Monday, December 22, 2014

One Starfish, one family Part 1

After my first trip to Haiti in 1998, I was invited to share the experience with several community and church groups. I struggled with the absolute, grinding poverty I had witnessed. The story of the  Star Thrower resonated with me and became my 'sign off'' message at the end of each presentation. It brought some solace in that the message of doing something positive for one was doable. I could lend a hand to  one --  one  starfish.
But Starfish don't spring into the world by themselves - often there are siblings with basic needs as well - housing, food, emotional comfort and support. Infrequently, there are also parents in need.
So it is with Myriame. Home visits are part of the contract we sign with our young people. The idea stems from my days as a pilot teacher for the Junior kindergarten program in London, On, a lifetime ago. Those visits gave me insight into the kids I would be teaching and provided a level of comfort and familiarity for those entering my classroom. It works much the same way here in Haiti. As we had visited Myriame's tikay (little home) and met her family when we admitted her to our program in 2010, we did not revisit when we took on her younger sister Fatia. Myriame was suffering PTS from experiencing the earthquake, Fatia was just poor.

With the death of their mother Guerda this Nov.19 due to complications from childbirth, it was important for us to  know where our 'starfish' were now living and in what conditions. After the funeral of manman, Myriame ( 2nd year university nursing student), as the oldest (22) had begged a relative for a place to reassemble her 6 brothers and sisters, ages 4 to 20.

After the final exam, schoolmates Fatia and
 Stephen compared notes.
We made a randevu (appointment) with Fatia for the end of exams, and visited the new residence in Petitans.  Although still in Cap-Haitien it is a fair distance from their original home in Sitedepep, and now requires taking 2 tap-taps instead of a half hour walk. There is no money for taptaps so everyone walks many hours.

The allotted room is about 6X8, and contains an old 2 seater sofa with no back cushions and a single, rusted fold away cot. The floor is concrete. Along one wall stands a wooden cabinet about 4 feet in length 6 feet high, 18 inches deep. It takes up precious space and  they are not allowed to use it as it storage for hymn books. I peeked. There are 4 books inside. It would have made great storage for clothing.

Home for 7 kids between ages 4 and 22.Although mosquito infested
it is a roof over their heads, more than many have .
It doesn't take long to look at one small room. The family had nothing - no plates, glasses, silverware, storage containers, shelves etc. Everything from the family 'home' had gone to Sen Rafayel for the funeral and remained there. So - with Fatia's help I began yet another list of basics needed. We deposited food and supplies we had purchased, looked at the bathroom everyone in the lakou  (courtyard) shares (including a small preschool building) , and prepared to leave.

Preschool on left, community toilet/shower on right

Fatia said that there was a larger space they could use but it had no security. Would we like to see it? Twist my arm. It wasn't enough that we had made our way to the back of the lakou by placing stones in the standing water, now we had to traverse  more swampy, infested water to get to the staircase to see the space.
With Fatia (still in school uniform) leading the way, we made it across.
 More rain  fell that night, exacerbating the problem.

Once upstairs, we were shown a long, unfinished concrete block room. It was storage for garbage - broken chairs, desks, rusted rebars, someone had slung a clothesline. Fatia thought that they could use one third of the space so we called her uncle to find out exactly what was available. We made an appointment for the next day.  The preschool was just letting out as we made our way across the 'pond.'
Preschool across from the swamp was just letting out.

The children pursued us as I am a novelty - a blan. (stranger) With cheve blan (white hair) to boot! Two of the munchkins bravely approached me. One young lady pinched the skin on my arm and asked my if I was gate (gah teh - spoiled, rotten as garbage) I burst out laughing but the laughter turned silent when the little fellow beside her asked me for a kado (present.) What would you like? I asked innocently. Zarm (a gun) he replied. Why?  I had to ask. Tire et tiye (to shoot and kill). I told him I didn't have a gun (zarm) but I could be his friend (zanmi). A new friend is better than a gun, I posited.  As we were shaking hands on the new friendship, Princess the courtyard dog came up to sniff us. She had given birth to 7 puppies earlier in the week and was in need of food and water. Love those teachable moments -respect for weapons, friends and animals.

