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.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails