Monday, August 8, 2011

When All Else Fails

Today was another one of those really mixed days.  Intake day. 

We met with two families who BRESMA has been financially supporting for over a year.  One includes a grandma and her two adult children and her daughter-in-law.  The daughter's husband was killed in the earthquake when she had one toddler and was just pregnant with their second child.  The son's eighteen year old girlfriend has a baby boy.  The second family is a single mother with a baby boy and a five year old girl.  All of these adults are absolutely resolute.  They believe that they cannot raise their children in Haiti.  They are adamant that they want to place them for adoption.  We must respect their judgement as adults and parents who know what is best for their children.  I went through the speech with them - that the children will never return to Haiti, that adoption is forever, that I will beg for photos and updates but I can't force adoptive parents to consider the feelings of the birth parents - but they've heard it all before several times and will not change their minds.

We don't know where the biological father of the five year old girl is, and we can't place her without his consent.  Her mother begged me to find a family for her anyway, but I had to tell her that Margarette was right.  We must find him first.  I told her to try everything so that I can place her delightful little girl.

Four of the children will come into BRESMA when Margarette returns from vacation in a few weeks.  I spent some time with each child and parent, getting to know what I can about them.  Times like this I really feel the weight of my responsibility to these families.  They are trusting me to find parents who will cherish and raise their own children.  I pray that I have the wisdom to serve them well and earn the trust they are giving me with no recommendation other than blind hope.

Margarette handed out packages of beans and rice to everyone - lots of bags, this time, as she'll be on vacation for about two weeks.  We packed everyone in the bus and drove to BRESMA to load everyone up with baby formula, powdered milk, and ibuprofen.  Margarette handed out some emergency cash too, just in case.

When it was time to go, the five year old girl said quietly, "M'ap rete avo."  ("I'm staying with you.")  I told her mother to look hard for that birth father.  Some of our older kids seem to be so aware of how precarious their family's situation is that they actively want to be adopted, even though they love their parents.  Perhaps she'll find the missing biological father.  Perhaps something will change.  I sure hope so.  Such a bright and personable little girl deserves a solid future.

I spent the afternoon with my friend Michelle Meece from Hands and Feet.  I love this group.  They really understand the purpose of an orphanage, which Michelle demonstrated beautifully. 

"This is what Hands and Feet does," she explained as we lounged on the upstairs patio at the guest house.  "When a kid is walking right off a cliff, this is us."

She pantomimed grabbing the back of a child's shirt.  It's the perfect image.  There sure do seem to be a lot of cliffs in Haiti.  But at least in Jacmel, and soon in Gran Goave, there will be vigilant guardians on a few of them.

Time to rest
I'm leaving tomorrow.  I have distributed all the little gifts that filled my duffel bag, and packed it away in my carry on suitcase.  I have about 300 emails to answer, paperwork to distribute, case updates to share and referrals to make to waiting families.

I don't believe I'll be checking any bags on the way home this time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Up to Fermanthe

Today I travelled to visit the home of Dr. Jacob Bernard, up in the mountains above the city.  To his great joy, I didn't even ask Franck to drive me and got a ride from my colleague Denis Frantz instead.  I send all of my families to Denis when they need to hire a driver.  He spent a lot of time in Boston as a kid.  Denis speaks perfect English, is extremely conservative about safety issues, and is the only person I know in Haiti who is early for everything.

Naturally, we arrived at Dr. Bernard's house early.  He wasn't even home from church yet.  I spent a very peaceful and restful half an hour enjoying the cool, fresh air of the mountains and the astonishing scenery from Dr. Bernard's small hotel.  Anyone wanting to experience the beauty of Haiti really should spend a night with the Bernards!

The first car to return from church was an SUV carrying eighteen small children, all dressed to the nines and obviously thrilled with their visit to church!  They are all going to bible camp this week.  It's pretty obvious that the Bernards' choice to sign them up for camp was a very popular decision.

