From 1998 till 2002 I lived in Haiti where I worked for the orphanage and hospital of Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs. Even though I left Haiti physically and moved to other places, I never really left Haiti, I always stayed involved with the organization and the people. In October 2009, I started a foundation for Haitian youth to help them establish a stable and independent future. My plan was to visit Haiti, talk with the focus group, asses the needs and define my mission, so ‘KidsConnectionHaiti’ could really take off. Then, on January 12, 2010, the earthquake happened.
Six weeks later I went to Haiti. The following is piece of my journal.
Thursday, February 21, 2010
After a long chaotic frenzy at the DR border we finally cross the border...
Driving into Haiti was just lovely. I felt tears coming up but didn’t cry. It actually hadn’t changed much, at all. Well, there were tents everywhere hidden behind the normal housing and some houses had cracks or were slightly fallen down. But everything else….it was like walking ten years back in the past! (I didn’t know yet what I would get to see downtown, which was not quite as idyllic).
Exactly 17 hours after we had left the orphanage in the DR I arrived with a bunch of trucks at the relatively new property of Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs hospital in Tabarre. Before I even got to Gena’s house where I was supposed to stay, I heard ‘Astride, Astride’…Oh my God. So many faces and they all remembered me! As if it had been a couple of weeks instead of eight years! I got so many hugs and smiles on my arrival and that continued throughout the next few days. It was quite an emotional experience. First of all because until then I didn’t even know they were all still alive. Secondly, though being alive, their stories just killed me! Every single person had lost one, two, or more family members, lost their homes or was too afraid to go back into their home. Most didn’t have any shelter and slept under the stars. Still, they were smiling and hugging! They were happy, they said, that old friends came back to help and share their suffering.
I was brought to Gena’s house, Kay St. Germaine, where I would spend the next ten days. A sort of oasis in the middle of all the frenzy; relatively quiet with about eight volunteers, in proper rooms with beds and even showers and toilets. A luxury! The hospital itself was still surrounded by tents for volunteers and medical tents; one for adults, some therapy tents and even an Italian outdoor surgery tent. I spent my first day walking around the property, getting to know the people and figuring out my routine. Many one legged, one armed, one eyed and otherwise injured kids, all looking pretty happy though. The ones who were missing a leg, were looking forward to receive a prosthesis from the Italians, who had set up an impressive prosthesis factory at the St. Germain facility.
Walking around the hospital and the area was like being thrown back into my former life. I ended the tour sitting on a little wall with a friend, sipping a Prestige, with a donkey breathing in my neck and Haitian vendors making jokes with us, or more likely,about us, the 'blancs'.
That evening I was happy to see Gena again, and Norma, Sue and Dave. Old volunteer friends - and it was so good to see them all. At night I went looking for the director, Fr. Rick who I found, throwing boxes from the 40 feet container onto a big pile, together with about twenty strong looking man and when I came closer I noticed they all were kids who grew up at the orphanage. I was impressed! They looked so grown up and hard working. Fr. Rick said that as soon as the earthquake hit the country, all former students from the orphanage returned to the organization, their family, their roots. Now, homeless and jobless, all the grown up kids were offering their services in one of the programs to help the poor, the displaced and the injured. The way they were taken care of when they, many years ago, were abandoned and displaced…
We sit down on the back of a truck and we are having a laugh as one of the guys pulls a container off the trailer with a bulldozer, after much engineering intervention but with a lot of noise the container ends up tumbling on its side anyway. The containers are going to be used for an adult outdoor hospital which during the next few days I can see develop into quite an impressive complex, creatively constructed from containers, palets, gravel and a donated full hospital (including everything but the building) from USAID.
Friday, February 26, 2010
Seven O'clock mass by Fr. Rick. A couple of body bags await the sacred blessing. It is so sad; in the morning we find the bags laying beside the church, covered with flies and smelling of, well, dead bodies. The smell of incense disguises it a little but doesn’t completely take away the odor. The bodies, sometimes three or four little ones in one bag, are found under the rubble of schools and brought by the nuns to the chapel so they will receive a dignified funeral in stead of being thrown on top of the mass grave together with hundreds of other nameless, anonymous bodies. It is really sad, or did I mention that.
