Monday, January 25, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

Running water.

HOT water.

A grocery store filled with food.

These are things I've taken for granted my whole life, and now, after just a few days away, they amaze me. I'm in awe of all of our luxuries, and even more by how shallow our culture can be.

Yes, everyone is donating money. We all care about what's going on in Haiti - stop to watch Anderson Cooper, or to shake our heads at the sad headlines on the newspaper. But, then we go back to our lives.

Back to complaining about traffic.

Back to gossiping.

Back to being self-absorbed.

There's no changing it. It's how we are, and generally how we'll always be. But it's making me sick and restless.

Still no update on Mishna. The last I heard, the doctor who plans to foster her had just finished all of the paperwork the government asked for. He said he should know more today. Please pray.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mishna's Journey

WEST PALM BEACH, FL -- I've never seen or heard a baby cry like this.

Since the moment the immigration officers closed the van door, and I could still hear the orphan that I carried with me to the U.S. screaming, I've been working on building the strength to tell you this story.

Her name is Mishna Prezilus.

She's a beautiful two and a half year old I met at the orphanage in Haiti.

Mishna was born with clubfeet. She was flown to the U.S. for surgery in August, and after several weeks of recovery, she went back to Haiti to be with her family. But there was a problem.

Her parents didn't want her anymore.

After a day together, her mother brought her back to the orphanage. The director told the young woman she had to take Mishna home with her. This went on day after day, with the mother continually trying to abandon Mishna. Finally, she succeeded, and the orphanage became Mishna's new home.

Then, the earthquake struck.

The director of the orphanage, Barbara Walker, scrambled to get as many of her babies out of the country as possible. Food is too scarce. The structures at the orphanage are too unstable. One more tremor and the walls could crumble and kill someone. As she gathered paperwork to get emergency visas for other children who have families in the U.S. waiting to adopt them, she turned to me.

She explained that she had a child who already had a visa. She needed to get back to the United States to continue her medical treatment and would be able to live with the doctor treating her.
Of course, I volunteered. There was no way we could leave this child here, where the walls are one aftershock away from crumbling, where there is no food, and certainly no access to the medical care she needs. I was taking a private plane home, and I knew there would be room.
Barbara said all of Mishna's paperwork was in order. She handed it to the pilot and we were ready to go.

Sue, the woman who had cared for Mishna in Haiti, brought her over to me. Mishna reached out her arms and happily let me hold her. We waved goodbye to Sue, got in the back seat of the SUV and drove down the dirt road out of the village, heading toward the airport.

After driving past countless toppled buildings, through a dirty little river people were desperately filling their cups from and past UN tanks with huge guns pointed in every direction, we pulled into the airport parking lot.

We made it past the nervous crowd of people frantically waving their passports, through the unstable terminal. In the chaos, no one bothered to check our paperwork. We just walked outside and on to the tarmac.

We passed every major news network's makeshift studio, planes from countries as far away as Iceland, and made our way to the far end of the tarmac where our 6-seater Cessna was parked.

It was the same end of the airport where the U.S. military was operating. As Mishna clung to me, huge military aircrafts took off and landed just feet away. We waited for hours, hoping that Barbara might get last minute visas for more children and bring them to join us on our flight. Mishna and I sat underneath our airplane, grateful for the shade it offered from the scorching sun. With each helicopter take off, I blocked her face from the dirt whirling all around us, and covered her ears to muffle some of the roar.

She never cried. She just accepted the confusion, and even fell into a peaceful sleep as the helicopters around us made our surroundings seem like a war zone.

Finally, around 1pm, we realized no more children would able to join us. Their visas were just taking too long. So, we boarded the plane and left.

Mishna and I had so much fun on the flight. We played games, shared lunch and then she fell asleep with her head on my chest. I kissed her forehead and told her how wonderful her life would be when we reached the United States. I had no idea I was lying.

We arrived at Palm Beach International Airport and groggily climbed off the plane and into the line at Customs. I handed the very kind agent our paperwork and he asked what my relationship was to Mishna. When I explained, he stepped aside to talk to his supervisor. Bad. This was very bad.

The supervisor called me into his office and told me there was a very big problem. Mishna's visa was for one visit only, a visit she took in August for her surgery. There were letters written across the visa that meant nothing to me, but, turns out, meant something very important to the rest of the world: CWOP - Cancelled With Out Prejudice. It basically means it was cancelled because she used her one visit, but it is eligible for renewal. A renewal we never applied for.

