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Haiti: The Forgotten Families

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Last week you did not see the face of Ercene Metellus on your TV screen. Hers is a story you have yet to hear.

On the earthquake's second anniversary, the media did their minimum due diligence. They reported on the massive camps that still exist around Port-au-Prince, on the slow progress in rebuilding, and on aid dollars spent and yet to be delivered.

They did not report on the hundreds of thousands of Haitians like the Metellus family who remain scattered across Haiti's rural landscape -- the forgotten displaced people.

For the second time in her life, 55-year-old Metellus must start over. Ten years ago, she gave up her job as a school cook in Cap Hatien, in the north of Haiti, to move with her family to Port-au-Prince. "I realized my life would go better if and only if I went to the biggest city in the country."

In Haiti's capital, determined to succeed, Metellus set up her own business selling children's clothing and shoes as a street vendor.

On January 12, 2010, Metellus and her oldest daughter, Magda, were in the streets of Port-au-Prince, selling their wares. Metellus' other four children and two grandchildren were at school, and her husband was out working.

Then the ground began to heave and buildings fell. Metellus was injured, struck in the chest by a piece of flying concrete. When the dust settled the family managed to reunite. All except their father. He has never been found, likely entombed forever in the ruins.

Their home was a pile of debris. Like so many others, the family was left to live in the street with nothing. After several weeks with little aid, the Metellus family fled the city.

The UN estimates that more than 600,000 people flooded out of Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the disaster. Some went to relatives in towns and cities that had not been affected. Others simply pitched tents in farm fields and small villages where they could.

With no relatives elsewhere to take them in, it was a tent that awaited the Metellus family.

Arriving in the rural Pandiassou district in central Haiti, Metellus' injury was treated and the family was given shelter and food by international aid organizations. It was their only means of support. This was an agricultural area and the family had no experience as farmers -- no way to earn a livelihood.

After six months, their dire circumstances led another organization to offer to pay for a one-year lease on a home in the nearby small town of Hinche. Still, they had no means to earn money and were reliant on the community for support.

The tidal wave of urban refugees that struck Haiti's rural areas after the earthquake put a serious strain on the resources of communities, such as Hinche, already burdened with their own poverty.

"They came with almost nothing, with empty hands. There was an increase in the lack of food, space for sleeping and clothing," Genold Mathieu, a community leader in the Pandiassou district, told our team on the ground in Haiti. "So there was more hunger and misery."

Mathieu's small rural district alone took in nearly 6,000 displaced city-dwellers.

Nevertheless, Mathieu says communities have been willing to assist the survivors however they can. "In situations like this, everyone wants to help."

There is no census data or tracking of those who fled Port-au-Prince, but it is believed that about half have now returned to the city. Many more, like Ercene Metellus, see their futures in their new adopted communities.

"We have no home in Port-au-Prince, nor in Cap Hatien" she says. "We can not keep starting over, and we are starting to have friends here."

Four of the five children are now going to school in Hinche. Unfortunately, Metellus' daughter Mirlene cannot continue high school because the family cannot afford it.

A group of Canadian individuals is helping the family by paying half the rent on their house while Metellus works to restart her business in her new home. Every day, she sits in the shade with children's clothing and shoes displayed on blankets arranged around her and hanging from a line strung between trees.

"I love Hinche and it's better for us to stay here. Life is cheaper and the city is more peaceful than other cities," says Metellus. "I will do everything I can to live in Hinche."

For now, the Metellus family is focused on becoming independent and no longer reliant on others for support. However, with luck, their story is headed for a happy ending with hope and a future in their new home.

For uncounted more displaced families, still living in tents in fields and villages across Haiti, there will be no happy ending if they are forgotten, their stories untold.

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