Inside the refugee camps, resilient people leave an indelible impression

Quang TruongQuang TruongOne month after my trip to Haiti, I am discovering that I possess more memories about the trip than I knew I had.

I keep recalling a woman from a refugee camp that showed me the inside her home. Cramped and sweltering, her tiny area was bathed in a faint blue, emanating from the tarps that made up her walls. Her roof was nothing more than bed sheets held up with stakes, and two bare mattresses, one used by her and the other for her three children, were the only furniture to speak of. This was the entirety her life and the lives of her children – just bed sheets, 2 mattresses and the faint blue glow from the tarps.

Most images people see nowadays about Haiti are of its destruction - high aerial shots of ruined buildings in Port-au-Prince, famed monuments desecrated by Mother Nature, and who can forget the iconic pictures of the National Palace torn asunder? But all the images from my memory are of its people: portraits of the hundreds of refugees I met in Haiti. They are mental snapshots that I took during my trip that are only now beginning to be processed.

Memories I have of fallen buildings do not affect me nearly as much as my memories of people. I remember driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince and counting one for every five buildings completely torn to the ground. The amount of debris scattered all over the city was devastating - but after looking at so much rubble, the initial shock goes away. I began seeing the images in front of me only literally - as rocks on the ground rather than remnants of homes that once stood, as if a mental wall was created between eye and emotion. Seeing refugees in their day to day lives was a completely different experience. Unlike rubble, witnessing rows and rows of human beings huddled in tents, grounded my emotions entirely to what my eyes saw. I was pulled into the lives of the people before me, and the stark nakedness of their desperation became so plainly revealed, that I could not possibly look away. It is these pictures that have stored themselves into the back of my mind, and emerge as new memories long after I’ve left.

Haiti is now home to 1.2 million additional homeless since the January 12th quake. They start new lives miles from their former abodes – on the side of a road, sitting against a barren hillside or in one of the many tent cities that have emerged the last few months. Like the woman that showed me her home, most of these dwellings are the same – rudimentary structures built of stakes and tarp, bunched next to each other by the thousands.

Camp CorrailCamp Corrail

But one refugee camp was completely different from the rest. Camp Corrail, which sits just a few miles outside the capital city, was this place. It is managed by the U.N. peacekeeping force MINUSTAH and houses approximately six thousand people. Unlike other camps I had been to, this tent city was immaculate. All the tents were the same color, a pure and dazzling white. All of them had the same half-pipe shape, were the same pre-fabricated size, and all were laid out in perfect rows and columns with the spaces in between almost resembling streets. There were latrines placed evenly as well as large water bladders distributed to provide the dwellers of this little village a constant source of water. The tents even had addresses! The one-thousand odd homes were split up into 6 sections, then given number and letter designations, so that you could walk down to Section 3, Unit G4, then to Unit G5, then Unit G6 and so on, taking a stroll through the world’s poorest neighborhood.

But I will never forget how much the neatness - the near perfected town center look - of Corrail frightened me. To me, it said something I wasn't fully ready to admit. Unlike the shabby mismatched assembly of all the other tent cities I had been to previously, the effort put behind the rows and columns of white tents showed an almost unwilling desire to last. Whereas other tent cities gave forth an air of hopeful ephemerality, Corrail had accepted the sad truth. It said to me, "we are here to stay".

I left Haiti on May 14th to return to Boson. The hundreds of people I met and millions of refugees still living in camps do not get the same chance; only their images leave, stowaways aboard the edges of my memory. As for the people themselves, all they can do is wait and hope. Hope that the reconstruction comes about soon. Hope that tomorrow brings rescue. Hope that in their greatest moment of need, their precious lives will not be forgotten.

~Q.D. Truong lives in Boston. He is now volunteering to help identify candidates for humanitarian parole working with a non-profit association of US-based attorneys.