Friday, April 17, 2009

April 2009 Haiti Trip Journal Part I

April 15th, 2009

The donation of a lightweight notebook computer to the Alliance for Children Foundation is allowing me to do something I’ve always wanted to do – keep a journal for all of you back in the States.

It’s starting out as an unusually smooth and easy trip. All of my luggage arrived in Port-au-Prince on the same plane as I did, including the precious tub of scabies medicine so generously donated by the Catholic Medical Missions Board. Considering the exceptionally high value of the Elimite cream, it’s a real relief to have it here safely.

Jamie met me at the airport in BRESMA’s NEW CAR. The car was a donation from a family with a huge heart for Haiti in cooperation with Anderson Auto Group of Lincoln, NE. It’s a brand new Hyundai Tucson with room for five, a real trunk, and AIR CONDITIONING. Last time that I was here, Jamie’s car broke down with Jamie, Ali, and me in a rather frightening neighborhood. The girls revealed that a few weeks before they had started the old beast up and the engine had literally shot jets of fire several feet in the air on both sides. The need for a safe and reliable vehicle was urgent, and this amazing family and Anderson Auto Group really came through for all of us and the children.

We arrived in our quiet side street, parked, and knocked. In moment the afternoon calm was shattered by perhaps my favorite sound in the world; 47 children shouting my name, all at once! Ah, yes, the reason I do this work. What a blessing.

The kids look very good. A recent missions trip made sure everyone was wormed, and it already shows. I’m carrying a follow up treatment. Almost everyone seems very content. Sometimes the children are very needy and really mob me for attention, but today most were content to greet me and return to their play.

There has been one amazing change – the LIGHTS ARE ON! Answered Prayers donated enough money to fix our inverter. We have power! Of course the children have the lights on in every room in the house, because all children worldwide have trouble learning to turn the lights off ;->. Full time electricity really is a great advantage. It is safer than using kerosene lanterns, our usual light, and it allows the kids to enjoy a bit of television before bed. I believe this is a good thing because it enriches their language skills.

An adoptive family called in this evening. Their children were just beaming as they talked to their parents. The power of a just a few minutes of telephone contact to give great hope and pleasure to a waiting child never ceases to amaze me. I need to get a cell phone with speaker phone capability so that I can translate on the fly for parent/child conversations.

So far this week Margarette got us a meeting with the Minister of Health. I hope to meet with the Haitian Creche Directors’ Association, schedule a meeting with the French Consulate either for myself or for Dan Lauer from Holt International, go see a few people about our darn cargo container, teach a horseback riding clinic to raise some extra money for the orphanage, get a medical visa appointment for a very sick child, and travel to the mountains for a birth parent interview. All in all, a typical busy week in Haiti.

April 16th, 2009

It’s only 8:30, but I’m ready for bed…

A typical Margarette day today. After a few organizational phone calls trying to line up a medical visa appointment, assistance for our cargo container, and transportation, and some white bread dipped in coffee so sweet it makes my teeth ache, driver Frank and I headed out in the BRESMA van. We picked up Margarette at the office/guest house, where I dropped off a 15 pound dossier I lugged here from South Dakota.

Our first stop was Parquet Court. This was my first visit – until quite recently Americans were no longer welcome due to some unbecoming behavior on the part of a few American adoption agents and families. Margarette was obviously quite popular with the staff. We dropped off several dossiers.

After another thirty minutes or so of fighting traffic we arrived at the Ministry of Justice. This is the government entity to which IBESR passes dossiers of families which need a Presidential Dispensation. I was surprised and very pleased to be introduced to the woman behind the main desk on the first floor – she is our primary attorney! Mme Durclervil and Margarette reviewed the status of several cases, crossed those which had already progressed off her list, and added children whose cases were ready for the next step of processing for which an attorney would be necessary. It was interesting to note that although the Ministry did have electricity and computers, all files are still maintained exclusively in paper form.

A bit more traffic and we arrived at the Civil Registry. Throughout the adoption process, Margarette must return to the Registry again and again to have documents authenticated and legally recorded in the government registers. Again, all of these registers are physical, paper books. One can hardly imagine the chaos that would ensue if there were a fire!

Finally it was on to the office of the customs expediter who is supposed to be liberating a 43,000 pound shipment of donated food which has been sitting in port for almost two years. No luck there. I took copies of our documents, which I hope to present to some one else who might be able to help us.

On to the airport, where we picked up a jet lagged Dutch family and delivered them to their hotel. Then a quick stop at the Petionville Court about some birth certificates, and we were off to buy a few supplies. At 2:00 pm I was dropped off at home at BRESMA II, filthy, exhausted, and very, very hungry. I was about ready for bed. Margarette does this every day!