New mother Princess emerging from the filthy
shed which houses her 7 offspring.
Home visits are about so much more than the physical structure. After leaving the small tin of dry dog food we keep in the truck and filling a makeshift bowl with potable water, we took our leave.
There was no time to go to town shopping, so Saturday morning I raided the kitchen cupboards and enroute we stopped on the roadside to purchase an iron baker's stand for supplies, 2 planks of mango wood and a dozen concrete blocks . Wading through swampy water is not my idea of how to stay healthy. 
Fatia was doing the laundry for 7 while Mikenzy
looked after Manuela. It was the first time I had seen Fatia
smile since her mother's death.

In addition to household  supplies, we brought bowls, water and dry dog food for Princess. Mikenzy took charge of the dog food sak and promised to give her food and water each day. He accepted the responsibility with great pride and determination. We have been back many times, and Princess looks like a different dog now.

Dieugrand and Rosema were with us to help clean up, if we were satisfied that there would be adequate space for the kids and they would be allowed to stay indefinitely. The meeting with the Uncle began cautiously, with a space not much larger than what they had being offered. When I pointed out that it was not worth our time and money to create a space that would leave them still cramped with no personal or communal space, the allotted space was doubled then another 6 feet tacked on to provide another door and window. We agreed and clean up began, our staff , the kids and uncle. We had come with work gloves, mops, pails and brooms. First job - carrying out the garbage. Second job - sweeping -ceiling, walls, floor. Many hands do make light work. We included the kids because it will be their home.
Dieugrand, Rosema, a lady who had installed a clothesline,
Marielle and Fatia. Everybody worked, even the youngest.
Now we could see what had to be done, the mason and carpenter arrived  and more lists were made: buy 160 concrete blocks, 30 bags of cement, 2 doors with hardware and 2x4's for door frames (chambrun). We agreed upon their price for labor (men dev). Donation to our GENERAL FUNDS at work. We are going to put in real windows with screens to keep the mosquitos at bay, so a stop in town at Jehovah windows for an estimate (ProForma). They installed Lakay Jasmine in Sen Rafayel for us.
Before heading out on our buying spree, 2 bridges to install and cross.



Bridges installed, we were off to purchase building materials while life went on for the kids. Fatia and Marielle slugged water to continue the laundry, while Mikenzy supervised. 

Lending a hand can change many lives - the life of the one extending and the one receiving. This Saturday morning was merely the beginning. On to purchase and deliver building supplies for the bosses( foreman), find food money for the family and show them how to make a budget. Admit sister Mildrede to our program as her mother died before paying fees. Document the progress of the facelift, paint the space with the kids and move them upstairs, keep tabs on them along with the other 146 students we have. It keeps me young.
In one of his last  reflections before his death in 1996, Henri Nouwen talks about how we grow:
When a child is born, friends get married, a parent dies, people revolt,
or a nation starves, it's not enough just to know about these things and to
celebrate, grieve, or respond as best we can. We have to keep asking ourselves:
What does it all mean?
But are there any answers?
There are but we will never find them unless we are willing to live the questions first and trust
that as Rilke says, we will without even noticing it, grow into the answers.
During this holiday season, please give a thought to this little family and ask what can you do for them. I wish you growth.
Part 2 Coming soon.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

An ordinary week ...

Chicken Little had every right to squawk when it seemed the sky was falling. Sunday morning was without incident until the concrete which was holding up our eaves trough gave way and came crashing down a few  feet from where I was doing laundry. In a country where small quakes are the norm,  I squawked. Call me chicken little.
Concrete and thin wire at each end held the eaves
trough in place. I vacated my laundry buckets very quickly.

