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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 December, 2004, 14:47 GMT
Haiti Aids orphans find refuge
By Hannah Hennessy
BBC News, Port-au-Prince

When she grows up, Magdala wants to teach children who cannot afford to pay for school.

Viola, Andieu and Magdala, children at the Rainbow House in Haiti
Magdala (right) dreams of defending children who need help
Dressed in her own school uniform of a blue dress and a white blouse, she wears her hair neatly pulled back in a bun.

This delicate little girl, who reminds me of a ballerina, pauses and adds: "I would also like to be a lawyer so I can defend children who have no rights".

These would be noble ambitions for any 10-year-old. But a few years ago, they would have been impossible. Magdala is HIV-positive.

She is one of 36 children living at Rainbow House, an hour's drive from the poverty, violence and disease-ridden slums of Port-au-Prince that skirt the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

This mountain-side orphanage was founded in 1996 by Danielle Penette, a Canadian woman, and her Haitian husband, for children whose parents had died from Aids.

"There was nothing for children who were HIV-positive. Children were dying - there was no-one to care for them because people were afraid of those who were HIV-positive," Danielle says as a group of children sing in Creole next door and the orphanage's youngest child, four-year-old Donald, plays on the chair beside us.

Unknown toll

The United Nations estimates that nearly 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV or have Aids.

Donald, the youngest child at Haiti's Rainbow House
Children are not told of their condition until they are old enough
An estimated 30,000 people die of Aids every year.

But the exact figures are not known.

Many people are terrified of revealing their illnesses because they fear they will lose jobs, homes and contact with family and friends.

More than half of Haiti's eight million people live on less than a dollar a day, so that fear is very real.

Rainbow House is fighting to end the stigma of infection.

Thirteen-year-old Andieu is one of ten children living at Rainbow House who is not infected.

"Everyone should be able to live together because HIV cannot be contracted simply from living with someone who has it," he says.

He says people need to be educated about how the virus spreads.

"There are precautions to take and because anyone can be HIV-positive, everyone should know about the precautions," he tells me as we sit on the verandah, overlooking the tree-lined garden and its play area.

Opposite him, Charline agrees. At 14, she is one of the orphanage's oldest children.

Former scavenger

Before she came to Rainbow House eight years ago, she scavenged for food on the streets for her mother who was dying of Aids.

But now this fun-loving teenager, who hopes to be a journalist or a doctor, says Rainbow House's children are playing an important role in Haiti's fight against Aids.

The Rainbow House in Haiti
The children are proud of Rainbow House
"We are always concerned by discrimination and we fight against it and say no. We share our experiences with other children and tell people it's possible to live together," she says.

Like Charline, most of the older children who are HIV-positive know about their illness, although each child is individually assessed and not told until they are deemed ready.

"We do not go too fast on this. We had the support of a psychologist who helped us on this process, but it was really an evaluation of each child, so, for instance, we do not say at seven-years-old or nine-years-old a child must know," Danielle says.

She says antiretroviral drugs have brought some of the boys and girls back from the edge of death and it has now been two years since a child died.

"Now it's good because we have the medicines for 16 children and it has changed their lives. They are in good health, they are fine, they go to school - we only have three children who don't go to school - and the schools are all in the community."

Community work is very important for Rainbow House.

As well as the orphanage, Danielle and a staff of around 30 - which includes doctors, psychologists and social workers - have two other programmes.

One teaches community leaders about HIV and Aids.

The other provides advice, training, food, medicine and help with schooling for the families of 320 children who have been affected by the illness.

Ready for Christmas

After their school day is over, four of the orphans proudly show me around Rainbow House.

Map of Haiti
Teddy bears hang from the ceiling of the bedroom for the youngest children; in one of the girls' dorms there's a brightly painted mural of a mermaid and fish.

Downstairs, Christmas decorations share space on a hearth with paintings and photographs in the reception area, where a stuffed elephant, lion and teddy bear and a train set are some of the toys that greet guests.

Viola, Magdala, Andieu and Charline proudly point out everything from the bathroom to the outdoor eating area. Here, dozens of weary little faces tuck into plates of cake, which was brought by a friend.

Most of the 17 girls and 19 boys giggle as they tell me their names, while behind me in the courtyard a handful of children play in the late afternoon sun.

Danielle's words echo in my head: "The children love life and they want to live. They have a future. They have dreams, and we didn't want to lose this."


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