The other problem: there was no paperwork saying I was allowed to transport Mishna. I knew this all meant I was in for along night, but I had no idea just how long.

They brought Mishna and I into an office. They gave us every comfort they possibly could: food, water, diapers, a blanket for the baby. Then, the questioning began.

Was I paid to bring her here?

Was she kidnapped?

How could I think it was a good idea to bring a baby into this country?

I gave the special agent the explanation that I didn't realize the visa was no good, and that I was willing to do whatever I could, legally, to help get a child out of Haiti.

Meanwhile, the three men I travelled with were being held on the airplane, not being told what was going on. So they started making calls.

Congressmen, state senators, the orphanage director in Haiti - everyone started working on getting Mishna released.

Nine hours went by.

Despite a letter from the orphanage saying I had the right to transport the baby, the officer said he couldn't let me leave with her. She had to go to a facility for detained children in Miami.

When I put Mishna in the car seat, still inside the immigration building, her face transformed with an intensely serious expression. She knew something bad was happening. She just stared at me, wide-eyed, clearly questioning what we were about to do to her.

The officer told me it was time for Mishna to go. I tried to hold back the tears but when I kissed the baby on the head, told her it was time to go for a car ride and stepped back, she began wailing.

"Momma, no! Momma no!!!!!"

My heart broke as this sweet little angel, who thought I was her "momma" screamed and cried. I tried to comfort her. The officer told me I could carry her to the car, so I picked up the car seat and Mishna started to calm down.

I carried her out to the van, and we strapped in the car seat.

It was time to go.

I kissed her, told her I loved her and that she'd be ok. As I pulled myself out of the van, the screaming began again.

"Momma, no!!!"

They shut the van door, but I could still hear her wailing. The officer apologized and told me he did everything he could. I stepped outside of the office, and fell apart.

I almost collapsed, sobbing, letting a noise escape my mouth like I've never heard myself make. My heart was breaking.

This baby who has been repeatedly rejected by the people who are supposed to love her the most, who has undergone a very painful surgery, had to return to the third-world country of her birth, then survived a horrifying earthquake and a terrifying trip back to the U.S. was hurting once again.

I worry she thinks I abandoned her. I worry about how they're treating her at the center she's in now. I know she's better off here than in Haiti, but I still wanted more for her.

The fight continues now to free Mishna. The director of the orphanage will hopefully fly in this week. We won't give up until Mishna is with the doctor in Melbourne.

She's been through so much; she deserves the best our country and our hearts can give.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Like a movie

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI-- After the longest day of my life, I'm spending my last night here in Haiti.

Today felt like 3 separate days.

It began with another huge tremor around 5am that shook our building, sending Barbara and I running outside. Once we went back inside and laid down, there was another tremor. We were too lazy to get up for that one.

I woke up again around 7:30am. It was that damn rooster again. I went upstairs for some coffee and to play with the babies. Then a bunch of us piled into two trucks and drove to the U.S. embassy. This is where my day started to feel like a movie.

There was a huge crowd outside of the embassy - a gorgeous, modern building that was unphased by the shaking that destroyed the buildings all around it. We made our way through the crowd and directly to the front of the line (it pays to know people; Barbara is pretty much famous in Haiti). We told our story to a guard.

We needed emergency medical visas for some of the sick orphans here in the village, including 11-year-old Charlie, who we brought with us. Charlie had a concrete wall fall on him during the 'quake and the nurses are certain he has some serious internal damage to his abdomen. He's in a lot of pain. He quietly sits through his suffering - not saying a word, but once in a while you see a single tear fall down his face. Charlie has a family waiting to adopt him in the U.S. He has a passport, but the process of getting a visa really drags on here in Haiti. Now that he needs medical attention, it is so important that we rush this process. There is no one here to help him and we have no way of knowing just how bad his injuries are.

After the guards met Charlie, they brought a wheelchair out for him and we all got to go inside. It was like stepping into another world - a world that just a few days ago would have seemed normal, but now after 3 days without running water, toilets or a.c. - this was paradise. We brought our sweaty selves into the air conditioning and waited. I used the restroom.

The toilet flushed.

I almost fainted.

Back in the lobby, we watched as a steady stream of men carrying machine guns, as well as horribly wounded 'quake victims went in and out of the building. A makeshift hospital was set up in one of the embassy offices to care for the people waiting for the opportunity to be sent home to the U.S. After a few hours of waiting, we got the news. Not only is Charlie getting a visa, we're getting them for 11 other orphans.