Fortunately our 'kontremet' (foreman)  student  in training, Rosema, was working a half day so we cleaned off  the remaining concrete and removed the dangling troughs.
Before I go any further, some context. I began writing this blog at 3 am then the electricity went out. The mosquitos (all potential Malaria/Dengue/Chikungunya etc carriers) were unmerciful so I retreated until electricity returned at 5 am. My friend Daniel says writing is a creative process which requires time and a quiet space. At 5 am  roosters are crowing, homeless dogs are barking, rain is beating a steady rhythm, voodoo drums are throbbing , Lucy our cat is shamelessly begging for early breakfast, the Catholic order of brothers who operate the Azile (poor house) 2 doors down are slaughtering pigs and the makeshift garage in front of our place is operational and the mechanic is working on the starter in a tap tap for a driver who needs to make money today. The music of Haiti.Monday 8am our work week begins. Lakay Jasmine in Sen Rafayel operates 7 days a week.

Lakay Fondasyon in Cap-Haitien closes for the weekend as there is a lot of work that cannot be done with students here.

Monday 8am  Coordinator Lusnot
 prepares for students
Joceline cooks for students and dogs

Auguste stamps new  textbooks which are replacing  those damaged in
recent floods.
Dieugrand repairs a mosquito net in Joceline's room, then
covers text books
By the end of the day in Cap Haitien we had fed, tutored, counseled about 3 dozen students, many dogs and cats, prepared and packaged at least 200 text books, delivered them to the station, found a driver going to Sen Rafayel willing to take our text books, geometry sets, calculators etc... Fortunately Dieugrand knew one of the drivers who delivered our package (for a price) right to our door so Edeline began distributing that afternoon. Everyone is writing exams, every hour counts.

Next morning off to Sen Rafayel. We were hoping to travel without incident but that didn't happen.

Again we are sandwiched in stationary traffic.
These taptap passengers decided to try to pass the proses barricade on foot.
The taptap ahead of us was carrying ice to sell on the mountainside.
Sitting for  hours in the sun did not help business.
The number and intensity of anti-government protests have increased in the country. Our security coordinator Dieugrand has been trapped every time as have we. The further up the mountain, the more deadly the protest as police cannot intervene when protesters are perched on a mountain top, throwing bottle and boulders and firing guns. Boulders are the deadliest. Again we waited for PNH, the National Police Force.

After several hours as hostages, we were on our way but not for long. Bananas purchased in Dondon, we were 30 minutes from Lakay Jasmine when we got a flat tire. So near and yet so far. Being 'anpan' (broken down) on the mountainside is an opportunity to see a microcosm of Haiti pass by.

Kids attending schools in the village of Dondon walk miles
Upon arrival we are not out of the truck yet and student Angelene appears at the window. She woke in the  morning with a 'bouton' on the side of her face and it had grown into a crater about an inch across. Unpacking waits, Angelene is in distress and has to write an exam. Clutching Allimax and calendula gel, she heads off. Monese is sitting, patiently waiting for us. She has found a teacher who will arrange one of the sewing machines donated and shipped by Jasmine Foundation, so we unload supplies and load up and deliver the machine.

Loading sewing machine for Monese. Kids and dogs!! The puppies are almost 8 weeks.

Everyone is in study mode, from our dog walkers at 6am to the last to leave at 5 pm. We changed our hours as it is just too dark and too far for the kids to walk home. I have seen these great passenger carts/motorcycles around which hold about 10 people. On the wish list. 
 Angeline studies for Chemistry , text book packages
prepared by Edeline ready for distribution.
By 4 pm its too dark to study so solar lights the way for Cassimilia.
Jasmine eats as she studies - her only food that day.
6 am Dog walkers Junior and Isaac study for French before work.
For most of the 3 days we were on site, Edeline and others showed their winter finery. Although day time temps were between 85 and 90 (31 C), everyone was cold. Night temperatures dropped to a comfortable 50-55 (11 C) but not comfortable if you're Haitian and sleeping on a concrete floor.

Dressed in wool toque and winter jacket, Edeline boils 60 eggs at a time.
Lilia came dressed to study.

With all supplies on board (for a while) and the staff with everything on hand, Auguste and I changed our duds and started to give the center a base coat of paint for Christmas.

