By Ellie Matthews
Théogène Mie Michèle is 22 and volunteers as a British Red Cross community-based health and first aid team leader, raising awareness about the risks of diseases such as cholera, malaria and tuberculosis in her area of La Piste Camp, Port-au-Prince.
The camp is home to at least 40,000 people and the health and first aid programme is designed to reach the entire camp community. As part of the programme, two facilitators from each block of the camp were selected to train three more volunteers. These three volunteers trained another 15 volunteers, who in turn will train 40 households each until the whole camp is covered.
Mie Michèle is one of those most active volunteers in the largest camp in Port-au-Prince, and was one of the first volunteers to be trained in first aid, and health and hygiene promotion.
A chance to help my fellow Haitians
Mie Michèle says: “This is a chance for me to help my fellow Haitians, those who have been suffering under these tents for almost two years, to help those who face various health problems without even realising it, or when accidents happen. For example, if a child is injured while playing, I can be there to help instantly, before his parents are able to take him to the hospital.”
Despite the challenges that volunteers face, Mie spends three days a week walking from tent to tent to raise awareness in the community,. Mie says: “People living in La Piste Camp come from a different social background. We have to make huge efforts to get this information through to them. Sometimes people refuse to listen to us when we go to their tents to speak to them.”
Coping with poverty and insecurity
Dr Vieux Manoucheka, programme manager, says that the poverty in the camp causes the most communication problems: “People are more worried about finding food to eat than in the health messages from the volunteers. And at the end of the day, the volunteers also live in the camp and are facing the same problems, although their determination to help their community comes first and foremost.”
Another big problem that volunteers face is the insecurity in the camp. “The camp is very dangerous,” Mie explains. “People are murdered every day, there are armed gangs, and we are afraid to walk through the camp in case we bump into them. They could rob us or even rape us. We sacrifice a lot to volunteer in this camp. Community-based health and first aid volunteers are exposed to all these threats because we are always walking around from tent to tent.”
However, Mie believes that because the British Red Cross is willing to help everyone in the camp people view volunteers in a better light. “This ensures our security a little,” she says.
Despite all of the work of the British Red Cross in the camp, people in La Piste Camp – including Mie Michèle – still face enormous difficulties. Before the earthquake, Mie lived in Cité Militaire with her family, near La Piste. The earthquake totally destroyed their house and they moved into tents. Since then, the conditions in the camp have made Mie’s mother constantly ill, and she sometimes has to go to live with friends elsewhere. This meant that Mie was often alone in her tent and has ended up moving in with her boyfriend for safety.
Volunteers are best placed to serve their community
According to Dr Vieux, volunteers who come from the camp are the best placed to serve their community: “Camp residents have more knowledge around health problems in the camp and therefore they can much better serve the population with health care and first aid. They are living in the community and so they know the way to address these issues with people, which would be almost impossible for an outsider to do.”
Mie Michèle firmly believes that her work is having a positive impact on the life of the community: “I’m addicted to this job of helping this poor community that suffers from all kinds of terrible problems. People in the camp do not realize they are slowly dying because they don’t do anything to prevent diseases. Poverty blinds them.
“However, thanks to our work with the British Red Cross no one is dying any longer of cholera or any other epidemic, so I feel that despite the difficulties, my work is having a positive impact and my objective is being achieved.”