We cried.

This is unheard of and beyond a miracle. Children that could die if they are forced to stay here, now not only have an opportunity for quality medical care but the chance to have a new life in America.

That was the end of the first leg of my long day.The second part began immediately.

We sent half of our crew, including Charlie, in one of the vehicles back to the village. Barbara, Joe (the organizer of this trip and founder of Air Mobile Ministries), John (the print reporter I'm traveling with) and I loaded into a truck and headed into the heart of Port-au-Prince.

It's the kind of devastation you simply can't prepare yourself for.

Decomposing bodies litter the sidewalks - their arms stretched out as if grasping for help; their faces frozen in an intense expression of pain - the same expression worn even by the living here. The smell is beyond description and the images now seared into my mind are just as nauseating.

Then, there's the structural damage: the presidential palace, the senate building, the national post office, the federal building, the main courthouse - all destroyed. Imagine if all of those buildings in the United States crumbled. It's something we like to think could only happen in some sort of blockbuster film, but for the Haitians, this is now reality.

A tent city sprung up just across the street from the once stunning "White House." Hundreds upon hundreds of people now live there, sleeping on what little scraps of cloth they could find, bathing in the fountain, eating and drinking - nothing. Some people are walking around in the streets naked. Maybe they have no clothing. Maybe it's too hot on this sweltering day. Maybe, they're just starting to go crazy. With no food, no water, and everything around you destroyed how could anyone keep it together?

I didn't see any organizations offering aid today; I know some tried, but I didn't see them. But whatever help is here, it's not enough. These people are starving and it seems to me that it's going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.

We wrapped up our emotionally draining day by going to the Visa Lodge - a cool little hotel in Port-au-Prince. Phase 3 of this unbelievable day. Again, it was like a movie.

There were reporters from around the world gathered there having dinner and a beer, unwinding after a very long, hard day of work. We all tried to pretend we hadn't just witnessed such horrible things.

For a moment, we escaped.

The peace was short-lived though. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot we still had to drive 15 minutes back to the village, past toppled buildings, through a river that people were both bathing in and drinking from, as well as past hundreds of homeless Haitians wandering aimlessly in the streets.

I'm having another Haitian beer and heading downstairs for my last night with my new friends. I'll be home tomorrow, possibly with Charlie and a 2-year-old orphan who has a visa and a family waiting for her.

First blog from Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI-- The devestation and sadness here are hard to describe. I feel it looming around me, but so far, have seen such a small portion of it.

I left the airport in Port-au-Prince after nightfall, so my glimpse of the destruction came only through what was illuminated by the headlights of the truck I was riding in, or by the fires that burned in the street.

Some of the homes and business are fine. Next door to those seemingly sound structures, however, are schools, hospitals and grocery stores toppled. People, both living and dead, were still trapped inside as I rode past. It's too dark to search. So, sadly, they'll have to wait until morning.

I am staying in a small village in the town of Bon Repos just outside of Port-au-Prince. I'm with a group called Air Mobile Ministries and we are staying with an incredibly accomodating hostess named Barbara in this village she built on her own through donations. Let me tell ya, she is somethin'! She's a tough-talkin' New Yorker even the meanest Haitians are too afraid to mess with.

Tonight, on the drive home from the airport, we came upon a bridge that was blocked off. The locals came up to the window and told us it was unsafe to cross. While we all clung to anything we could grab on to, Barbara hit the gas and crossed the bridge anyway. She said they were trying to trick us into taking a detour where they'd corner us and force us to give them money. The other side of the bridge was blocked by tires and other debris. It was intentionally put there so the locals could collect a "toll."

Barbara wasn't having it.

She made John, one of the guys in our group, get out to move the tires and she drove past the now cleared road block as she sarcastically yelled to the wanna-be bridge tender, "Merci beaucoup!!"

Mom, Dad, don't let that story scare you. She's unconventional but we're in good hands. I can't wait to tell you more about Barbara. She is doing some truly amazing work here.

So far I've heard such scary stories about when the earthquake struck. Barbara runs an orphanage here in the village. They children were all on the second story of one of the homes here when it hit. Mandi, one of the nurses volunteering here, says she literally dove for the children when everything began shaking. Incredibly, everyone is ok.

