Holding on to dreams from refugee camp in Haiti

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 8, 2010; A08

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- This was not the kind of stage Esceline Belcombe was accustomed to. She sang with sandaled feet planted deep in the dust of a footpath that cuts across a steep hill and turns down toward a river of tattered-cloth shelters.

Her voice seemed out of place, as did she and as do the hundreds of thousands of people shaken from their homes by Haiti's "tremblement de terre," the earthquake that struck nearly a month ago.

Belcombe, 22, is a songstress whose voice carried her to the finals of "Miss Videomax," a Haitian talent show that is a cross between beauty contest and "American Idol." She is holding fast to her dreams of stardom, no easy task inside the sweltering nomad's shelter that has become her house.

"I'm willing to fight. I don't want my life to end up here," Belcombe said one recent day as she nursed her 4-month-old daughter, Chrestlene. "Once I get a tent, I'm going to ask my neighbor to give me a place in his yard."

These days in Port-au-Prince, where the United Nations estimates that roughly half the population is sleeping outdoors, acquiring a tent is an ambition verging on fantasy. The odds of winning a talent show are better.

Belcombe thinks back and looks ahead. What she sees is a brighter version of her early success. In high school, she wrote and performed dramatic monologues, often about violence against women. Later, she created the role of a farm girl who loses her dreams in clouds of marijuana smoke.

Two years ago, Belcombe's voice and charm propelled her up the ranks of "Miss Videomax," which is sponsored by a Haitian television network. She lost. Yet, just as she is doing now, she counted herself down but not out.

Belcombe was not home at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, when the earthquake destroyed her family's concrete-slab house in the capital's Delmas neighborhood. Her parents, siblings and niece survived. Her former boyfriend -- Chrestlene's father -- died in the collapse of the Hotel Montana.

Until last month, the site of the encampment that Belcombe and her family share with an estimated 30,000 people was the exclusive Petionville Club golf course. Neither the course nor the people who camp there much resemble their former selves.

During the day, the residents kill time. They cook, now that Catholic Relief Services, with the help of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, has distributed lentils, rice and oil. At night, Belcombe and her family stay close together, for reassurance as much as security.

Recently, Belcombe sorted through a box of mementos -- diplomas, childhood photographs, CDs, awards -- after hiring men to burrow into the crumbled living room of her former home.

"I'm working on a melody," said Belcombe, who swears she will be known across "the entire country" one day. "I'm going to emphasize what happened, and I'm going to pray to God."

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