Not quite finished but looking 'belle'

At noon all 13 of our Nouvo Secondaire 3 (Reto in the Traditional stream) students at Lycee Charlemagne Perault came en masse for lunch. Post exam adrenaline was running very high. Those studying for afternoon exams cloistered themselves in the library and homework room. The layout of Lakay Jasmine is proving very user friendly, accommodating many needs simultaneously.

Post-exam adrenaline and chatter and appetites!! I couldn't get everyone
in the picture.
I couldn't resist snapping  this 3 year old outside our gate, reading/singing a page she found out of a magazine. Always one to encourage life-long learning, I scrambled to find some primary easy read books and passed them on to her mother.

Our neighbor loves to read and sing so we're
looking for more picture books for her and
others in the neighborhood.

Heading down the mountain provided more surprises-- ruts so deep the undercarriage of our truck was damaged -- twice-- and we were moving at a crawl. We made it back just a little late for the staff but they waited for us without complaint. Next day we had home visits scheduled. That's another blog - perhaps Sunday.
To update: with our support, student Paudeline did make a Rape complaint to the National Police and had a thorough exam at Justinien Hospital. Results will be ready in January. Possibilities of Aids, STD, pregnancy etc all weigh on her mind.
Myriame and Fatia's baby brother Daniel, born in November, died last Saturday Dec. 6. He outlived his mother by 3 weeks.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

It's only Wednesday

Where to begin? It's only Wednesday. Monday began with the usual hunt for water - both potable in 5 gallon jugs and well water for cleaning and laundry. That job (which can take up to 2 hours) finished, Dieugrand headed to town again to search for text books.  He gave us an extra day of work this week which really helped out. We have been scouring  the book sellers for textbooks to replace those lost in last months floods.  With 30 students (that we know of) out of the 142 we have registered losing everything, an average of 12 text books each, we had made lists, emptied our bank account, and wore out the pavement looking for text books. So much for a budget. And no list is ever finished.
Dieugrand distributes water after a 2 hour hunt
around town - kitchen, gallery and carport.

While Joceline cooked and Lusnot and Auguste looked after the office, Dieugrand returned and covered textbooks while I stamped each  to remind students to return them  in July.
Whatever was behind me on the shelf made me look like
Pinocchio. After a good laugh, the opportunity to translate the story.

Kids continued to drop in, all looking for money and adding books to the list of books needed. We covered as many as possible and left the rest for Sen Rafayel the next day.

Tuesday was an up and back same day trip as Auguste had an appointment with one of our kids late in the day.  He never turns his phone off unless I take it away from him and give him a temporary. Tuesday up and away in good time, but the universe had other ideas. We hadn't made it to Grande Riviere yet (the first of three benchmarks on our trip) when we were stopped by the line of stationary vehicles.

Traffic in both directions held hostage.
Anger on the mountainside in not new.

Some vehicles were allowed to try and cross. We were not because
I'm an 'etranje'. The anger toward me by the youth with the rock in
his hand was palpable. We retreated.

Everyone has an opinion on the problem and
shares it during a crisis.

I was taking pictures of everything and Auguste asked me not too. He offered to take one of the barricade but when he got out of the truck, a fellow hostage strolled over and asked him to hide the camera. He reasoned that those staging the protest might think we were journalists and kill us. The camera went away. After a 2 hour cat and mouse wait while some vehicles were allowed to try and make it to the other side, Auguste moved the truck to the head of the line. The anger toward me from one youth was palpable and to avoid the rock he was holding doing severe damage, we turned and headed away. A few miles down the 'road' we caught side of a PNH vehicle and made yet another u turn, joining the line which followed the police. It took 6 heavily armed officers about half an hour to disband the protesters and clear the barricade.
Heavily armed PNH arrived to quell the protest.

On our way at last we hadn't gone more than a few miles when we spotted a rig drilling for water. Because we hope to be building in the new year, we stopped for information. It was a Canadian company, LifeWater drilling from Alberta. What a great connection!!