After a quick meal of goat meat soup (I rather foolishly disregarded my own travel advice, and asked what I was eating), I was off again. This time Jamie, Ti Ness and Peter came to collect me to rent a pick up truck to go to the mountains on Saturday. It is not a pleasure trip – I’ll describe what we do when we return. We had the child I hope to evacuate on a medical visa with us, to help her get used to me before I (Please, Lord!) take her with me to the States and the waiting team of doctors we’ve lined up for her. It seems it was a good idea as she went from giving me the ‘who is this crazy white woman’ look to wanting me to carry her around.

With our plans for Saturday arranged, we headed back to Jamie’s House where I spent some time with the babies and toddlers. All children can grow an astonishing amount in almost three months, but the difference in a child who was suffering from acute malnutrition is nothing short of miraculous. Three fragile infants have transformed into fat, healthy, happy babies. One of them even has fat rolls on his thighs big enough to bury one’s pinkie in the crevices. Baby perfection!

Home at last for the evening, I had the honor to introduce two children to their new family via photo album, and allow several more to talk to their families in the States on my cell phone. Margarette just called to let me know that Madame Beaudin had to cancel our meeting. We’re being bumped off her schedule for President Preval. But she called Margarette personally, and assured her that she’ll call back to reschedule for next week. So now I just have to hope that she doesn’t want to meet with us at the same time as the US Consulate grants us a Visa appointment for our very sick girl…

So I’m off to take a bath of cold water from a bucket in my bathroom, which is going to feel terrific because it’s certainly over 90 degrees in my room. The electricity is an amazing gift. I not only have power for the electric lights and to recharge this laptop, I have a fan which I can aim right at the bed. That’s the thing about Haiti. It teaches us to appreciate all of the comforts and blessings we would otherwise just take for granted.

April 17th, 2009

A slower day, thank goodness. I shared an album for the first time with a child this morning. I was a bit worried about this match, but he’s awfully smiley and silly today with his new knowledge. Two days ago I promised a young girl who can be a handful at times that if she was a good girl, I would take her with me to the Baby House today. Frank came to pick me up to go to the office a bit early, but sometimes a promise to a child is far more important than the time of two adults. Ketia’s been tying herself in knots showing me what a good girl she can be, so I had Frank chauffer the two of us a few blocks. Not only was Ketia the only child who got to accompany me, she got to ride in the car. I figure after over two years of not being chosen by an adoptive family, it’s high time Ketia was chosen for something.

A few hours of work at the BRESMA office and I have case status updates for each and every one of my families and children. I wrote the names of three families who are ready for referrals on the office board and gave the secretaries a good laugh at my spelling in Kreyol.

Jamie came to get me at the office, and then we went to ferry a Dutch family around a bit. We did some translating for the family as they picked up their new daughter and said good bye to the child’s birth mother. She’s an older woman, with eloquent, precise speech and a broken heart. She feels that she is doing what she must to provide a good life for her child, but she still cried as she held her daughter for the last time. We talked with the adoptive family about how none of us will ever know if we are brave enough to relinquish a child to save her life.

Jamie and I dropped the new family off at their hotel and headed off to Megamart for some supplies. Megamart is the Haitian equivalent of Sam’s Club in Haiti. The factory that makes the diapers Jamie usually buys will not produce any more until May, so she’s buying diapers by the package. The volume she needs is remarkable.

Jamie needs to be absolutely sure that she has all of the supplies she needs for several days stocked up, as there are demonstrations planned for tomorrow night and Sunday. The Senatorial election is Sunday. The Famni Lavalas political party, which wants to return Aristide to power, is threatening violence against the voters. It would seem that they are succeeding in disrupting the democracy of Haiti, because everyone we know says he is afraid to go outside on Sunday to vote. Many of the very wealthy have already fled the country for the weekend.
I spent some time in the afternoon with the child who will hopefully be in my charge for the next few months as we seek treatment for her medical conditions. She’s been showing some acting out behaviors lately, and I wonder just how hard this is going to be. But our family really is the best choice for her right now. She has known me for a long time, and we already speak her language. She has had enough trauma due to illness and a very difficult start in life already.

After dark I went with Jamie to look at a possible rental house. Rent in Haiti is due in full at the beginning of the year, and rent in Port-au-Prince is as high as it would be in many American cities. Jamie is looking at houses in the $12,000 - $13,000 range. Exactly where we’ll come up with $12,000 to $13,000 at the end of June, I’m not certain. The house was bigger and newer than the one she has now, but it still has no inverter and it was set up as a duplex. One with easy access upstairs and down from inside would be much better for us.

