Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blancs in Citae

Yesterday we went to a small village called Citae outside of Jacmel.

The journey there was an adventure in and of itself there really aren’t any roads by American standards, more like paths wide enough for a car to get through. We drove through 3 rivers to get there, passing huts filled with women washing clothes, livestock, donkeys trudging through the rubble dumped along the way from Jacmel buildings.

We arrived mid morning and uploaded the truck. Barton Brooks of Guerilla Aid is building a school in the town, and we set about building water filtration systems. It sits up on a mountain, right by the water, and the view is absolutely breathtaking.

We rolled up into the village in the truck a bunch of white people sticking out like a sore thumb in the tiny village. Citae is a village of about 200, and is a pretty isolated place. Barton decided to build a school there because it was one place that hadn’t been touched by any of the major relief efforts. The damage sustained from the earthquake was significant, but you could tell that they didn’t have much to begin with.

Little girl holding onto her cardboard frisbee for dear life.

The Haitian women had set up a small table near where we were working and cooked most of the afternoon, in hopes that we would buy something. The kids ran around and played, making kites out of plastic bags and frisbees out of cardboard.

Boys playing with their kite.

The teenagers and adults were incredibly helpful. They watched us carefully and the ones that weren’t busy working on the school carried things for us and were incredibly friendly and grateful. They were chatty, and many seemed to speak at least a few words of English. We managed to complete the water filtration units for every family in the village, which was a cool feeling. Clean water is obviously an issue, so giving them the power to make their drinking water safe is very much a life saving thing.

There was an old man with a sewing machine that worked diligently the whole time we were there. Clothes were strewn in the trees behind him to dry. He told one of our team members that his father had carried the sewing machine on his head from Santiago 34 years ago, and he’d held on to it ever since. The machine was on an old table that sat outside in front of his shack, and you could see the pride in his face when he talked about the machine. The rubble on the left side of the photo is what used to be his house.

We walked through the village before we left, just to take in some of the beauty of the place. We were greeted with smiles and waves and a lot of bonjous mostly thanks to Barton’s team who had broken the ice with the people who lived there. I heard the kids giggling and saying “blanc! blanc!” (“White! White!”) and it made me laugh.

It was incredible to get away from the city and see how beautiful the people and the country really are, and to be able to hopefully have some impact on the lives of people we will probably never see again is something that we can’t take lightly.

More on Sisters of Charity

Yesterday morning was spent at the Sisters of Charity orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. I was told going in that they follow the “Mother Teresa” model – in other words, they only take the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. We were going specifically to hold babies.

The babies we were visiting were supposed to be between up to two years old, but it’s really impossible to tell how old they are. They’re so malnourished that the two year olds look as if they could be 9 months. We had to judge based on their teeth and their eyes – really, we guessed.

One little girl laying on her back in the crib looked older to me – she had a full set of teeth and her feet were much larger. We guessed her around two and a half. I started wondering if she could walk so I picked her up and put her on the ground. She toddled around hesitantly – clearly not used to the freedom.

I took her hand and walked her to the door, ready to take her into the courtyard. She stopped at the door and just stared out. The contrast to the children I’m familiar with was amazing – the reckless abandon of a toddler learning to walk was nowhere to be found in this little girl.

I brought her outside into the sunlight and let go of her hand. She just stood. She didn’t cry or laugh or smile or anything at all. She just stood in the sun. I wanted her to run toward me or try to escape or get me to chase her.


The Sisters that run the orphanage are clearly good women. They did their job well – they kept the place pretty clean, and I think the kids were fed enough. They clearly made most of the clothes – most of the babies wore matching checked shirts, all sewn from the same fabric.

I tried for a minute to put myself in their position. They clearly didn’t have the resources or the knowledge to give extensive medical treatment. They treated for Scabies and did what they could. Babies still die all the time. There aren’t enough of them to give the babies the attention they need. The babies are mostly two to a crib, and like the little girl, there is little attention paid to anything but keeping them alive. After all, what else can you do? When you’re charged with keeping that many children alive, how can you really do anything else?

The answer is that you really can’t. Especially after a disaster like this, you just have to go on autopilot and do what you can. My heart goes out to the Sisters who live with this day in and out.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tuesday morning in Jacmel.

As I said a couple hours ago, we headed to Sisters of Charity – a Catholic orphanage in Jacmel. The babies there, predictably, broke my heart. There were children that had to be at least 2 and a half years old… who don’t really walk. Babies that are two, that look like 9 months old. They’re malnourished. They have scabies. The skin hangs off their legs. We weren’t allowed to take pictures – on some levels, I’m grateful.

We fed them oatmeal. I was feeding one little boy, and got sidetracked for just a second and stepped away. When I came back, he was crying – but not making a sound. I had heard about the silent tears that orphans learn to cry – they just understand that it isn’t going to do any good because no one will hear them. So when they cry, they don’t make any noise at all. It was heartbreaking.

I had a little girl strapped to my chest, one little boy on my hip, and another little boy holding my hand. The two little boys couldn’t make eye contact. They had amazing eyes, framed in dark lashes and they were just stunning. Some were more detached than others. Most of them have no chance, and that’s impossible to comprehend for me. Gwenn goes to visit at least once a week, so for at least that time, those kids can connect. She explained that she’s grateful that they cry when we leave, because it means that they are learning to form attachments to people.

