Strength born of calamity
By Swoan Parker
Everything was in its place. Knick-knacks of varying shapes perfectly lined the dresser as the dearly loved treasures from a literally broken home. Aline Deispeines’ concrete home was destroyed in the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010. Her new home, spotlessly kept, was a tent. Her life, like that of so many who survived the calamity, was changed forever. She, like so many other Haitians, had lost her home, her loved ones, her business, and all feeling of security for her future.
I came to know Aline, 44 and a single mother to daughter Tina, 13, and adopted daughter Herby, 24, after hearing about OFEDA, the Organization of Dedicated Women in Action. OFEDA is a grassroots organization of women in support of women. It is run by Aline, who against incredible odds formed the group just weeks after the quake. OFEDA, I would later learn, is a symbol of strength, hope and endurance.
When I was asked for story ideas related to International Women’s Day, I immediately thought of her.
I set out on the back of my motorbike and traveled to the grounds of a government-run school on Rues des Freres, an area outside of Port-au-Prince. Aline greeted me with a warm smile and welcoming hug. She escorted me to her office inside a tent located a couple hundred feet from the school building. As we sat down and began to talk, I told her of the story that I was working on and how I thought that OFEDA would be ideal. As we were talking other members of the organization began to enter the tent, curious to know what was going on. After brief introductions they sat down and listened as Aline told me how OFEDA came to be.
As I looked out through the tent office I noticed that there were several other tents erected just behind the school. Some were in better shape than others, but all were occupied by people whose homes were destroyed in the quake, including Aline.
On the day of the earthquake Aline was working in her shop, where she sold clothes and cosmetics. She had always dreamed of becoming her own boss. She had grown up in Jeremie, a province in the south of Haiti, and moved to Port-au-Prince when she was just a little girl. The youngest of five siblings, Aline had to leave school after the 6th grade because her single mother simply couldn’t afford her school fees. She grew up watching her mother sell cosmetics in their neighborhood.
As the owner of her own business, Aline sold the items in the shop she rented some distance away from her home in Clercine, which she shared with her older sister, two nieces, and two daughters. On this particular day, Aline had just returned to the shop with new inventory and began feeling certain uneasiness. She wanted to leave but nearby friends and vendors encouraged her to stay.
Suddenly, the ground began to give way and the roof came crashing down, injuring both of her legs. She nearly fell into a hole, but someone snatched her to safety. Once the earth stopped shaking, Aline climbed cautiously out of the rubble and began the long walk home to search for her daughter and family. When she arrived, she was relieved to find that everyone in the household was safe, but a few days later she learned that her uncle and five cousins were killed.
With no place to go, Aline found herself wandering the rubble-filled streets until she stumbled across the neighborhood of Rues des Freres. It was here that she and approximately 140 other families managed to erect temporary tents, which they would soon call home. Aline was quickly named leader by the others who felt powerless after losing everything. She was the one to stand up to school officials who wanted to evict them as they did not want the tents so close to their building.
Determined to make a new life for herself and her daughter, she began learning to make crafts such as greeting cards and stone necklaces, and began teaching these skills to other women to help them to become self-sufficient. Today, there are 200 members ranging in ages from 21-89. For many of the women Aline is a role model; she gives them hope and encouragement to accept the responsibility for their own destinies. With meager funds, OFEDA is trying to maintain itself by seeking diverse ways to get their products made and out into the market place.