What Makes a House a Home?

by Medair | Medair - Switzerland
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 09:39 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As an aid worker, I live a very transitory life, moving frequently between places and people. My life needs to fit into a 23-kilogram bag. In Haiti, Medair’s work has been all about the need for safe shelter, for housing, for places where people can lay their heads at night, places where they can feel safe and secure. It gets me thinking about what makes a place or a house into a home. A few months ago my Facebook status read: “Possible definition of home: somewhere you have a bed that you call your own.” Back in 2009, I travelled on horseback into some of Afghanistan’s most remote and impoverished mountain villages, asking the women who lived there what they needed to better support their families and live better lives. Many told me it was the first time anyone had taken the time to ask them that question. Later that same year, I flew to Medair’s Swiss headquarters in Ecublens, where I worked across the lake from a different set of mountains, the French Alps. And then, on 12 January 2010, the deadly earthquake struck and I was on the move again. ###IMAGE_1###Sleeping on the Streets At Medair, we talk about walking alongside people in the countries where we work. This year in Haiti, I wanted to embody that in a literal sense, to be better able to understand and present the voice of the people who call this country home. In those first days and weeks after the quake, I spent countless hours talking with people who had suddenly lost their homes, people who were now living on the streets. In Jacmel, I slept alongside homeless mothers and their children and felt how their vulnerability became more magnified in the darkness. All year, I have held those experiences close to my heart. They have motivated me to keep going with this programme to build back homes. Living in the Camps As people started moving into tent cities and camps, I met families of eight to 12 people, all cramped into tiny spaces. Each family had one single camp bed to share among themselves. Thin plastic sheeting divided their households into spaces slightly larger than cattle stalls. Spending time in the camps, I knew that people living there day and night were living the very opposite of comfort or security. They lived with zero privacy, amid disturbing noises, horrible smells, and the fear of rape. The families I came to know living in the camps did not call those places their home. They wanted to return home but their houses had been destroyed. From Shelters to Homes Over the year, Medair has built thousands of transitional shelters for families to live in. These transitional shelters have solid foundations, a metal roof, timber-framed walls, and durable plastic sheeting secured tightly to the frame. Every one of our beneficiaries in transitional shelters stayed safe and dry during the high winds and rain of Hurricane Tomas. And in time, these shelters can be upgraded into more permanent houses. As we have built more and more shelters for families here, I have met more and more families who have expressed how happy they are to be “back home.” Even though the shelters are transitional and need improvements to become permanent, families are still calling them “home.” So what makes a place or a house into a home?  I started asking our beneficiaries this very question, and this is what I heard: “Having our friends come round to visit!” answered one family. “Holding the reception party here after my First Communion,” said a 16-year-old girl. “Sleeping soundly through a storm,” was a popular answer. But one answer struck me in particular: “Giving birth here.” ###IMAGE_2_LEFT###A Home Birth Willianna lives with her family in a transitional shelter in La Croix. When all they had was a tent, her father Gideon sent the pregnant Willianna to live in Jacmel. But once their shelter was built, he called all his family back to the new house so they could live together again, and the daughter could be comfortable and give birth at the house. Baby Miriam was born three days before the hurricane hit. Despite the storm, all the family were safe, secure, and felt at home. Last month, her family welcomed me to stay overnight with them in the shelter. I can honestly say it felt like home. In the candlelight of the evening, the children did their homework, the women braided the girls’ hair, and there was a warmth in the air that only families at home can create. I slept well there that night. Looking Ahead To anyone watching the drama of this year unfold here in Haiti, you would be forgiven for thinking that an earthquake, followed by a hurricane, followed by a cholera epidemic was extraordinary. But this is a country that has become accustomed to disaster. Yet what shines through is the resilience of the people who live here, and the hope that they retain. As a team, we are continually amazed that people here are still willing and able to invest so much love into relationships with us and into their passion for their country. The determination and desire for a better future is a goal shared by both national and international staff and by the community around us. After 12 months, Medair has provided 1,937 shelters, housing 11,622 people, and other NGOs are also making progress. As our work continues with our ongoing construction programme, we are also presenting plans for future projects to new donors for 2011. For now, my heart remains with those still in the camps, as we continue to work with determination to bring thousands more people into the comfort and safety of home. To read more about Gideon, Willianna, and Miriam, please read our new feature story, “Safe Place for a Baby.” Medair’s private donors empowered Medair to launch what has become a significant rehabilitation programme for the people of Haiti. Today, Medair’s transitional shelter programme in Haiti is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Medair Haiti programme is also supported by Läkarmissionen, ICAP Charity Day, and by private donors. Medair arrived on-the-ground in Haiti within days of the devastating 12 January 2010 earthquake. Our team conducted assessments of damaged homes, identified families in need of aid, and coordinated rubble clearance from properties to make space for new transitional shelters. In our first year, we have constructed 1,937 safer shelters, housing 11,622 people in Jacmel and the surrounding rural areas. The views expressed in this reflection are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.