We picked up our rental car, so we’re all set for tomorrow. I will stay the night at Jamie’s house to be ready to go first thing in the morning.

April 18, 2009

We rose this morning (technically) at 3:30 am to be sure we would return our rental car before 5:00 and get home before the demonstrators started barricading the streets. Jamie, Ti Ness, Peter, Louloun, and I headed off to Bainet to visit the birth mother of one of our children. Ti Ness is Margarette’s brother. He is married to the nurse who co-manages Jamie’s House and he often drives me around the city. Peter and Louloun are also old friends who work for Jamie. They both grew up near Bainet with nurse Bielen, which is part of how Jamie maintains such a family atmosphere in her house. Today they were our guides.

Security problems have prevented me from travelling much in Haiti in the past, so today was a real treat for me. Bainet is about 150 miles from Port-au-Prince, on the Southern coast of the bottom leg of the backwards ‘C’ which is Haiti. For part of the way, we drove on the road to Jacmel.

Jacmel is Haiti’s vacation city. I’ve not been there yet, but it is supposed to be absolutely beautiful and very tranquil compared with the chaos of Port-au-Prince. The road, much used by Haiti’s elite, is newly paved and in excellent condition. Sadly for us, at least half of our journey took us off the road to Jacmel and onto a route that is far better suited to travel by donkey. Off road driving can be lots of fun, but after the first hour or so it becomes exhausting! We crossed rivers, made hairpin turns on the crumbling edges of limestone cliffs without the benefit of even a token guardrail, and drove many, many, many miles over rough, rock strewn, unpaved roads. Jamie was queasy. I whacked my head against the door more times than I could count as we were tossed around like popcorn inside the Nissan Patrol, whose four wheel drive capabilities proved necessary repeatedly. Ti Ness, who loves to pretend to be a race car driver even in the city, had a fabulous time. The rest of us clung to the door handles or each other and gritted our teeth to avoid biting our own tongues.

As it grew light enough to see, we could marvel at the lush and rugged beauty of this mountainous island. Unfortunately we could also see just how far down the bottom was as we traversed mountain ridges on the rotting remnants of roads eight to ten feet wide. Between the narrow twisting track, horrifying heights, and precariously steep hills, I decided to pretend I was on a roller coaster and stop worrying about crashing. Worrying has yet to keep an accident from happening!

The country we passed through was tropical and green and humid. People are everywhere in Haiti. Even at the very top of the absolute summit of the mountains, all usable land is occupied. We never drove more than one minute without encountering a house or a person. The land is cultivated everywhere. Banana plantations are planted right up to the trunks with beans. Some corn was grown as well, but as beans sell for more money, they were absolutely dominant. A few small patches were planted with tobacco as a cash crop and for personal use. I have no idea what the natural undergrowth of the jungle might have been. None of it remains.

The road was filled with people on their way downhill to the street markets, carrying every imaginable item to sell on their heads, in baskets, on burros, mules and small horses. The mules seemed to be the most popular beasts of burden. Many carried a rider as well as baggage. All the beasts of burden were quite small. The horses and mules were ponies standing no more than 13 hands (4’4”) at the shoulder, and the donkeys would have been called miniature donkeys in the States. Goats, sheep, cows and other livestock were staked out in the uncultivated patches by the road and between the fields to graze. Goat kids, piglets, and chickens wandered loose. It was an absolute miracle that we didn’t hit any of them or the travelers as we barreled along.

Almost all of the small farms we passed consisted of a small cement house, usually about 10 feet by eight feet, and at least one small board structure with a thatch roof. Few of the children in the road were obviously malnourished. This is quite different from Cabaret, the area from which my own Haitian born children came. There, most of the children have red hair and bloated bellies, most of the houses are ‘kay pay’ – structures made of woven sticks and roofed with thatch, and everybody locks everything when they are not at home.

After crossing a few more rivers and a few more head thwacks, we arrived at last. I was happy to get out of the car. Poor Jamie was desperately pale, even for a white woman. First we visited the home of Bielen’s family. They were thrilled to see us, and asked Ti Ness all about the new baby. Neighbors dropped by to see us and we all drank sweet, hot, strong Haitian coffee (except for Jamie!). A fat dog, one of the few I’ve ever seen in Haiti, begged for handouts. One of the men assured me that he wouldn’t bite and tried to shoo him away with a broom. I explained that I like dogs. Most people here are terrified of them. Dogs are usually feral and dangerous in Haiti, so the sight of a foreign woman leaning over to pet one is very strange indeed.