We had our own scare tonight. A tremor rocked the building this evening around 9:30pm and we all had to run outside to safety. Barbara is noticing more and more cracks in her house as the tremors continue.

Tomorrow, we'll go out and truly survey the damage. The founder of Air Mobile Ministries, Joe Hurston, will be out repairig some of the 232 water filtration systems he has here in Haiti. I hope to bring you all stories from the survivors in hopes of painting a more personalized picture of just how destructive this earthquake was.

Tonight, all of the people in the village are sleeping outside with a tiny TV tuned to CNN. I heard Anderson Cooper say something along the lines of, "Wherever you are, be grateful it isn't Port-au-Prince." I, however, am grateful I AM in Port-au-Prince so I can hopefully share stories that might otherwise be overlooked in this tragedy.

Helpless in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- I've been here less than 24 hours but it feels like a week.

There are so many stories here to tell.

I've seen so much.

Today, I went to what was once a 3-story supermarket that completely toppled. People heard a woman screaming from beneath the rubble that she needed water. Dozens of people began digging to find her and any other survivors. The owners of the store were found dead inside; countless other customers are presumed to have met the same fate.

Looking at the rescue effort, the dust swirling in the air as strangers climb on top of the unsteady cement to dig, reminds me of a scene from 9/11.

The confusion.

The despair.

But this is just one building. Imagine this multiplied by hundreds and that is your picture of Haiti right now.

Even when survivors are found beneath the toppled building across Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns, there is nowhere for them to get help. The hospitals are gone, and any remaining Haitian doctors are reluctant to treat these injuries. People are walking in the streets, bandaged and crying for help.

Word spread that there are two nurses from the United States who just happen to be visiting Ruuska Village (where I'm staying). One U.S. citizen, a man whose leg is so badly broken the nurses say he's near death, was brought to the village in the back of a pick-up truck this afternoon. The nurses gave him antibiotics and put a splint on his leg. It helps, but they say if he doesn't have surgery soon, he'll lose his life. The man lost his passport in the rubble, and for now, he can't get back to America.

There are also a lot of injured babies being brought here to the village. One little boy was badly burned from his buttocks to his toes when a pot of oil spilled on him during the 'quake. His mother abandoned him here at the orphanage.

Other children have internal injuries, but there's no way to treat them.

Even those who weren't injured are fighting to survive. So many are poor and homeless here to begin with; now, they truly have nothing. Across Port-au-Prince and the surrounding towns hundreds are living in tent cities. The families making their homes in these public parks that look more like garbage dumps not only lost their homes, they have no food and no access to water. Multiple families share a blanket in the dirt, crumpled next to rotting trash. Flies cover their childrens' faces as they stare blankly ahead.

No one knows what to do.

One woman I spoke with at the tent city said that we were the first people to talk to them who could give them information about what is going on else where in Haiti. The government, they say, is doing nothing. The aid groups, while present, are overwhelmed. Where do you begin with such widespread destruction?

Here in the village, the efforts are multi-faceted. Joe Hurston of AirMobile Ministries, one of the guys I flew here with, is working hard to repair the water filtration systems he has here so the people can have clean drinking water. Barbara, the founder of this village, is trying to keep everyone fed and safe. She runs a home for unwed mothers as well as an orphanage. Some of the babies have already been adopted, but were awaiting visas. Now, she worries they won't ever get them. She's on the phone now trying to get the U.S. to issue emergency visas for the babies so they can be rushed out of Haiti before conditions here worsen. I just overheard her say on the phone, "We have to get them out, while they're still alive."

2nd night in Haiti

Port-au-Prince, HAITI -- I woke up in the middle of the night already on my feet.

The room was shaking.

It was another tremor.

The woman who is housing us, Barbara, starting yelling, "Out!!" and we ran. By the time we were outside of her tiny concrete room in a small town called Bon Repos just outside of Port-au-Prince, the shaking had stopped.

Back to sleep. Back to being attacked by the relentless mosquitos who gave up on the rest of my bug-spray covered body and decided to feast on the bottom of my feet.

Then - another tiny tremor. This one only lasted about half a second, and I went back to sleep. The rooster outside starting telling us to wake up long before dawn, and after the third tremor, I finally gave in. Everyone else is starting to wake up and the work is about to begin. Joe Hurston, the founder of Air Mobile Ministries, is about to start working on getting the water filtration systems functional. A few of us are going to go out to see some of the damage outside of the village so we can report back to you on the rescue efforts.