I visit Gena’s house for special needs kids, Kay St. Germaine, atop of which I live. I find rooms and rooms full with disabled children, the cutest, sweetest and most beautiful kids ever. Orphaned or abandoned they all crave attention and show me the biggest of smiles, just for a cuddle or a hug. I immediately fall in love with the first girl I hold in my arms. Her name is ‘Lovely’ and she is. Apparently she suffered from Meningitis as a baby which caused her lower body parts to be paralyzed, her arms rigid and stiff. She is as small as a three year old, bone and skin, no muscle, no fat, but her face looks much older, she could even be a teenager, who knows. She doesn’t speak. But oh my God, when she smiles, she doesn’t need words! The whole world lights up. I LOVE her. She becomes part of my daily 'routine'; first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I go visit her and try entertain her with the limited possibilities we have. Since she can’t sit up in a wheelchair, I take her in my arms, show her the other boys & girls in her room, walk around the property so she can see the activity of the staff and the other kids, give her gentle massages, sing for her, rock her and everything she experiences makes her smile even bigger and brighter. When facing other kids she laughs out loud! She loves it and I love it even more.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
I take a ride to Place Boyer and love recognizing the road, the way to my old neighborhood, seeing the people aside the street as if nothing ever happened, until you look further and notice the tent cities in the background, or if a ruin catches your eye; a fallen house between two standing houses. It is surreal. We arrive at Place Boyer, formerly a nice green park on a square lined with beautiful trees and surrounded by big houses and one or two restaurants, reality has transformed it into a super crowded tent city, people everywhere, on top of each other, vendors lining up and calling for customers. It is impressive, the first tent city I see from close by and, though I walk by pretending it is normal, I am quite shocked and very saddened. The tents clearly are not real tents, but pieces of plastic or other material, lined between branches and sticks, make shift doors out of sheets, no meter is left free. It is a labyrinth, a maze of plastic sheeting and fabric.
On the other side of Place Boyer I find my destination: Daniela! My good friend Daniela had just come back to Haiti to live there, TWO days before the earthquake. As we walk into the restaurant, she tells me about her experience and I start to slightly understand how it was, how it really was. First of all: she didn’t know. No one knew. Everyone thought that just their wall was falling down. Running out of the office, looking for people, understanding ‘something’ is happening, having no clue. Until someone says ‘there was an earthquake’. Driving through the streets, seeing the injured, screaming people, everyone outside, calling, crying, looking for family. Getting lost, being so disoriented that after an hour driving youy still have no clue where you're going. Finding people. Calling security, there might have been people somewhere in the office building. Trying to call home – no phone company is functioning. People everywhere, everyone is moving, no one knows where to. As she speaks, I can only think that though she is strong and has a comfortable place to live – she must still be in shock. She hasn’t cried yet, at all. Actually thinking of it; that’s what the other expats told me too. They don’t cry. There is no time to cry, no time to mourn. There is too much to do, too much work, too many lives to save.
After a delicious lunch (with ‘bitterballen’ as a starter!), Daniela lends me her driver because I have a mission. He drives me to my old house in Peguyville where I get reassured it is still standing, a guy tells me that Kenzo, our old dog, is dead and I hear some of the latest gossip. Next of all we drive on to the ravine of Peguyville – I am a little proud that I still know my way around, even in the little side streets! – and we find…Joel, Lorette, Dachekard and Joanna – my godchildren. What a happy meeting this is! They dance with joy and I of course am all teared up and we hug and kiss and take pictures and they show me their house which is split in half and they have no more roof so they sleep in a tiny tent.
But they seem well. They have a new baby, and seem to take care of another handful of kids, which doesn’t surprise me because they always took care of half the neighborhood. I stay a little while and when the driver brings me back I am superhappy and satisfied because one of my main worries is solved: Dachekard and Joanne are still alive.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Mass at seven, another funeral. Fr. Rick, as always gives an inspiring ceremony which leaves you half energized and half heart broken. But always thoughtful! Afterwards, I jump onto the back of a pick up truck, together with a bunch of volunteers, to visit the orphanage in the mountains of Kenscoff. It is delicious to sit on the car, wind in my hair, watching route Tabarre, Place Boyer, Petionville, Thomassin, Pelerin pass by. So many memories come back…I had forgotten how many memories I had from Haiti! As we climb the bumpy road, it gets colder and greener, more rural. It is a precious day! No clouds, gentle sunshine, green hills and wild flowers…but look, across the valley a house is completely collapsed. Basically a whole wall fell off the hill. Impressed, I take a picture. Only later I find out it the house of our old friend Phadoul.