Dr. Bernard and I had only a few minutes together as he was headed out to Leoganne, but we conferred about the one case we are working together and about the process in general.  Dr. Bernard says his cases are moving along smoothly.  Like the rest of us, he's not sure what President Martelly's statement about ending independent adoptions means.  He suspects that there will need to be a licensed creche involved in Haiti, and a licensed agency involved in the U.S.  This will affect Dr. Bernard profoundly, as he is the only creche director we work with who still works with families with no agency in their home nation.

Our brief meeting over, I went with Mrs. Bernard to visit the kids.  They're still living in a separate building at the guest house, where they are within easy reach if a disaster were ever to strike again.  As ever, the care here is very, very good.  The kids are happy, organized, and in superb health.  I may have seen the fattest baby thighs I've ever seen today.  Her upper legs were almost as wide as they were long!

I agreed to stay for lunch with a few of the guests.  The Bernards tend to serve American food.  I imagine for most people it's comforting to have familiar food in a strange country.  I've come to dislike it.  Sure, I'll eat a turkey and cheese sandwich here, but it just doesn't seem right in Haiti.  Bring on the banan prese!

Although they just had a group of sixty-five guests during the week, today the Bernards had just six visitors.  One of them was a single lady interested in adoption.  I had to confirm what Dr. Bernard had already told her - under Haitian law, she is not allowed to adopt a Haitian child.  Such a shame.  Obviously she's already committed to Haiti, and at age thirty she's probably quite mature enough to be a good parent.  I sure do hope that new law passes someday, with the changes the Creche Directors' Association has recommended.  The one we have now is just not designed around what the children most need.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Visiting Day

Happy kids at Sonia's house
A relatively mellow day today - only three stops.

In the morning, Margarette and I went to visit our friend Sonia Andre's orphanage.  Sonia primarily places children with German families (as she can no longer work with the French families).  She's our partner on a number of cases, providing child care for a few cases Margarette is working, and checking up on all of our cases in IBESR regularly whenever Margarette is out of town.  Margarette helps Sonia with processing tricky cases.  It's an excellent arrangement for everyone.  This is still a fabulous house.  Truly exceptional child care!  It would be very difficult to find any American day care center that was cleaner, better supplied, or better staffed than Sonia's place.

It always makes me laugh to come here because of the reception I get.  Sonia has quite a few babies and small toddlers at the moment.  One look at me, and there is a huge chorus of wailing from at least ten frightened babies!  Separation anxiety in kids this age is a sign of healthy attachment, and there is no question that these little guys know who their caretakers are.  All I have to do is look at them and I set them off again.  It was quite challenging to get a happy photo for one of my adoptive families of a baby boy who was not at all pleased to see me.  At least the older kids were very pleased to see me again.  They had a few new dance moves to show me.

Sonia has asked me to find families for two of her children in particular: a little boy to whom she is so attached after his long residence that she just wants him closer to Haiti, and a little girl who was recently abandoned.

Chistina and me
The girl's story is probably a common one, except for the ending.  Christina was living with just her mother in one of the tent camps.  Last January, her mother died of cholera.  There was absolutely no one else in the world to care for this child.  Someone in the camp was aware that the mother died, and Christina was brought to the community leaders of the camp.  Someone called IBESR, and luckily for Christina, IBESR chose to call Sonia and Sonia had space for her at the moment.  She is one of the lucky ones.  I can still see the immense grief in her eyes, but she will have a family and an opportunity that so many never will have.

Next we went to Giant Market.  It's a bit higher up the hill in Petionville than our old market, the Caribbean Market.  That building was entirely destroyed in the earthquake, killing many in the collapse.  There was a remarkable story of a survivor pulled from the rubble days and days later.  It's amazing Giant Market didn't collapse too: it's built up on stilts over a parking garage.

Haitian food prices are much like they were before.  They are comparable to what they might be in a Manhattan market for most foods, and higher for certain things that must be shipped in, such as baby formula.

