A U.S. Government-funded e-voucher scheme is the only source of food for thousands of desperate Haitian families. We meet one young mother who is stubbornly clinging on to hope in the face of adversity.

On the edge and at the epicenter

About a mile from the end of the runway at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, you’ll find the home of Brunia Benjamin. It’s just inside the perimiter of what’s often referred to as “the biggest slum in the western hemisphere” (the technical term is Informal Urban Settlement.)

destroyed houses in haitilaundry in cite soleil haitiA street in cite soleil haiti
Cité Soleil is a diverse and lively section of Port-au-Prince, but has few public services like running water, electricty, or a sewage system. Photos: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

However you describe this city-within-a-city, Cité Soleil is a diverse and vibrant place that's home to hundreds of thousands of people. Brunia’s family have had a presence here spanning three generations. “We are living in this neighborhood for a long time — since my mother was little, she has lived in this place.”

a haitian woman in her home
Brunia Benjamin at her home. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

Most residents, or their forebears, migrated here from rural Haiti in search of opportunity and prosperity — the very ideals envisioned by those who followed Toussaint Louverture in the fight for Haitian independence from France, some two centuries ago.

Today, that vision seems a distant one. Haiti is beset by economic meltdown, political failure, and cyclical gang violence. Cité Soleil is at the epicenter.

Flood waters and food shortages

Brunia’s family live in a two-room concrete block structure, topped by a tin roof which, mostly, keeps out the torrential downpours that come with each rainy season. But it’s not the water coming from overhead that’s the biggest worry, rather the festering floodwaters that rise sometimes as high as their knees. Cité Soleil is squeezes between the mountains and the sea, and much of the runoff from the city — along with its accompanying garbage and effluent — comes through here. Brunia tells us “there is still water in the house and all our stuff is still wet” from the most recent incident.

“When it rains, we don’t sleep — we spend the night up.”

This tiny damp dwelling is currently home to 10 family members, mostly women and young children, including Brunia’s months-old baby boy. At 21, she is the de-facto head of the family. Her sister, still a teenager, is heavily pregnant and will most likely give birth right here in this room. There are a few pieces of furniture and two beds, one of which is nothing more than a couple of pallets sitting on concrete blocks.

Concern Worldwide staff member in Cite Soleil Haiti
Concern is one of a few organizations with a presence in Cité Soleil. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

Despite their best efforts, the household has no current source of income. “My brother, who was helping us, died in the July 10th shootings,” Brunia explains tearfully. “He was a taxi-moto driver.” The incident happened on a nearby stretch of road running through an area of no-mans-land between two gang-controlled territories. Moving around here is treacherous, but sometimes there’s no other option. Some of the children have been sent to live with relatives elsewhere, because of the constant danger.

Food is a huge problem.

Almost as bad as it gets

It’s a startling fact that tens of thousands of people in Cité Soleil are currently categorized as living one step removed from famine. Brunia says her family’s situation following the death of her brother became desperate. “After that, things got worse for us. We didn’t have anything to eat. When there are clashes, we have to leave the area very quickly and the person we stay with doesn’t have any food to share.”

A community outreach worker, Ernancy Bien-Aimé, discovered their plight and connected Brunia with the local Concern Worldwide team. They run a U.S. Government funded program known as Manje Pi Byen (“Eat Better” in Haitain Creole.) “It’s a two-year, $2 million emergency intervention aimed at supporting extremely vulnerable families to meet their food needs,” explains Serge Turin, Food Security Manager for Concern in Haiti. “We’ve designed an e-voucher system that allows 4,000 households to access a selection of high-quality foods from local market vendors.”

an e-payment card in haitifood at a market in Haiti

A lifeline

Brunia holds the small white card that she says is their only lifeline in these troubled times. “It’s thanks to this we have something to eat,” she says. Once a month, she goes to the local market and exchanges her $95 credit for a variety of food items designed to provide 1,470 kilocalories per person per day. Aside from the basics like rice, beans, flour, and oil, a portion of the food basket is set aside for nutrition-rich items like fresh fruit and vegetables. Brunia says it’s a balancing act trying to keep the extended family fed and healthy.

“We try to manage it in a way so we cannot waste it, we carefully measure the quantity to cook.”

Serge Turin explains that there are other elements to Manje Pi Byen, beyond emergency food assistance. “We’re really trying to help underpin the local markets and suppliers by delivering this assistance through a network of vendors within Cité Soleil. They benefit from the fees, and that money stays within the community.” There is, he says, also a specific focus on supporting women, at both household and market level. “By using the voucher system rather than cash it removes some of the pressures women might face from domestic partners or family members who might not carry the everyday burden of feeding the family.” Concern has also also been working with female market traders to help reinforce their capacities and be in a position to become accredited vendors.

a concern staff member with a market vendor in Haiti
Concern's Sadrac Antoine with Justal Ernice, a small trader who is a registered vendor for the USAID-funded Manje Pi Byen program. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

Brunia Benjamin does not know what the future holds for her extended household but, despite everything, she resolutely retains a sense of optimism. “There is a saying among older people that goes ‘If your head has not yet been cut off, you can hope to wear a hat’. I believe that as long as we are breathing, there is hope and things will certainly get better someday.”

For now, she says, survival will do.

a community worker with one of her clients in Haiti
Ernancy Bien-Aimé with Brunia at her home. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

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