Light in darkness of Cité Soleil
By Orla Ryan, Financial Times
December 26, 2012
Five of Pierre Jean Duclaire’s friends from primary school have died because of gang violence in Cité Soleil, a slum in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince notorious for gun use, kidnappings and poverty.
“They died young. They could have been good people. They could have finished their studies like I did,” he says.
But the softly spoken 19-year old, known as Delto, was luckier than other young people in the slum who fell into violence.
“Because of lack of money, they have chosen to go into a gang to do bad things and kidnap people … They could not go to school, their parents did not have enough money … Me fortunately, I went to school because of this programme.”
This year about 150 young people will benefit from a scholarship from Sakala (Pax Christi Ayiti), a sports and education programme backed by the Global Fund for Children, which funds grassroots organisations who work with vulnerable children and is the Financial Time’s partner in this year’s Seasonal Appeal.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Haiti was left devastated by a 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 300,000 people and rendered many more homeless. Even before the earthquake, life wasn’t easy for people in Cité Soleil, its houses jammed with a young and uneducated population.
Built to accommodate workers for the capital’s sweatshops, Cité Soleil grew quickly, but lacked schools or facilities for its youth. As gang violence escalated, life in the slum, a bastion of support for former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, became dangerous. After his departure in 2004, UN troops made several raids in Cité Soleil, battling the slum’s ganglords.
Though the worst of the violence is over, young people in the slum remain vulnerable to influence by charismatic gang leaders, says Daniel Tillias, who set up Sakala in 2006. Now he hopes through education and sports to build a culture of peace in the slum he grew up in.
Mr Tillias left Cité Soleil at the age of 15 – his mother fearing he would become embroiled in the violence that had seen some friends killed or jailed – but returned later to work as a translator and fixer for journalists keen to document Cité Soleil’s violence. During that time, a young widower offered his newborn baby to a visiting journalist – an act so desperate that it prompted Mr Tillias to think about how he could improve life for young people in the slum. “We feared kids would fall victim of the street,” he says.
A sports project made sense, he said, because the violence stopped whenever there was international football match on the television. “That is an inspiration, why don’t we use sport?” he asks.
Now every day kids pile into the Sakala centre built on the site of a disused sweatshop for after-school tutoring, football or table tennis. On a “wall of dreams”, they write their ambitions and sign and date them. Nearby there is a garden, where the tyres that Cité Soleil rioters once burnt in the street are now planted with spinach, basil and okra.
The youth centre – which Mr Tillias says is the only sports facility in Cité Soleil – offers a refuge for young people who have no place else to go. Even gang leaders have brought their children to Sakala, Mr Tillias says, hoping to give them a better chance in life. When violence was bad, says Delto, a Christian, “Sakala was a place where there was peace”. Dieuseul, a volunteer teacher who declined to give his second name, said: “It is where the 34 districts of Cité Soleil come together.”
Cité Soleil still suffers from “no investment, no money, no research”, Mr Tillias complains as he walks through its streets, shaking the hands of everyone he meets. The canal that crosses Cité Soleil is jammed with tyres, plastic bags rusted metal bottles and other rubbish.
Most NGOs, he says, are wary of putting their money into Cité Soleil, fearing engagement with such a notorious slum. Those that do often fail to listen to the people there.
“NGOs think of themselves first, not the priorities or needs of people they want to serve,” he says. The advantage of GFC, which has given Sakala more than $30,000 since 2010, is that instead of telling Mr Tillias what to do, they asked him how they could help.
Tired of facing stigma every time they leave the slum, people in Cité Soleil realise that they are the only ones can bring change, he says.
“If the streets are not clean, and we wait for [others to do it] we will wait forever,” he said. Their experience should offer hope for people elsewhere in Haiti. “We need to show people it is possible. People think Cité Soleil is a place of war, if you can do it here, you can do it everywhere.”
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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.