We stopped by BRESMA again on our way back to the guesthouse and office.  The boy and girl twins who arrived the day before I did seem to have settled in completely.  They are amazingly resilient children!  One of our little guys was at the dentist when we arrived.  He has the worst teeth I've ever seen.  I'm a bit anxious as to the quality of dental care, although I might just be prejudiced.  I have no reason to think a Haitian dentist would be any less competent than an American dentist.  Our little boy came back with a few abscessed teeth removed and instructions to only eat liquids for a few days.  I suspect the damage was from a very poor diet combined with a great fondness for sugar cane!  I know that his birth father has good teeth.  Wislande was already hovering over him trying to plan a lunch he could eat.  He's in good hands.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Sort of Homecoming

Fretnel, Simone, Miracia, Wislande, and Fanni
The house is empty and silent no more!!

This morning I visited BRESMA orphanage and passed a few happy hours with our seven children in care.  We have four full time nannies and a cleaner, so they are just as indulged and well tended as one could possibly hope for.

The nannies include a few familiar faces.  Manmi Fanni has worked for us for about nine years.  Those of you who know and love her will be pleased to hear that she is not and will not be doing any laundry at all!  The kids will benefit enormously from Fanni's kindness, patience, and wisdom.

Wislande is a very beautiful young lady who worked at BRESMA I before.  I credit her personally with saving the life of the child who had the worst case of  wet malnutrition I have ever seen.  He was so edemic that he was losing skin all over his body, particularly on his hands, feet, and genitals.  I took photos to record the disease, but I've never been able to bear showing them to anybody.  Wislande.decided that he was her personal responsibility.  She couldn't touch him much - it was too painful for him - but she would stand or sit by his crib for hours, talking to him and loving him and never letting him give up.  It worked.  She is young and fun and enthusiastic and is a great companion for the kids.

Miracia has worked at BRESMA on and off for several years.  She is one of the most patient human beings I know, and I have never seen her angry or even irritated.  She loves nothing more than playing with small children.  She's an absolutely terrible disciplinarian, so I'm very glad she's not there alone.  Every child in her care without a balancing influence is sure to turn out too spoiled for his own good.

I don't know Simone or Fretznel yet, but Wislande and Fanni approve.  That's a very good sign.\

The children arrived in BRESMA starting on July 6th.  That was a very big day for us.  A year and a half after the earthquake, BRESMA was ready to shelter children under her own roof.  These toddlers and preschoolers are being housed in the old building, which was undamaged.  It's been freshened up with new paint and we have new appliances care of Answered Prayers.  The kids are eating a lot of meat!  And manners are a focus.  As they were busy feeding the kids, Fanni, Simone, and Wislande each had Aslin and Bodelais say Grace for the same meal, unaware that the others had done so.  Everyone has to say thank you and take turns with toys too.

The twins
A few of the kids will go to Argentina, but most will come to the US until France or Holland reopens adoptions for their citizens.  I'm amazed at the resilience of a pair of boy/girl twins who just arrived yesterday.  They actually seem quite happy here, despite all that they have lost.  They are getting a great deal of attention, and we have all sorts of fascinating toys, but they have lost their family.  I suppose that having each other helps too.

I'm delighted to spend some time with Aslin.  He and his brother came into care first, after their mother died of what I believe to be cholera.  He deep in grief when I met him in May.  What a changed child he is!  Once he decided I was okay, he invited me to participate in car races and all sorts of games, chattering away and grinning like the clever and happy little boy he deserves to be.  We've already made a positive difference for him.  He is visibly content and happy, even in the orphanage.

