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At a glance: Haiti

Return from Haiti: UNICEF staffer reflects on the children’s emergency

‘How does one explain the horrific reality of Port-au-Prince to a five year old?’

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0031/LeMoyne
UNICEF Regional Communication Specialist Tamar Hahn during her mission to Haiti in the days after the earthquake struck. Here, Ms. Hahn hears stories from people temporarily encamped on the grounds of the Prime Minister’s residence in Port-au-Prince.

By Tamar Hahn

UNICEF Regional Communication Specialist Tamar Hahn travelled to the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the first days after the 12 January earthquake. She is based at the UNICEF Regional Office in Panama.

PANAMA CITY, Panama, 28 January 2010 – After a week in Port-au-Prince immediately following the earthquake, it was time for me to return home. Entering the city had been an ordeal; leaving was just as stressful. Hundreds of Haitians were crowding the airport’s entrance, pushing and cajoling the US marines posted at the gates, desperate to board one of the flights departing for Europe and North America.

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But the difficulty of leaving was not just about logistics. It was more about leaving the rest of the UNICEF team on the ground behind – about realizing just how much is required to bring Haiti out of the rubble and to secure a future for children like the ones I talked to at the hospitals and makeshift camps.

The day I flew back to Panama, I faced my toughest interview. This one was not by a journalist but by my own five-year-old son, Jacob. “I saw you on TV!” he said. “What was that place where you were talking from? Who where these children you were talking about?”

© Hahn family photo
Tamar Hahn and her five-year-old son Jacob at home in Panama City, Panama. When she returned from Haiti, she struggled with how to answer her son's questions about the recent tragedy there.

Explaining tragedy

And so I had to explain about the hospital tent and the children I saw there: Sean, Medoshe, Baby Girl and Sandie.

Jacob asked to see photos of them (and of the helicopter I took, of course). He wanted to know why they were in a hospital, where their parents were and what was going to happen to them.

How does one explain the horrific reality of Port-au-Prince to a five year old? How does one talk about homes and schools crashing down and so many people hurt and dead in a way that is even remotely palatable to a child? How to tell him of the smell of rotting bodies and piled-up garbage, the infected wounds and amputated limbs, the hundreds of people sleeping on the streets and in the parks?

Finding the words

It was hard to find the right words to translate what I had seen into language that he could understand and that would not give him nightmares. It was also hard to reconcile the reality of children in Haiti with that of my own son. His protected world full of warmth, attention, friends and toys seemed surreal compared to what I had just seen.

Or maybe it was the other way around, and it’s the reality of children in Haiti that is out of sync with our vision of what childhood is supposed to be.

“Can we go visit these children?” my son asked after I showed him the photos. I told him I was not sure he would be able to go anytime soon. He was quiet for a few seconds and then said that if he couldn’t go, he wanted me to go back and take some of his toys for the children I had met in Haiti. I said I could do that.

I couldn’t help but think that toys would be a perfect complement to the life-saving supplies we are delivering and the protection mechanisms we are helping to set up. Jacob was sending something to help the children of Haiti regain their childhood. 




28 January 2010: Regional Communication Specialist Tamar Hahn talks to UNICEF Radio about explaining her work in Haiti to her five-year-old son.
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