Bielen’s family is considered well to do. They live in a three room cement house which covers abut 450 square feet. They have a few nice things, such as a pretty china set kept in a beautiful wooden hutch in the main room. The floor is stained cement and the walls are painted white. Each of the two larger rooms contains a bed with a mattress and a carved wooden head and foot board, meticulously made up with pretty linens. Everyone in the family is well dressed, well fed, and educated. Bielen went to nursing school, and her older brother is an employee of Compassion International. He told me about the source of their good fortune in reasonable English.

In front of the house is a thatched roof covering the source of comfort, revenue, and security for five employees and all of their families. It is a large cement oven and a hand mill. The family operates a sustainable bakery. They grind imported wheat into flour and bake bread right here. Three times per week somebody catches a ride on a motorcycle taxi or a truck to the market in Bainet, perhaps 15 miles below, and sells the bread. Micro-enterprises like this one really work in Haiti. This family and all of their employees are well nourished, healthy and content. They’ve even had the extra money required to provide their children with the post-secondary education they need to compete for the very few jobs available in Haiti. Between the bakery, the free schools available for the neighborhood, and the rich farmland, there is more hope here than I ever saw in Cabaret.

A Haitian homestead near Bainet consists of a cement house to sleep in, a wood and thatch hut to cook in over an open fire or a charcoal brazier, and usually some sort of a covered open structure or porch which serves as the main living space. Those who are more fortunate have a few pieces of china carefully displayed on a piece of furniture in the cement house and everyone has shoes. Those who are less fortunate are barefoot and possess only a few metal cups and dishes.
As soon as Jamie felt better, we went next door to do the task we traveled for three and a half hours to perform. One of the children in Jamie’s House was relinquished by her grandmother when her mother became paralyzed. We came to Bainet to talk to her about the adoptive family, and take her picture and her story to share with her daughter when she is old enough to understand.

Rosemarie is literate and seemed quite intelligent. An older child still at home with her is going to school. She proudly showed us his copy books, filled with rows of neat handwriting. He was a well mannered child. Her parents live together in their small two room house. Two beds fill the back bedroom, where Rosemarie stays. When she described how she had become paralyzed Jamie and I wondered if she might have suffered from pre-eclampsia. We both suspected that if only medical care were possible here, Rosemarie would have been able to walk again. But as it is, she cannot rise from her bed and her parents are struggling to support her and their grandson. There is no one to chase an active toddler, and the child escaped to the road twice before the family decided to relinquish her.

We visited the families of two other children currently living at Jamie’s House to take pictures and show them recent photos of their babies. The second family was two older parents, with two children still at home. The father was recently blinded in an accident. The four of them look like they are getting by, but it would be very difficult for them to watch over and provide for an infant at the same time.

The final family was visibly in trouble. More people than could possibly lie down at once in their little house crowded in to see photos of their baby at Jamie’s House. That baby arrived severely malnourished, and the children still at home had the tell-tale brittle red and gold hair and bulging bellies caused by protein deprivation. All three women young enough to bear children were pregnant again. The youngest is the mother of the child we have in care. She is fifteen. She lives here with her boyfriend’s family. Until last year she lived at an American-run orphanage in the area. At fourteen she ‘aged out’ and was released into the streets with no job skills and nowhere to go. Her boyfriend is only nineteen. She was already pregnant for a second time when they brought the baby to Jamie’s House. Bielen sat them down and explained exactly how conception occurs. Hopefully they will not produce another child for a while, but in the meantime I can’t imagine how they will feed this one on the way.

Despite the last family we visited, Jamie and I came away feeling hopeful. The little community above Bainet is close and neighborly, and it seems most people are doing alright. Most of the people we spoke with had at least five children. I can’t help but wonder if we could help them control the size of their families and ensure that the children they did have were vaccinated and given medical care, if this neighborhood could tip over into a really good place to live. Security seems so close here we can almost taste it.

On the way home, we gave a ride to Bielen’s brother and another man from the neighborhood. To the immense amusement of Ti Ness, Louloun, and Peter, both of them were copiously, noisily, and repeatedly sick on our long, rough ride down. I felt terrible for them, especially when I realized they were being teased because Jamie was doing fine and I was hungry. Apparently having two white women prove to have tougher stomachs than two mountain men is something to laugh about, long and hard.

I am dirty, tired, and my neck is actually sore from jouncing around so long, but I’m thrilled that we were able to gather precious birth family information for one of our children, and ease the worries of a Haitian woman who dearly loves her daughter.

