanistan. More

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