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Haiti earthquake refugees trade golf course camp for humble homes

By Amelie Baron

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The tents are gone and clean up crews are grooming the grounds of the Petionville country club golf course, which served as a camp for 60,000 people made homeless by Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

The camp, on Haiti's only golf course, closed last week after the refugees were relocated, according to J/P Haitian Relief Organization, the group co-founded by actor Sean Penn that set up and ran the camp for four years.

The earthquake left almost 1.5 million people homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Americas.

While the camp's closure marks a milestone in Haiti's recovery from the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, J/P HRO said this week that its work in Haiti was far from over.

"We are continuing to build and rehabilitate homes so people can return to their neighborhoods," said Gary Philoctete, director of Haiti Operations for J/P HRO. "There are still a lot of people living in other camps and we are committed to helping those families as well."

According to the government, at least 147,000 people are still living in temporary relief camps, mainly on small parcels of private land around the capital. They face being evicted by landowners.

"LIFE IF NOT OVER"

Hours after the January 12, 2010, earthquake, people who had lost their homes began migrating to the golf course. J/P HRO was declared manager of the camp by the United Nations, providing food, shelter, medical and educational services.

The organization set up its first headquarters on one of the club's clay tennis courts. Penn personally managed the camp for its first nine months.

One of the people who sought refuge at the golf course camp was 26-year-old Nicolas Jean-Michel. The house in which he had been living collapsed in the earthquake, killing all the relatives he knew, including his cousin and her daughter.

"We invaded the golf course as we had lost everything," he recalled. "Life was hard, four years of misery, in the rain and mud. I never thought I would have to spend four years there."

The relocation process for Jean-Michel and the other refugees at that camp was undertaken in cooperation with the Haitian government, the International Organization for Migration, and other relief organizations working in Haiti.

Eligible families were given several options, including help rebuilding homes, retrofitting damaged property, and rental support for families without their own land.

"We asked each family to find a house where they wanted to live. Our field officers went with them to appraise the places, which had to be safe, not near to a ravine, equipped with toilets and close to a clean water source, in order to reduce the risk of cholera," said Aniah Compère, J/P HRO's relocation administrative officer.

The first annual rent, up to $500, was paid by Penn's group, and $40 for each family to transport their personal belongings was mostly financed by the Haitian government with support from the World Bank.

Compère explained, "After six weeks, our teams visit them in their new home and we are giving them training so they can launch their own little business, as they will have to pay rent next year rent."

Jean-Michel was one of the last people to be relocated. "During the first night in my new place, I couldn't sleep as I just could not believe it was true." He chose to remain in the city to pursue a formal education.

Still without a job, he does not know how he will pay the rent on his small bedroom next year. He worries, too, about other Haitians still in tent camps, but he encourages them not to give up hope.

"Look at me, life is not over," he said.

Most of the refugees from the golf course camp were relocated within the capital but some returned to hometowns in the provinces.

"We encouraged them as the country needs decentralization. Today, many live now from agriculture and are happily enjoying life in the countryside," Compère said.

J/P HRO has rehabilitated houses for 428 families and is currently fixing another 45 homes.

It is training local people to use better building materials, running two health care clinics, a primary school, adult education, and arts and athletics programs.

This month, Penn hosted his third star-studded annual Haiti fundraiser in Los Angeles, raising $6 million for J/P HRO. The group's Haiti operations include a staff of 350, almost all Haitians, and a $10 million to $15 million annual budget.

The matter of restoring the golf course is something else, said Philoctete. "There's no greens left. The grass has disappeared.

"I don't know when it will be back to golf. But we thank the club members for their patience. They have been very supportive," he said.

(Reporting by Amelie Baron; Writing by David Adams; Additional Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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