LifeWater drilling, operated by
 Abe  from Alberta

On to Sen Rafayel with only one stop to purchase bananas (fig in Kreyol) in Dondon then on to Sen Rafayel. Okay two stops. The new Sen Rafayel bridge, which was destroyed and not replaced for 3 years has already begun to disintegrate. So we now carry 2 heavy boards, stop the truck, place them over the holes. Auguste drives over, I pick up the boards and follow him. We often leave them in place for a bit for other travelers.

Auguste covering holes in order to cross the bridge

Finally at Lakay Jasmine. A full house to help us unload the truck. Then "who want an hour's work?" John-Steevenson, Marc-Arios, Sterlin and Dieuner stepped up. You would have thought we had handed them the moon when we offered an apron to cover clothes. John-Steevenson was the only one with experience so between us we showed the newcomers what to do and why and everything was accomplished by the end of the afternoon with good humour.

John-Steevenson demonstrates how to lay out text books,
measure and cut. Sterlin looks on.

Dieuner and Marc-Arios take in instructions.
Outside on the gallery, a full house for food and conversation after school. Exams have begun so the need to replace lost textbooks and notes is pressing.

One by one the after school club drifts in.

Last month we took in a neighborhood female dog with the permission of her owner to give her a safe place to have her pups. It's almost time for them to go but they have been goodwill ambassadors, helping our young people get over their fear of dogs.

Like spokes on a wheel...The 7 pups are helping our students
conquer fear of dogs.

Edeline our coordinator takes information from the kids on the gallery and together with Auguste makes what we know will not be the last list of textbooks needed.

Auguste and Edeline prepare yet another list of
damaged items in need of replacing.

Driving up and back the same day is tiring but next week we have the luxury of at least 2 nights there and we're going to paint the exterior. Hurray. Coming into Cap-Haitien at supper time is a revelation. There is still no electricity from EDH so it looks like this:

Rue L in Cap-Haitien - no electricity.
That was last night, but I began by saying "It's only Wednesday." This morning I did laundry, Lusnot went to town for textbooks and Auguste ran the drop in center and office - phone calls from students in the Dominican Republic and Port-au-Prince re: budgets (bilan in Kreyol) for the upcoming term.
Laundry 2 or 3 times a week. Dream for the new
center - a washing machine!

About noon, Lusnost arrived back and Philo student Paudeline dropped in. She is writing exams this week but had to talk to Auguste. Her home (tikay) had been broken into Saturday night and she was beaten and raped. One eye was swollen shut. She talked and talked. Auguste set off with her for the police station and hospital. He just arrived back. The police were full and couldn't take any more complaints today. Come back tomorrow.  We will but she is adamant about writing her exam first. Courage has many faces. This is one of them. She now has to wait a month for results re AIDS, other infections and pregnancy.

It takes a great deal of courage to talk about rape, as anyone who has been a victim will tell you.

In a paper entitled "The Link Between Poverty and Violent Conflict", author J. Brian Atwood writes "...poverty more than any other factor contributes to feelings of alienation, exploitation and dependency and these feelings in turn contribute to a break down of social cohesion and to violent conflict."

Violent acts, like those against Paudeline and on the mountain are daily happenings here, along with robbery and kidnapping. It will take more energy and more clout than I have to change the world, but we can stay the course in our corner of the world and change some minds and hearts. Seems like a good use of a life.

And it's only Wednesday. How is your week going?