Bodelais has also had great loss in his life.  He's a very serious little guy.  He had nothing to say to a stranger, but the nannies say he knows every word of many of the hymns they like to sing with the kids.  He eventually allowed me to pull him up onto my lap, and once there, he snuggled in and agreed to stay.  I asked him if he enjoyed playing with any of the kids, but he denied having any friends at BRESMA.  Good thing that's not true - he and Aslin are obviously best buddies.  But the only person he says he wants to play with is his sister, Loutiana.  She is somewhere on the streets in Cabaret.  Margarette is going to try to find her.  I'm going to pray that she can, and that if she does, that Loutiana is not hardened by what she has experienced and that we can find the right family for the two of them together.  An enthusiastic young Red Cross worker said that it must be very rewarding working with real, individual people rather than big programs as she does.  She's right; it is. But on the other hand, she does not have the image of one lost little girl to haunt her.  We fail at least as often as we succeed.

I had an early afternoon meeting with the Adoptions Officer at the US Consulate.  She has been very good to work with, and I'm sorry that she is leaving in November.  I had a few questions for her this meeting, and she introduced me to her successor.  It would seem we're in luck.  Kim also seems like a very kind person.  She's been in Haiti for over a year, and she seems to want to be here.  She also seems pretty excited about working on orphan Visas.  I gave her my traditional one minute lecture that I habitually give to all of the new Adoptions Officers when they start.  She is the very last protection against human trafficking, and she must never let down her guard when protecting Haitian children and Haitian families.  Adoptions must be safe and legal if they are to continue to exist.

An aside about how our government works: we're always complaining that the Haitian government is inefficient and full of red tape.  DOS wants to investigate one of my right now.  However, somehow the formal approval of the forms I600 did not come through from the NVC - just the forms and scans of the kids' documents.  Emily has an email from me from before, which includes scans of those letters of approval, and she's been working with me for years and has confidence that I would not have forged those letters.  However, she can't accept the scans that I or my clients made of the letters.  Only scans made by the NVC are acceptable.  She and I will both remind the NVC about the case until the letters are sent to her from their office.  Once before, years ago, scans of notarized Powers of Attorney that were sent from USCIS proved inadequate for DOS to allow me to attend a Visa interview for a family.  We do seem to have quite enough problems with red tape in our own government.

The gang at Notre Maison
Final stop for the day was Notre Maison, an orphanage which houses children with disabilities as well as standard abandonment cases.  I found the orphanage looking well.  Gertrude has been taking guests in on the second story of the house, which used to be supported financially by her large guest house.  That building was destroyed in the earthquake.

Gertrude told me a truly ironic story.  A few months ago, her kids were invited to a special party hosted by IBESR for the children of various orphanages.  At six a.m., a bus arrived to take them to the party.  They hadn't had breakfast yet, but off they went to a very exciting day.  Sadly, the real excitement was just beginning after they came home. 

Gertrude was awoken in the wee hours be a nanny, who said that the children who had been at the party had diarrhea.

"Which children?" asked Gertrude.

"All of them," answered the nanny.  Yep, all thirty of them.  Gertrude tried Pepto Bismol and Immodium, but in the end 17 of the children were so sick they had to be hospitalized.  Gertrude kept calling IBESR, which kept wanting to know exactly which of the kids were sick.  Eventually it came out that all of the children at the party had gotten food poisoning.  Neither IBESR nor UNICEF offered to help pay the medical bills, or for the extra nannies Gertrude had to hire to watch the kids still at home while their familiar nannies went to stay with the kids at the hospital.  Fortunately she was able to move them all to Doctors Without Borders' facility, which is very near her orphanage and did not charge her for caring for the children.  Gertrude says that if she'd hospitalized 17 children from her house from food poisoning that had happened at home, there would have been an inspection and consequences.  But she paid all the consequences in this case alone.

We agreed that it had been a very expensive party.  But the kids still thought it was really fun!

After I finished my visit with Gertrude, at around 4:30, I got back in the van and told Franck that I needed to go to Sonia's house, which is on the other side of town.  Much to his credit, he said nothing and just started the van with a frozen look on his face. 

"I'm kidding," I told him.  "That's enough work for one day."