I take a walk at the orphanage. First, Kay Christine, my favorite place. About 20 special needs kids live here, also my parents’ goddaughter Darline. I find her, hug her, give presents, she looks mature and happy. It is great to see them all and most haven’t even changed that much, though sadly many of them have died in the past eight years. Yvon hugs me nearly to dead, I get lots of smiles and cuddles of the others and then Rosetherly takes me on a tour to find the old Kay Judy kids – special request of my friend Amelie, their former caretaker. Amelie used to work at Kay Judy where she took care of 30 three and four year olds, now all between 15 and 16! I meet some of them and, again, I am, just in awe. How beautiful and mature and smart and fun they have become!
I see Gregory, paralyzed from his toes to his middle, upper body strong with a beautiful bright smile and very intelligent – he speaks fluent English! He must be twenty something now. It is so good to see him – one of my old little friends that I saw EVERY day for four years! That same evening he writes me an email: ‘Astride, I think we will be great friends again. Please stay in touch. Gregory’. I look forward to renewing our friendship!
Monday, March 1, 2010
Mass today is different. Yes, there is another funeral, but this one is not anonymous. It is a last goodbye for a young mother, who survived the earthquake, but then died of a broken heart. She lost her parents, her siblings, her husband, her home. She survived and lived in a makeshift tent, until her heart just could support her anymore. There are neighbors and other family members, but I notice they are all awkwardly silent. Again, it is the short-term visitors who cry.
Next of all, I am sitting quietly in Gena’s house, working away, when I hear this tremendous thunder as if a big truck drives by. The house starts shaking, I jump up, run outside, run back in because Marie Lourdes is still inside, tell her to run outside with me but the shaking has stopped and very Marie Lourdes assures me that that was all, there will be no further shaking. For a few seconds I am terrified, but actually knowing that it is just an aftershock, I am quite excited. After all I have dreamt of being in an earthquake every single night so far. Strangely enough, the scary dreams stop.
Thinking about this young mother and her baby she left behind, really throws me off guard today. It makes me really, really sad. After visiting my lovely Lovely, and contemplating her limitations in life and love, do not cheer me up.
I decide to leave my work for today to change my mind set. Nadine offers me a ride – Ten years ago I was the one teaching her to drive for the first time! – and we laugh at the thought of my old car which slowly but surely turned into sort of a taptap. She drops me at the old hospital on Avenue Petionville and before I know it she is out of sight. First I don’t even recognize the place. It is a war zone! Nothing but pieces of brick and concrete on a big pile. A crocket sign and a half broken wall with the logo remind me of what it used to be. My old home, my old office. I can not stop crying! It is so awful. And to think that several people ended up under the rubble, some dead and some alive…it could have been me. Thank Goodness the offices where closed and the classes had ended for the day. Otherwise hundreds would have lost their lives here. ‘Astride, Astride!’ I hear several voices behind me and when I turned I see the group of street vendors come running to me to hug me. They are all still there! It is great to see everyone and catch up and again, I am saddened by their stories of broken families and houses. But somehow they cheer me up and I leave with a bag full of their self made Haitian artisanat.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
I arrive early at the depot, where a bunch of ‘kids’ (as in young adults) are packing up a truck to distribute food in the tent cities. I am invited and excited to get the chance to see more of daily life in port-au-Prince. We divide rolls of bread into bags with 85, 100, 120 pairs and stack pallets with milk for distribution. Off we go, beside my buddy Lucardo (one of the kids I have known well and became very good friends with), another visitor from Austria and the driver, we are squeezed in the front. They do not allow me in the back: too sunny! Too bad.
We drive down town and for the first time I see the real destruction, at a large scale. The palace, the hospital, the grocery store we used to go to, the health department, cute old gingerbread houses and shops…many place show nothing more than a pile of rubble. On top or beside the rubble you see the regular scene; street vendors with their biscuits and bananas on a table, women with baskets of fruit on their head, men trying to find a bit of shade. Again, it is surreal. How can life continue so normally when the damage and destruction is so in your face? Every street looks normal at first glance but misses a couple of buildings, like the front teeth of an old person: house, house gap, house, house, gap, house, house. Some building are standing but completed shifted side ways as if they’re sliding of a hill. Cars are crashed and covered with concrete slabs. I see a car driving with a flattened roof, the driver has to stick his head out of the window to fit in. But it drives, so we use it! The optimism is typically Haitian.