A girl peeking out from between the gates at the hospital.

When we left, we walked outside and saw the hospital directly across the street. There were lines of people under stretched out tarps, children peeking out between the railings. Crumbling concrete everywhere.

The line at the hospital this morning.

I’m off to Citae now to hand out water filtration systems. I’ll post more photos as I can.

The first night in Jacmel

It was not quiet.

We went to bed early. I feel asleep quickly – it was a long day and we started at 4:30am, it was like 10pm when I crashed. After a cold shower that smelled like Haiti, I went to sleep under my mosquito net on the bottom bunk. Just after midnight or so I woke up, and one of my team mates said “Are you awake? I think the power is off.” And it was. The city power is running about 12 hours a day here, and the house is on generator the rest of the time. We went and woke up the director and sent him downstairs to talk to the guard about getting the generator turned on… being without power makes you a little more vulnerable to intruders. Plus, it’s hot under those mosquito nets without the fans.

The generator turned back on, but it was so loud. You can hear everything in the street, and let me tell you, their streets are not like American cities. There were dogs howling, roosters crowing, people yelling. The Mangine’s refer to Haitians at the “Italians of the Caribbean”, just because they are INCREDIBLY animated and loud. And beautiful.

It took me forever to fall asleep, but I eventually did. Then sometime around 4am I think, there was a woman with a megaphone, chanting and yelling something in Creole. I have NO idea what she was saying, but we just laid there and prayed. Voodoo curse? Just crazy? Who knows.

We woke up at 6am. We’re headed out to Sisters of Charity today to hold the babies at the orphanage. Gwenn explained it to us as the Mother Teresa model, where they only take the poorest of the poor. A lot of them are sick, severely malnourished, handicapped. And their situation isn’t likely to change. A lot of them are kept 2 or 3 in a crib, in nothing but a cloth “diaper” the thickness of a bandana. Basically, a poop catcher.

Anyway, I’m trying to prep myself. Praying.

After that, we’re headed over Citae. Barton Brooks of Guerilla Aid has been there building a new school – aside from that, they’ve received very little aid. We’re headed to hand out water filtration systems and teach them how to use them.

Should be quite a day. Will update later.

Monday, March 1, 2010

First impressions. And the boy in the blue shirt.

I got to Jacmel today. We left Miami early this morning and flew in to Port au Prince. I'm not sure what I expected - but the scene at the airport was crazy. I was told that it wasn't all that different from normal. The gates were completely swamped with people - all of them wanted to help us, so we would tip them.

The red gates of the Port au Prince airport. We pushed our way through the crowd to meet the van that transported us to the small plane we took from Port au Prince to Jacmel.

I'm going to leave out most of the travel logistics because they're boring and blessedly uneventful. We got to Jacmel around lunch time and ate, then left on a walking tour through the city.

I have followed blogs, and seen hundreds of photos. I have watched videos. I've spoken to people on the ground. I knew coming that I couldn't truly be prepared. And I can honestly say that it was what I expected. But it's nothing like seeing it in person. I've been mulling for hours, going back through the 300 or so photos I took, trying to articulate it. I'll do the best I can.

This used to be a 3 story house. That rubble in front is what used to be the bottom floor.

We walked through the "tourist section" - the place where cruise ships would drop people off to shop, eat, etc. The people expected us to be taking pictures. A lot of clean up has been done, but it's still just incredible. At times it was hard for me to tell which things were dilapidated prior to the quake and which things crumbled on January 12th. We moved out of the "tourist" district into the "poor" district, as Nick Mangine described it to me. People were sitting in tents, just trying to figure out how to go on with their lives. They were shoveling debris out of the street. They were sitting there on porches, walking in and out of crumbling buildings. This is becoming their new normal.

Haitian girls pose as we walk through Jacmel.

We eventually made it to what used to be the soccer field - and what is now a tent city. I stepped in and was greeted by kids - some of them half naked, all of them just begging to be noticed. We took some photos with them, and the joy they got from seeing themselves on our camera screen made it worth it. We made our way around the muddy path between the tents, kids clinging to us on all sides. All they wanted way to be noticed. To be touched. One little boy in particular clung to my waist, muttering "bella... bella...".

Me with a bunch of the kids at the refugee camp.

A little boy in a blue sweatshirt completely stole my heart. He held onto my two fingers the entire walk, holding on for dear life. At one point, he lost his grip amidst the swarm of kids and just started crying. It occurred to me that I had no idea where his parents were, or if they were even there. I may very well have been the first kind touch he'd gotten in who knows how long. I grabbed his hand, and he calmed down quickly.

Me with the boy in the blue sweatshirt. He stole my heart.

The brutal part was leaving. By the time I reached the walkway back to the street, I have who knows how many children clinging to my arms and hands and waist and clothes, playing peak-a-boo with the other team members behind my skirt. It was clear that they just wanted to come with us. I couldn't do anything but push them off me and run. A piece of my heart stayed there.

I cried most of the way back to the house after that. I don't know that anything can match what I saw today - but I also know I just touched the tip of the ice berg. Tomorrow I head over to the orphanage to spend time with babies, and then over to Citae - a small town which has received basically no aid. I'll be sure to update as possible.

Beautiful little girls peaking out from their tent in the street.

I'm still not certain what to do with everything I'm seeing. This is the most difficult thing I've ever witnessed.