April 19th, 2009

Threats of elections violence kept us all indoors today. I turned on the news a few times, but the only frightening thing I saw were the interviews taken at the balloting locations. No one was voting. At 10:30 in the morning, the voting center near the BRESMA school on populous, crowded Delmas 31 had only three ballots in the box. The mere threat of violence from a group which has delivered it so effectively in the past was enough to completely disrupt the democratic process in Haiti for yet another election. The police were very evident in the streets, but no one has faith that the police can protect them.

It was relaxing and rewarding to have a whole day at home with the kids. This house is far from perfect, but it really is a pretty darn good place for children. During the day, more and more toys emerged from wherever their owners were stashing them. The kids tend to be very, very destructive and nothing lasts long unless it is hidden away. But the children have learned to create toys from almost anything. Bottle caps become plates set with tiny twig silverware at cardboard tables for imaginary families or real small dolls. The bigger boys have created spinning, buzzing toys from string and buttons or plastic bottle caps. We have a few balls and the afternoon included several soccer games with very creative and complicated rules.

I’m training the nannies on some rules for mealtimes. Everyone needs to sit at the table and eat with silverware. Easier said than done with more than 40 children in the house, most of whom grew up without either! But they tend to listen to me fairly well, especially when I explained that the televisions is a privilege which they will have after I am obeyed. Have I mentioned that I LOVE that TV? It may be the most effective form of discipline yet over such a big and rowdy group. Most of them get bored of watching it within five minutes and go outside to play, but the idea that it can be withheld or granted is highly effective. We did some work on manners today too. I reminded a few kids about please and thank you, and I can see a big difference in just one day. I always say please and thank you to them, and children love to copy the adults they love.

Just after the midday meal (chicken, rice and some vegetables today – everyone’s favorite!) I wormed everyone. This is a new medication which is supposed to kill scabies as well as most internal parasites. America is one of the few places on earth where most people do not have worms. The nannies here laugh like crazy when I tell them that I do not. “Everybody has worms!” they assure me as a group. Well, today I can testify for certain that I do not. Naturally I took the first dose in front of everyone. It was pretty yucky, but after I did it everyone wanted to. The staff were pretty surprised when I told them they were included. It hardly helps to worm all the children in the house if they can be reinfected immediately from their caretakers!

All of the staff lined up cheerfully for their dose. Even the electrician working on the wiring wanted some. Poor Manmi Ketli was hiding the back laundry area, but we found her. She swore she was going to vomit if she had to take some, but I told her it wasn’t so bad and she finally swallowed her dose.

After watching all the adults, the children were literally fighting over who got their medicine next. We formed an assembly line, with me weighing and calculating dosages, and Mis Madlen, our nurse, measuring and dosing. We medicated every child in record time. Except at the end I realized that we hadn’t treated Davidson along with everyone else. Davidson is one of the oldest boys in the house. He is a tease and a pest and too smart for his own good, and apparently afraid of taking his medicine. He reminds me very much of my own oldest son with his intelligence, good looks, and mischievous attitude. We found, weighed, and dosed him, and I’ve been enjoying teasing the little stinker ever since.

This evening it was back to work. After a few rounds of phone calls I’ve arranged for transportation for everyone who must be there for the medical visa appointment for our sick little girl. The Consulate is under no obligation to grant medical visas. In fact, technically, there is no such thing. As an act of mercy, the Department of State has the capability to issue a short term visitor’s visa to a child. It is always difficult, as visitors must both prove and swear that they will return to their home countries. Children can do neither.

Over the years, the issuance of medical visas for Haitian children has been much abused. Families adopting children have brought them to the states for medical treatment and failed to return them to Haiti to complete the adoption process lawfully. Keeping a child who is not legally yours in your home without the permission of your own government, the child’s legal guardians, nor that of their birth country is a serious crime and a violation of trust of the Haitian government. Having been a foster parent myself, I do know exactly how it feels to ‘return’ a child to a less than ideal solution. Unfortunately, it is now extremely difficult to obtain a visitor’s visa at all for a child in an orphanage, even when the consequences of failing to do so may prove fatal. That is why I’m going to the appointment tomorrow.

Angel Missions Haiti is applying for the Visa for us, but the child lives in an orphanage. I’m hoping my high profile work with the Department of State will pay off. If anybody is ever sure to return a child as promised, it is me. I do understand that my failure to do so may very well mean death for other children. I also understand that if we fail tomorrow, our little girl is in terrible trouble. This is an especially difficult case, as not only is the child abandoned, her complete diagnosis is unclear. I’m praying that all of our paperwork is in order, that the initial interviewer is in a good mood, that she knows who I am, that the Consulate shows mercy.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Diana! It is so lovely to hear the details of what you are doing on your trip! May God give you strength & favor! We are praying for you!

    Kate Mularski