International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Haiti, one year after the earthquake - reuniting children and families

It's been nearly a year since I first arrived in Haiti to help lead the International Rescue Committee's efforts to reunite children and families who were separated by the 2010 earthquake. Many thousands of children lost their parents in the disaster, and thousands more lost contact with their living relatives in the chaos that followed.

The IRC went to work immediately following the quake, collaborating with the Haitian government and a network of international and local organizations to identify, find and register these separated children, to train Haitian social workers in family tracing, and to begin the complex, painstaking job of tracking down and reuniting these separated families.

One year later we've managed to reunify more than 1300 children with their families, and one year later I continue to be deeply impressed with the courage displayed by Haiti's youngest citizens.

It has been a particularly difficult year to be a child in Haiti. These young girls and boys have suffered the unspeakable horror of the earthquake, the hardship of separation from their families, and increased vulnerability to exploitation and abuse -- and now they find themselves in the midst of a cholera outbreak.

At the same time, it's also been a year where I've observed the astonishing courage of Haiti's young people. They are not passive victims -- they have shown tremendous resourcefulness in seeking to overcome traumatic events, improve their situation, and embrace life and enjoy being children again. In my work, I have met young children who have removed themselves from abusive situations, and have often been active in trying to find their own families.

One child tracing case in particular sticks out in my memory. It must have been sometime last April when we first met this young girl, Sabine*, 11 years old. She had been separated from her parents during the earthquake and had no idea how to find them again. Keep in mind that many children her age and younger don't know their own addresses, or have difficulty navigating the complex network of public taxis, called tap-taps, that move around the capital, Port-au-Prince. So, tracking down a child's old home can sometimes involve a great deal of detective work -- if they remember the name of a favorite teacher, or a nearby landmark, or any other detail, no matter how small, it helps our search.

In the chaos following the earthquake Sabine was taken in by a stranger, who at first promised to help care for her -- but the situation quickly turned abusive. She was physically and verbally maltreated by this woman and was forced into domestic servitude. Yet somehow this little girl, who was completely alone and who had already dealt with so much personal trauma, found the courage to run away.

She wandered the streets of Port-au-Prince asking people to help her find her parents, and eventually she managed to convince one woman to take her to a police station. IRC case workers had already stopped in at this police station and so the officers knew to call us straight away.

We did eventually find Sabine's parents -- still alive and very much overjoyed to find that she was alive as well. It was wonderful to see the pieces fall into place, and wonderful to see this courageous little girl take so much bold initiative in trying to find her family. I ask myself if I would have had the courage to do the same thing aged 11. You cannot imagine the joy of a parent who thought their son or daughter had perished suddenly being told that their child is alive and well, or the relief of a child when they first climb back into their mother or father's embrace.

This has also been a year where we've seen the overwhelming generosity and selflessness of the Haitian community, who have taken in so many of these separated children -- many as complete strangers -- and cared for them as their own. For every case of exploitation or abuse, you find other cases of people who have opened up their homes to these vulnerable little ones, with no assistance or compensation of any kind, and agreed to raise them in the absence of their parents.

I'm continually humbled by that spirit of generosity.

*Sabine is a pseudonym. Her name has been changed for her protection.

This post was first published in the Huffington Post  on January 12, 2011.  To learn more about the IRC's work in Haiti and how you can help, visit Rescue.org/haiti.

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