He just shook his head and smiled.  Poor Franck.  He must just dread my trips here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Opinions at the Airport

Today I went back to the airport to get my luggage.  For those of you who have not spent much time in Haiti, or have not read my previous posts about what is involved in retrieving lost luggage in Haiti, allow me to bore you with the story of my day.

There was a number to call on my 'delayed baggage'slip, but of course there was never an answer at that number.  So Franck and I drove back to the airport to arrive around noon, which is when the flight from Continental was due to arrive.  I did know where Continental had set up their lost baggage department because my usual baggage guy showed me yesterday.

A brief digression to explain my baggage guy.  I don't need help with my luggage.  Ever.  And I'm fortunate enough to be able to say so clearly in Kreyol, generally adding, "Even if you take my bags, I'm still not going to pay you anything", which is the only surefire way I've found to make everyone leave me alone when I travel alone.  But my baggage guy is deaf!  My first few trips where he met me, I brought great amusement to all of his colleagues as I told him very loudly and in no uncertain terms that I did not want any help.  Actually, I suspect he's in on the joke.  At this point I've given up, and he gets to carry my suitcases for me every time.  His genuine pleasure in soundlessly welcoming me to Haiti each trip is worth the five bucks I give him. But in any case, on this trip he really earned those five dollars and more.  I would never, ever have found the unlabeled closet Continental is using for a baggage office, tucked away behind another building. 

Unfortunately on this trip, Continental's one flight per day from Newark to PaP was delayed by three hours.  Nobody at the airport, including Continental employees, could tell us what was going on, and if the plane was even in the air.  I say us because I was not alone.  There must have been 20 people, all waiting to retrieve luggage lost on the flight from the day before.  At one point I was told that the plane had set down in Santo Domingo because of Tropical Storm Emily.  I finally had to call the States and have someone in my family find out that the plane had in fact left the US, and was in fact due to arrive in PaP in another hour.  By this time, Franck and I had been waiting for three hours.  Franck was remarkably cheerful about it all, considering everyone else had the day off because of the possibility of the storm, and here he was stuck with me in the airport parking lot all day long.

Finally the plane arrived, about four hours late, and the other luggage-less people and I stampeded backwards into the Immigrations/Customs/baggage area.  My things arrived with the general luggage, and I was able to walk out with them.  I declare, never has a carry on suitcase and a battered duffle bag looked so lovely, so desirable, as did mine this afternoon!

I can't quite describe the day as a complete waste, although I accomplished nothing on my very long list of tasks.  I had some very interesting conversations with my fellow baggage-less travellers.  One lady from Canada was very pleased to note all the tourists coming in to Haiti.  That was her apt description of what I suppose can best be described as the new 'aid tourism' industry that is popping up.  The planes are filled at least 50% with Americans, Canadians, and even a few Europeans who are coming to Haiti with private organizations and small aid groups to help.  I can't speak for how effective their projects might be.  I imagine there is a huge range.  But all of them are spending money here.  If nothing else, they are stimulating the economy.  Perhaps  when enough of them go home and report that Haiti is beautiful, her people are hardworking and delightful, and the security risks are so much lower than they ever were before, regular tourism will return.

I had a much less positive conversation with a lady who took one look at the BRESMA polo shirt I was wearing, heard what we did, and practically spat in disgust.  She even switched to perfect English to make herself very clear.  Her opinion of orphanages was not favorable.  I think I surprised her when I agreed with her completely, stating very firmly that Haitian children first and foremost belong in Haitian families.  She was very angry that orphanages use children for the sex trade.  I suspect this is not as widespread as she thinks it is - I believe the most common issue is simple malnutrition, lack of care, lack or caretakers, and warehousing of children.  All of these are quite awful enough without adding exploitation.

Finally, I had a conversation with an American man who works for a group that generally just builds churches, but is also creating an orphanage that is intended to hold up to 100 little girls, ages three to five, all 'true' orphans.  They intend to place them all for adoption.  I imagine eventually they'll see that we don't choose the easiest children to place for adoption.  We don't get to pick the ones that most American families would best like to adopt.  We are forced to accept those for whom we can find no other possible solution.  Tomorrow I'm off to resort to that solution for several children with no other options.