We drive through Delmas, turn into small and smaller streets until the streets are too small to enter with our truck. We get out, walk a few hundred meters and enter a shantytown, where hundreds of kids await their breakfast. They sit in the heat, some of the places have some kind of tarp, most have no shadow at all. Some places are beside a school, one is in a sports complex, some are at an orphanage or just a courtyard in the middle of, nowhere, really.
At some places, the children sing for us. Some of the mentors ask me to speak a bout my country or they ask me for support. I promise to look for tents – it makes me sweat only to see the kids out in the burning sun without any protection! The children at the last two locations, really remote and hard to get to to including a steep, long walk, are so happy that they start dancing and jumping and singing out loud when they see the food. Where do they find the energy?
On our way back to Tabarre we stop at some places where we hand out our left over bread and milk to the poorest shags we find. Huts made of branches and rags with holes in it. The people come running out of their homes and lift their skirts and shirts to fill them with the bread rolls. We happen to drive beside Joel’s house, surprise! I get to say hello again, give a quick hug & kisses to the girls and we give him some more bread & milk. He is building a latrine for the neighborhood. Good old Joel.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Funeral at mass; a couple of kids from the schools. I visit Lovely, work at the emails, attend my meeting. As I walk in the hospital, I am pulled in rooms here and there, by American volunteer doctors who need translation. Interesting. One girl who broke her lower back has to sit up for the first time after the accident. She has pins in her leg and screams from the bottom of her longues with pain. But she does it! Another girl is in a coma though it seems she is slightly moving her sad eyes. The mother is devastated. Another boy needs explanation that there will be no surgery today, at least not until later that night. The poor boy hasn’t eaten in 24 hours in preparation of the surgery!
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Another funeral, three kids in one body bag this time. Esther, former student at the orphanage, now a mother of three and a volunteer in the kids day camp, sings so beautifully that she brings almost all the visitors to tears. It is very touching. I spent part of the morning with Lovely, I found a way to massage her back which she seems to like, and work away some emails. A volunteer shows me around Francisville, mostly functioning as depot now but originally designed as a vocational school and workshops. There is a full bakery where they bake rolls for all the kids at the day camp programs, the families at the distribution program, the patients in the hospital, plus an extra load for the nuns and their programs. Very impressive and it smells like heaven. There is a ’block’ factory, where they make large concrete bricks, probably a thousand a day, which could be used to rebuild the hospital walls and the rest will be used for future houses and other charity institutions. There is a set up for a garage but that is not in use yet, and neither is the factory for metal works. However huge halls are packed with donations, stacked to the ceiling and strong looking, hard working guys are piling boxes on top of boxes. Donations keep on arriving from everywhere in the world, sometimes with the strangest contents.
At three o’clock that afternoon, I meet with the former students from the orphanage (ex-eleves or Hermanos Mayores), older kids and young adults whom I want to help build a stable and independent future through KidsConnectionHaiti. They are homeless and jobless and ALL of them are working as volunteers in emergency programs to distribute food and work with displaced children. I am very pleased, about a hundred of them show up and they are very interested, ask questions and seem to understand the proposal I am making. I hope they will come with a plan and approach me so that I can offer them KCH support. A couple of them ask if they can work for KCH, locally. I offer to interview them tomorrow.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Sue, my roommate, is frantic because there is no one to bring this sick girl to the general hospital. I am pretty flexible so offer my presence and off we go. We have an appointment with the urinologist at 10.00 AM. Without a problem we get to the urinology department of the General Hospital (Haiti’s state hospital). Outside I see large hospital tents everywhere, it seems that each and every NGO of any dimension, has conquered a corner of the parking of the general hospital. But it looks more or less organized, quiet even, with many ‘blancs’ walking around in green outfits. The girl and I squeeze ourselves on a tiny chair in the waiting room, the girl's mom outside with her luggage the size of a large trash bag full of stuff – assuming her daughter has to stay here. The doctor is in a meeting. At 11, there is some confusion. The doctor is gone. At 12 there is some more confusion, the doctor was never here, but is ALWAYS in his own clinic on Fridays. Oh well, at least I am not surprised. Thankfully I am able to organize a visit with another urinologist and before we know it we’re done. The girl, who is carrying a colostomy has a hole in her uterus and needs surgery. But her situation is too delicate to stay in the general hospital (obviously the circumstances here are not quite as sterile and hygienic as our own hospital) so we are sent back and have to wait for two hours on the street for our driver.Meanwhile the girl is screaming with pain; she can not sit or stand, only laying down is comfortable but obviously that is hard on a buzzing street downtown.
