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Forced to rebuild a life at 12, a Haitian girl joins thousands seeking an escape from gang violence


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For 12-year-old Juliana St. Vil, life begins every afternoon.

She bounds out of the crowded shelter where she’s been sleeping on the concrete floor for 10 months, a smile on her face despite harsh surroundings. Not yet a teenager, Juliana must navigate a Haiti oppressed by gangs that killed her father and drove her family out of their home.

An acting workshop held daily in a big house with a leafy yard is her escape.

“I lived well,” Juliana said, remembering her old neighborhood. “I could always eat when I was hungry. I could go to school without a worry.”

Millions across Haiti are struggling to rebuild their lives in a country with no president as gangs who want full control of the capital and beyond kill, rape and injure thousands.

The country of more than 11 million people finds itself at a crossroads while preparing for the arrival of thousands of police from Kenya and other countries. The officers are part of a U.N-backed deployment to quell gang violence that exploded after the July 2021 presidential assassination.

Haiti is as fragile as it’s ever been: Nearly 2 million people are on the verge of starvation, more than 360,000 have been left homeless by gang invasions, and basic supplies dwindled as the main seaport and international airport closed for months.

Caught in the middle are Haitians of every generation wondering if the country will pull through, and whether they will live to see its future.

Juliana lived most of her life in Carrefour-Feuilles, which rebuilt itself after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and was known as a birthplace of young artists.

Located in southern Port-au-Prince, it was home to working-class people and those who had left the rural countryside.

“When we were at home, we were free, we had a good life,” Juliana’s mother, Baby Gustave, recalled.

They lived in a community called Savane-Pistache, where she met her future husband at a daily prayer group.

“I loved everything about him. He bathed me, cooked for me and went to the market for me,” Gustave said, explaining that she suffers from debilitating asthma attacks.

By the time Juliana was born in 2011, gangs already were fighting to control more territory in Carrefour-Feuilles, hacking at each other with machetes they later replaced with high-caliber weapons, targeting rival gunmen and civilians.

One time, the gunfire was so heavy that Juliana said she fainted at home.

“I have a little heart problem. And when I hear gunshots, I think that I might get shot,” she said in a quiet voice.

Gustave decided it was time to leave. Her partner had been shot dead in 2013 as he walked home after a full day’s work at a factory.

On a Sunday afternoon in August 2023, Gustave fled home with Juliana and a younger daughter she shares with her new partner. Like many running from gang violence, all she took was their birth certificates and her voting card.

Juliana cried when they left. It was the first time she had been uprooted, and she didn’t like it. At Savane-Pistache, she would play outside with her friends and lived in a two-bedroom home with beds and mattresses and an outdoor bathroom she didn’t have to share with strangers.

Now, she sleeps on the concrete floor of a school converted into a shelter, living in a classroom with nearly a dozen strangers, her clothes stuffed into a suitcase and a big plastic bag that once contained rice. She shares a handful of bathrooms with more than 2,200 people. There’s not much room to play because adults, drying clothes and boiling cauldrons filled with soup and rice take up nearly all the space at the shelter, where food is sometimes scarce.

On a recent morning, Gustave boiled bread and added a chunk of butter, stirring continuously until it formed a thick soup. In the background, a radio blared news, with one man declaring, “Haiti is crashing.”

Gustave spoon fed the soup to her 3-year-old and set aside leftovers for a thin neighbor who lived with them. Juliana had already eaten breakfast at a friend’s house, where she spent the night because she does not get along with her mother’s new partner.

By 1 p.m., Juliana was hungry, and she dove into the free meal that she and nearly a dozen other children get daily before the acting workshop. Like others, she ate only half and saved the rest for her family.

Eager to get started, the kids filed barefoot into a room with wooden floors to practice a skit they will present to the public at the end of the two-week workshop. While it doesn’t yet have a title, the skit focuses on life at a shelter in Haiti.

Juliana is one of the lead actresses. In one scene, she’s a mother seeking permission to live at a shelter with her son, played by a young boy who pretends to cry but most times ends up giggling, making the entire group laugh. In another scene, she’s a peacemaker, finding a solution to children fighting because they want to play different games in a crowded shelter.

In one final scene, she reveals her name and her real-life dream: to become a policewoman.

“I like the way they dress, but I would be afraid of dying,” she said.

Just a few blocks away from where Juliana and others rehearse, a female officer with Haiti’s National Police was fatally shot May 8 as she fought off gang members trying to kidnap her. She was dropping off her child at school.

To build trust, the children in the workshop called “Theater Curbs Violence” organized by BIT-HAÏTI, a street theater group, practice falling backward into someone’s arms.

Not all can do it. Some bend backward only slightly, as if warming up for a limbo dance. A handful stand still, waiting for the next exercise.

It involves forming a circle and yelling one at a time. One girl shouts for only a second and then covers her face in embarrassment.

“They have trauma,” said Stéphanie François, who helps lead the workshop.

The children have been forced to flee their homes and are exposed to grisly gang violence blamed for more than 2,500 deaths or injuries from January to March alone.

Hundreds of schools have closed, and playtime at crowded and unsanitary shelters is rare.

“They have a need to leave behind the environment of the camp to be together, to tease each other,” said Eliézer Guerisme, program director at Haiti’s National Theater, who is involved in the workshop.

Juliana misses school. She relishes math classes, especially division. In her free time, when she’s not helping her mother wash clothes or dishes or take care of her sister, she watches cooking shows, enthralled by the process of baking cookies and cakes.

But being in that big house with the leafy yard is the one thing that helps take her mind off being homeless, off leaving her friends and her school, off the violence.

It’s an escape few Haitians have.

On a recent afternoon, Juliana and the other children gathered to practice a scene where they speak in unison while living at a pretend shelter: “Even if it’s not what we want today, one day everything will be perfect,” they said in clear and strong voices.



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