I do know this is a bit shallow, but I am ecstatic that I will be doing so in clean fresh clothing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Lesson in Relativity

It would seem that this trip I am to have a lesson in patience, tolerance, humility, and priorities. 

This is my 30th trip to Haiti.  That's right: three-zero.  And so, upon arriving at the airport where I would stay overnigh last night, I was quite confident that I would need to pick up my suitcases, as I have had to do the other 29 times I've traveled.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Newark, waited for my bags, and was told that they had been checked through to PaP!  Imagine my lack of confidence in the Continential Airlines officials who told me this, when the airline has only been flying into Haiti for a few months, and I'm pretty darn sure they are not allowed to hold my bags overnight for me, no matter how much I've begged them to in the past.  Imagine my disappointment at checking into my hotel with the clothes on my back, none of which are suited for Haiti in August.  And naturally, neither bag has made it here to Port-au-Prince with me.

So, as I said, I''m having a lesson in patience and priorities.  I'm typing this blog entry in blue jeans with bare feet in the BRESMA office, two big cultural no-no's for me.  After seeing my heavy, hot Ariat cowgirl boots, nobody is giving me a hard time about it, even though an adult allowing her feet to touch the floor is culturally unacceptable here.

You see, a tropical storm is bearing down on us.  I'm at the guest house using wireless internet and stuck with wearing the same, too-hot clothes for a third day straight until my suitcase arrives tomorrow.  But I've just driven past so many people who have never in their lives owned such riches as I have waiting for me in my 'carry-on' bag, where ever it may be, that all I can think of is how grateful I am to have a sink to wash a few critical items for recycling tomorrow.  Nothing like Haiti to remind us even in the midst of what seems like great provocation that as Americans and Europeans, we will experience very few 'real'problems in our life times.   That line in the old, traditional grace: "May the Lord make us truly grateful for what we are about to receive" speaks great truth.  Haiti teaches us to love what we are given.

Today I finally got to see the Judicial Complex when Franck and I drove there from the airport.  I felt bad for Franck.  Generally, Franck is not the most punctual of men, even when he has not forgotten me at the airport (it's happened!).  Today he waited over two hours before I arrived, and it was hot, hot, hot.  I've never been to the Judicial Complex before as parents didn't used to go, and at that time, I would not have been well received due to some difficulties certain Americans were causing with culturally inappropriate behavior.  But today we picked up one of my adoptive families after they saw the Dean.  Our latest office worker is just finishing law school here, and she gave me a tour.  In jeans.  Ugh.  Good thing we couldn't go into any of the courtrooms anyway.

The complex has complete electricity and even air conditioning throughout.  I was impressed - it's the most 'modern'government office I've been in yet.  Now I'll be able to explain to each family exactly what and where their two court appointments are.

Things are really moving along with adoption cases in Haiti.  I can't wait to go over each case with Margarette, so I can update everyone.  Assuming that my suitcase with all of my case data shows up in the right country.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The First New Homecoming

We are beside ourselves with joy to announce that our first post-earthquake Haitian adoption is complete.  On Saturday afternoon, a special young lady of fifteen years landed in Miami with her adoptive mother.

L. is a 'true' orphan who has been adopted by a family who befriended her in Haiti several years ago.  The case entered IBESR in November of 2010.  Dispensation was needed, but as the child was from a different district, her adoption decree could be issued by a local court rather than Parquet court in Port-au-Prince.  This was an atypical case, as documents from the rural community where the child was born were difficult to secure, but the adoption decree itself was a bit easier.  We still view the processing time of only nine months from IBESR to homecoming as very promising.  May other children find their way home quickly too!

Congratulations and blessings to L.  You have waited a long time for a family.  We think you are very blessed with the one that you have found.