We get to our hospital, the girl back to her room and I go look for my four candidates who have been patiently been waiting for me. There they are, all polished and shiny, with a real CV under their arm. I am impressed! We find a table and we have an animated group interview. They are very serious and interested in the job but I am not sure if they are capable. None of them speak English, only two have an email address and only one of them has finished university. We’ll see but I don’t think it’ll work out for them.
Danny rushes me into his car, I have to come, I have to help him. He is very unclear about what’s going on so I just go and will see. We drive around a block and another block and end up in a small shantytown where we will hand out bags with baby stuff. Hundreds of men, women and kids come running to the car, push and pull and shout. It is quite horrible. Danny hands out a colorful bag to the mothers with babies.
The mothers get upset because there is not enough for everyone and the ones who receive a bag are very adement about it: they will NOT share. It is painful to watch and I decide to wander off. A cute smiley little girl takes me by the hand, and shows me around her village.
It is not really destroyed, but poor, so, so poor. It makes me very sad. Every one is hungry! Here the people are sweet and seem to kind of accept their destiny of not receiving the goody bag. “Next time, si dye vle (if God wants)” they just sigh. Back at the crowd they are still arguing about who is getting what. I feel very sorry for them. It is embarrassing to see grown ups fighting over half a pack of diapers.
Saturday, March 5, 2010
This morning, I have a meeting with two of the four applicants for micro credit. Two young men, kind and smart and super serious. I am so proud of them! I remember them as little boys with dirty knees and full of mischief. Their applications are maybe a bit too ambitious but I love the positive attitude and they promise to rewrite the proposal, together with a group of friends so they can share the risk and the benefits when their business becomes reality. It is really nice to see them thinking so carefully about their future.
I take care of my usual chores and later catch a ride with a friend, director of a large Haitian company, who takes myself and another volunteer to Petionville. We have a look at the hospital again and are both silent with sadness. We talk, my friend might have some ideas for the particpants in my foundation. Great! There is a project to create employment with a small investment which sounds interesting and I hope that I can get some of ‘my’ kids to participate in this program. It would generate twice the minimal income for them.
Later, back at the house, I meet with Lucardo, one of KCH' beneficiaries, about his future. I ask him to think seriously about what he really wants to do with his life. I know what he wants, but does he know how to pursue his dream? A smart young man, who is missing an arm, always willing to help, he has overcome many challenges. He also had his chances but unfortunately none of them really worked out. He is almost thirty now and has to decide which way to go. I would like to invite him over to the US, to work with me and improve his English but want him first to prove that he can be responsible and make a plan to which he can stick.
Sunday, March 6, 2010, my last day in Haiti
After a nice breakfast I say goodbye to Lovely and hug her a million times before I can pull myself away from her. I go see Fr. Rick in his office and we have a coffee, he is also about to leave the country for a few days. Good for him! He really needs it. We hug and he gives me a bunch of cards, hand made by a very talented former student at the orphanage, Stevenson. I start packing my stuff, have a nice breakfast at Gena’s and then, finally, I have to go. Though sad to leave, at least the trip will be a little exciting as I am offered a helicopter ride to the DR. It is a beautiful flight and I really enjoy it. I have another day at the orphanage in the DR and then off I go…back to my own world, feeling happy and inspired but a little overwhelmed.
Kids Connection Haiti was founded to offer deprived Haitian youth the tools to build a more stable and secure future. Focusing on post orphanage services, KCH offers professional advice and financial support for education and livelihood, contributing to a sustainable, independent life. www.kidsconnectionhaiti.org