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One woman's journey to help Dominica

SUPPORTIVE: Comic Ava Vidal is heading to the island to help

AVA VIDAL was resolved never to return to Dominica. The comedian campaigns on behalf of abused women and describes the island’s legal system as “horrific” after it failed to prosecute her daughter’s father for domestic violence towards her last year. Born in Brixton, she “doesn’t particularly like” her Dominican father, either.

But she has “a huge, huge family” there and her ties remain strong. Pregnant with her now 18-month-old daughter on the island during tropical storm Erika in 2015, she vividly remembers the desperation of being without food and water, if only temporarily.

So when Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica again a month ago, she set about crowdfunding her own relief mission, to distribute vital supplies of food, health and hygiene products while relaying messages between Dominicans and their relatives in the UK.

With at least 27 people confirmed dead and around 30 still missing, Dominica endured Maria’s highest death toll per capita. And as many as 50,000 of the island’s population of roughly 74,000 have been displaced from their homes.

Having recently arrived by ferry, Vidal has been in contact with some of her family, but there are others she is yet to hear from. She’s “not unduly worried” as communication with the north of the island remains sporadic. But hearing others she knows have lost loved ones makes her reflective.

Leaving her baby daughter, the youngest of her three children, at “my aunt’s house, one of the few lucky enough to keep its roof”, she’ll be making shuttle runs to St Lucia for food and water until flying home on November 7.

In four suitcases, she’s stuffed packs of nappies, sanitiser and changing mats, with Mooncups, tampons, incontinence pads, water purifying tablets and solar chargers for mobile phones, as well as baby cots.

“The cots are light as a sponge” she explains. “I had one there for my daughter when she was eight months old. It’s a bad description but they’re a little like dog kennels, except covered in a mosquito net.

"So I’m taking them to the hospital which lost part of its roof and where my daughter’s aunty works – she’s been on duty since the hurricane happened and says it’s really bad.

“Because there’s so much water around and no electricity to power fans or air-con to get rid of them, the mosquitoes are breeding like crazy and babies can’t defend themselves.

“Old people aren’t doing well. People have given me loads of incontinence pads, but they’re huge, so I’ve arranged with a charity to send a barrel of them. There’s a lack of feminine hygiene products and people have begged me for soap and toothpaste.

“And they’re all hungry, everyone’s saying what they need most is food. I’m taking the stuff personally because looting is so bad. It’s not safe for it to go in any other way. I know what I’m doing won’t make a massive difference, but I’m doing what I can. It’s just a drop in the ocean, because the whole place is such a mess.”

Despite being a former British colony, Dominica has all but disappeared from news coverage here. And Vidal blasted the British Government for not offering better co-ordinated assistance.

“A lot of older Dominicans are British citizens, and it was a nightmare when they were trying to get out,” she said. “I had a cousin that came out. One minute they were told they were going to St Lucia, then they were going to Barbados. Then for three days, there was just no communication.

“There were rumours that if you were British you should go to [Windsor Park] stadium and you’d be able to get a boat out. Then they got there and nothing happened. It’s been all over the place.”

Vidal has been seeing a counsellor and taking anger management sessions. “Psychologically, I’ve been told to really prepare myself, so that’s what I’m doing” she said.

“I don’t have a great history with Dominica and did vow that I wouldn’t ever return, so this is huge on a number of levels. I just couldn’t see the devastation and do nothing.

“Normally, my relatives would have told me not to bring the baby. But I spoke to one of my uncles, saying maybe I should come, and he burst into tears. So that alone told me how serious the situation is. It’ll be a wrench being away from my daughter because she’s quite clingy just now.

"But she’s got a lot of little cousins that adore her and it’s a sacrifice we have to make. There are some kids who are not going to see their parents again at all.”

Although wary of being seen as a troublemaker by local authorities, Vidal still argues that it’s the diaspora’s responsibility to ask questions about where aid money is being spent.

Meanwhile, “a lot of people are criticising those that left, but to be honest, I don’t blame them” she says. “Especially if they’ve got young children. There’s only a couple of makeshift schools.”

Stopping off at isolated villages on the drive north to Portsmouth, the comic will also be investigating reports of women being exploited for scarce essentials. She was already fundraising for a documentary about sexual abuse in the Caribbean and curating an all-female line-up for next year’s inaugural Caribbean Comedy Festival in Barbados when Maria struck. And she maintains that “a lot of young girls are being pressured”.

“There’s a girl who told me that one of her parents is ill, she’s struggling to keep herself clean and an official is trying to take advantage of her.

“Because obviously it’s a mess, there’s no law enforcement, really. The police are busy going after looters and accompanying aid, guarding certain shops. So they’re just not interested.

“A lot of people are feeling very vulnerable and very helpless right now.”

Anyone wishing to donate to Vidal’s crowdfund can do so at: gofundme.com/direct-to- dominica

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