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.

1 comment:

  1. Marci, over the past three years, I've read this at least a dozen times, and every time I do, it makes me cry. I'm not sure of Mishna's current status, but please let me know if there's anything I can do to help her.