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Porter: Haiti clinics flush with supplies as children go hungry
January 30 , 2010


Two-year-old Jonatha sits with a volunteer at a makeshift medical clinic near the Port-au-Prince airport. She was rescued from the rubble of her home six days after the earthquake.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - I went to see Jonatha again today. She is the 2-year-old girl who was plucked from the rubble of her home six days after the devastating earthquake and brought to a make-shift medical clinic near the airport. It’s very likely her parents are dead.

I found her sitting on a mattress eating macaroni and cheese and singing to herself under a tree while volunteers looked over her.

Despite the trauma she has been through, she is safe and happy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is there are another 50 Haitian orphans arriving at the clinic’s jerry-rigged gates every day, desperate for food. And there is a line 30 women deep, most holding babies sick with fever, diarrhea and rashes from living on the street. They are hungry too.

“This is literally all we can give you,” says John Bopp, handing a fistful of powdered formula and the clinic’s third-from-last baby bottle to 38-year-old Jojette Joseph. Her son is three — well past drinking formula. But she is desperate and takes it. Her husband broke his back in the quake, and she has four children to feed.

The once-barren clinic is now flush with supplies, most of which were flown in last weekend by Air Canada, after COO Duncan Dee heard on television the gut-wrenching screams of victims undergoing operations here without anesthetic. As a result, there’s a line of donated tents that serve as hospital rooms for the trauma patients, stockpiles of antibiotics and bandages. The problem is, two weeks after the earthquake, few trauma patients are arriving to hospitals anymore. In there place are mothers with dehydrated and feverish children.

“We are inundated with surgery supplies. It’s the basics we don’t have,” says Bopp, a fourth-year university student from Massachusetts who dropped his political science courses to fly here to help. “We don’t have Baby Tylenol, but we have 2,000 disposable insulin syringes. What are we going to do with that? We don’t have insulin and if we did, there isn’t refrigeration.”

The bags of rice, purified water and medical help are being delivered across the city. Just not enough. It’s a question of quantity. About 1 million people lost their homes in the quake and many are living in crowded camps around town or on the streets now. Only 283,000 have been fed, according to the UN.

A boy scout leader arrived in uniform the other day with tears in his eyes. His 20 scouts hadn’t eaten for two days.

“They are hungry,” says Gladys Pigris, watching over the children she shuttled from her nearby orphanage as they scarf back macaroni and cheese. There are 35 of them, although she oversees 50 children. That’s all that could squeeze in the back of a Toyota truck, she says.

“All three rooms of the orphanage were devastated,” she says. “We used to receive aid from the community. Now, no one can help.”

Among the crowd of giggling girls are two young boys who stand apart, together. They are newly orphaned. Their parents were killed in the earthquake.

The city is rife with stories like these. Before Jan. 12, there were about 380,000 children living in orphanages across Haiti, according to the UN Children’s Fund. Now, there are more than 600,000. Each day, UNICEF teams search the make-shift settlements littering the city in search of newly orphaned children. Concerned they might be kidnapped and sold, the organization has set up safe houses.

Two members arrived here yesterday, looking for Jonatha. The volunteers wouldn’t let her go.

“They didn’t have identification,” explains José Gonzales, a French fisherman volunteering at the clinic. “We can’t give her to anyone.” Rich irony.

A Mexican psychologist tells me she is doing much better. Jonatha spent the first week here curled in a ball, not talking. Now she talks, plays and sleeps soundly, he says. She also eats non-stop, squealing when he tries to remove her second serving.

“She needs parents now,” says Jaime Leal. “She needs a good role model.”

He leads me down the street behind the clinic to see where all the food comes from. Women stream from the textile factories that reopened last Monday. Many grab my hands, asking for food, medicine, tents.

Two armed UN guards let us pass into a caravan of catering trucks servicing hospitals. Just beyond them, a small Canadian flag flutters from a tree branch. Under a tarp behind it, five turbaned men grate ginger and wash kidney beans around a plastic table. They are all from Brampton, volunteering with the international charitable organization Sikhs United.

“These people really need help,” says Sarvinder Singh, a truck driver.

They arrived about 10 days ago with giant pots and pantry loads of rice to feed the city. Since then, they’ve served up to 2500 meals a day – 100 of them to the orphans and hungry children at clinic.

“God gave us a lot,” says Singh. “Why wouldn’t we share with somebody who has nothing?”

The relief system might not be working yet in Haiti. But the human spirit is.

Another Air Canada flight is set to touch down this Saturday. This time, the plane will be loaded with food, tents, children’s Tylenol, and skipping ropes for the orphanage.

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