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February 27, 2009

Anna Kournikova in Haiti, Day One: Child Survival

Anna with children in the rural village of Cabaret.

A number of you have expressed appreciation for Kevin Doyle's posts on his trip to Haiti with Population Services International and PSI spokesperson (and former international tennis sensation) Anna Kournikova.  To keep PSI's work in Haiti and throughout the world front and center, Anna was kind enough to allow the Daily Traveler to re-publish reportage which originally appeared on her Web site. Read day one of Anna's dispatch below:

by Anna Kournikova

I want to tell you all about my trip to Haiti, as it was such a moving and life-changing experience for me. My trip was with PSI (Population Services International), and their Five and Alive/Youth AIDS programs which help to improve the lives of kids around the world, ages five and under, by educating and helping their families to prevent causes of death such as AIDS, malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea (caused by unsafe drinking water).

Anna distributing free insecticide treated nets to women in the rural village of Cabaret. PSI distributes nets throughout Haiti, in late 2009, PSI in partnership with the government and other NGOs will distribute free nets to more than 3.2 million homes, providing coverage for all of Haiti.

First, I'd like to thank the PSI staff for giving me this incredible opportunity to visit Haiti, so that I could experience daily life there. They've been absolutely wonderful and I hope to have more trips with them in the future.

As I'm sure most of you are aware, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and it's been extremely difficult to try to describe and express what I saw while I was there.

You can read all the statistics on paper, see pictures of the kids and families that are there and see pictures of all the destruction that occurred during last year's hurricane season, but all that information fails to tell the real story of the people that live through it every day. It is completely devastating and difficult to process in one's mind. It becomes even harder to understand when you realize that Haiti is only about two hours away from Florida (by plane) and how close it is to the prosperity that we enjoy here in the United States.

The purpose of my trip was to sit in and watch the programs that PSI runs in Haiti, as well as to meet local families and children and get a sense of their daily struggles.

PSI's main focuses in Haiti are AIDS and STD prevention, malaria prevention and children's health. Many people in Haiti are accustomed to regularly taking an oral rehydration solution,  since they are unable to become hydrated from the unsafe drinking water that exists in the cities and towns there.

Forget about running water, Haiti has no real infrastructure, so they dont have sewage systems or any water purification systems. The only source of water for most people, especially those in rural areas, comes from rivers and rainwater, which are often polluted and are two major sources of disease in Haiti.

PSI runs two programs in Haiti that educate people and help distribute both a water purification system called Dlo Lavi and an oral rehydration solution for children called Sel Lavi. I was able to sit in on some of PSI's incredibly educational meetings and it was amazing to see first-hand what a great job they do there.

For me personally, I've seen poverty before, that wasn't what shocked me the most. Having grown up in Russia, where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, I've seen kids running around barefoot because their families couldn't afford shoes. What shocked me about Haiti, where 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, was just the complete lack of basic human needs, and the amazing amount of disease and sickness that is so prevalent within the population.

Diarrhea is rampant and is a major cause of infant deaths, simply due to the lack of clean drinking water. I've never seen so much trash and waste, on every street, on every single road. They don't have the systems to get rid of the waste in a proper way, not to mention recycling, so they have to burn it in the streets. There's no infrastructure or programs of any kind, whether it's plumbing, waste control, sewers, clean water, etc. It was so difficult to see those conditions with my own eyes.

In the first village that we visited, Cabaret, you could see the hair of the children turning yellow due to malnutrition; and their homes, which you can't even call homes, are often made of rocks, sticks and cardboard. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed by the hurricanes last year and so you see two families living in one 10x10 hut.

I had the opportunity to distribute malaria nets while we were in Cabaret, which was a great experience. The nets typically last about 5 years and can often protect the whole family, because they're very large and the huts that people live in are very small. So, it really doesn't take that much to protect people from malaria, it's really about educating people on the steps they can take to protect themselves.

Another problem in Haiti is that a large portion of the population is illiterate. Because they are unable to read or write, they're often taken advantage of by others who will offer $5 to purchase the labor of one of their children, so they sell their child to a slightly better off family to do chores and menial daily tasks for the family.

The poor children that are being sold into indentured servitude are called restaveks. Restaveks are often abused in every way: emotional, sexual, physical. One little restavek girl was telling us about how her family had sold her to another family when she was 8 years old and that she does everything for that family. She gets them water from the well each day, walks their kids to school (including the children that are older than she is), washes the clothes, cleans the house. She's not allowed to attend school, not allowed to have any kind of life of her own and she's being abused sexually and physically.

She comes to the PSI meetings in secret, telling the family that she's doing something else and then comes to the meetings to try and get a bit of an education and to try to find some support within her cruel daily life. A huge part of the problem is that many people, including a lot of these children, basically don't exist. They don't have birth certificates or any official documents identifying them, so they don't exist within the legal and governmental system. If these kids are being mistreated, there's no one that can help them, because they cant even prove their own identity.



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