Monday, December 1, 2014

Homecoming, Loss and Perspective

Charlie died last Monday at 10:30 in the morning. His owner, student staff member Rosema was at school. Charlie (Tchaly in Kreyol) was the 4th born of our Jolie's 5 pups (March 2013). Charlie was ill when I arrived in the country Friday. That afternoon, Auguste took Charlie and Rosema to the only person in Cap-Haitien with veterinary training. He had no idea what was wrong with Charlie so he gave him vitamins. When Rosema told me Charlie's eyes were yellow, I said there was something wrong with his liver. I checked his symptoms with a few reputable web sites and came up with infectious canine hepatitis (a virus). Symptomatically his death was textbook and painful. Oh for a visiting vet or a donation of veterinary supplies, the time and money to take some vet courses myself, or BETTER YET send a student through a veterinary college. Or all of the above!
Charlie at 6 weeks

Charlie at home with Rosema and
visitor Monica
Rosema was inconsolable. So we buried Charlie in our yard with a short ceremony which celebrated his very brief life. The ground was baked and it took Dieugrand and Rosema a pick axe, shovel and 45 minutes of intense teamwork to create a resting place.
Dieugrand loosened  the earth and Rosema shoveled.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My arrival in the country was 3 hours late. When I finally emerged from Arrivals, I scanned the crowd for Auguste. He had told me he was ill while I was in Canada, but he had lost so much weight I did not recognize him. Anyone who has met Auguste knows he did not have a spare ounce to lose. After my initial shock began to recede and he reassured me that he was on the mend, I asked what else was happening S'ak pase?
Manman Myriame te mouri madi a. "Myriame's mother died Tuesday" he said very quietly. Another shock to my already reeling system. Myriame is a second year university student (Nursing) and much missed student staff member. She came to us in 2010 after living through the January 12 earthquake during which she saw her aunt, uncle and cousins killed.  Although she had both parents living, we admitted her to our program as she was suffering from post-traumatic stress and I thought the casual nature of our drop in center would offer her friendship and support without making demands. I gleaned this from her mom on our home visit.

Manman Myriame was at least 30 years my junior. She died of infection after giving birth to a son, Daniel. Because she was the breadwinner in the family, working in the market 7 days a week selling rice by the cup (gode diri ) , the one room apartment they shared has been lost. The new baby will be put in an orphanage as soon as one can be secured. In the interim he is being cared for by our housekeeper/cook Joceline, a widow with 7 children living in a 6x8 tikay. Talk about a big heart.
Myriame and younger sister Fatia, also in our program, returned to school this week. We will do our best to keep them in school. With the death of a parent, the care of younger siblings falls to the oldest, in this case Myriame.

Director Auguste and coordinator Lusnot help Myriame
catch up on homework before returning to school.

Loss is part of life, no matter where you live. It just seems larger and closer here. And more pervasive.
Driving in from the airport, I was stunned to see that the dozens of thriving businesses, churches, schools and apartments which populated that stretch of road were gone. All had been marked for demolition before I left and some 'deconstruction' had begun. But the speed with which the project was completed must have left former owners and tenants stunned. As with the airport, the huge number of homes lost and persons displaced was about tourism. According to Le Nouvelliste, the stretch was being cleared so that tourists could see the ocean as they drove in from the airport.

Dozens of businesses had the death sentence 'a demoli'
spray painted on their fronts

   Demolition began with a couple of buildings.

    Each week as we passed en route to Sen Rafayel,
more 'signs of progress.'

I'm not against growth, change, progress. But when they take place without planning, without consideration for those who will lose everything, one has to wonder.  Hundreds, maybe thousands have been displaced, no remuneration, no relocation strategy. Looking at the project as we passed one day Auguste finally commented that it looked much like Port-au-Prince after the quake, which was a war zone. We had passed through on our way to a ceremony for our then nursing students in Leogane. So he had first hand knowledge.

    I had to pry a comment out of Auguste as he
       watched the demolition.

Driving in from the airport this time, everything  is gone. Just a peaceful vista for the tourists to look at as they drive in from the airport.
A seascape for the as yet unknown 'tourists' who will drive by.

Here loss and suffering are partners.  6 of our students lost their housing in last months rain/floods. Another two dozen lost all their belongings, including school uniforms, shoes, text books etc.  A parent, a pet, a home, a business. There is no eradicating loss --  anywhere  but we can ease suffering, wherever we are planted. There are often no words and no consolation, but being present and bearing witness, telling the story are gifts we can give.

We're still okay. The challenge is to find perspective.



Related Posts with Thumbnails