Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grave Digger

BON REPOS, HAITI -- "My life has been very bad. Very bad," Mirlande Joseph explains as we drive away from Ruuska Village, a home for unwed mothers and orphanage where she works.

Her car thuds and convulses as she passes over the rocky dirt roads while sharing her story about losing both of her parents when she was eight years old.

Her aunt raised her and nearly a half dozen other children.

There was never enough food; there was never enough anything.

So, her life began to follow a path that like so many other young women in this country.

She didn't get an education.

She got pregnant young.

That baby died.

She got pregnant again.

That baby was born very sick.

The paternal grandfather heard that Barbara Walker, an American, ran a village in Bon Repos where they might find help.

He brought the baby there and begged Walker to try to save the boy.

Walker was willing, but she wanted to meet the newborn's mother.

Joseph reluctantly came to Ruuska Village.

That day changed her life.

Walker offered to let Joseph live in the village while the baby was treated.

Joseph, who spoke no English, began working for Walker by washing clothes, making a few dollars a day.

While she spent her hours working, the baby was well fed and began getting better.

Even healthy, Joseph knew she couldn't give the child the care he needed, so she put him up for adoption.

When the baby left for the United States, Joseph continued working for Walker.

She was alone, and missing her son.

But as she fell back into the feeling that all was lost once again, she found a new spark of hope.

Walker approached her one day and asked "Would you like to learn English?"

The two played word games together every day and after a year, Joseph could speak almost fluently.

Joseph began learning the adoption process and was promoted to assist Walker with the process of getting other needy children in into safe, loving homes all over the world.

The 31-year-old even saved up enough money to buy a house.

Then, the earthquake struck while Joseph was out dropping off paperwork for several adoptions.

Walker immediately called her cell and said, "Either a bomb just hit or it's an earthquake."

The line cut out and Joseph rushed back to the village, knowing there was a chance the children may be dead.

Incredibly, there was only some structural damage.

No deaths.

No injuries.

After a long evening of calming the frazzled children, Joseph returned to her home to find it leveled.

After working all of these years, her one possession was gone.

In the six months since the quake, she's been busier than ever at work.

Sleeping there, eating there, spending countless hours a day trying to get the babies, who are still abandoned at the orphanage on a regular basis, out of Haiti.

The car we're in comes to a loud stop as Joseph pauses in her story.

"This," she exclaims, "is my new house!"

She saved up part of the money needed to rebuild.

Walker is helping her with the rest.

In a time when hardly anyone is rebuilding, Joseph, who started her life with nothing, is building her own palace.

A home she'll share with her youngest child, Ruth.

These kinds of fairytale endings are what Barbara Walker is all about.

She is hardly the fairy godmother you might picture.

Take your vision of a missionary: even tempered, soft spoken, smiley - and reverse it.

That is Barbara Walker; she is as rough and tough as they come.

Before she became a missionary whose favorite self-portrait is a toss up between the one of her with a giant snake around her neck and the one of her crouched down with a bible in one hand, a huge gun in the other - she was a grave digger in upstate New York.

The 66-year-old laughs as she shares darkly humored stories over breakfast about rotting skulls falling out of caskets.

She's quick to shout an order, and even the most macho men stop to listen.

The day after the 'quake, I got into her beat up truck that rattled past the fallen buildings of Port-au-Prince.

We came to a bridge that was blocked off and a man came to the window saying it was damaged, so we couldn't cross.

She said, "Screw that!" and hit the gas, driving across the bridge anyway because she was certain the men blocking the bridge were only trying to divert us to a group of thieves.

It's that tough attitude that's helped her survive numerous muggings, having guns pointed at her, and the struggle that is every day life here in Haiti with no running water, no air conditioning, and dozens of women and children to feed.

She started this village a decade ago with a donation from the Ruuska family.

She was just a missionary at the time who helped that family adopt a child.

When they later had money left to them in a will, the family gave her $10,000 and told her to do anything she wanted with it.

She could have gone home to New York to be with her children and grandchildren, but Haiti had already grabbed onto her heart so hard it tied her here.

She knew she wanted to give women in Haiti a "hand up, not a hand out," so, she built Ruuska Village: a home for unwed mothers and an orphanage.

Behind the blue concrete wall and gate is a tiny gravel road with small concrete houses on each side.

Each woman accepted into the village gets free rent in one of those homes, job training, and an opportunity to earn money by working at the village doing things like washing clothes, as Joseph did.

They also get free child care and financial aid to send their children to school and pay for their uniforms as well as supplies.

And, after completing the job training they get money to help pay for a home of their own.

There are a few rules here at the village.

The main one: no men.

"Which means, no brothers, no fathers, no uncles, no male cousins, no male "companions" men!" Walker explains.

She considers this, a type of "birth control," while she educates the women about things they wouldn't learn otherwise including the risks of unprotected sex.

Plus, Walker explains, they don't, "need a man to pay their rent anymore."

Walker goes on to say, "God has blessed them with a new home better than they could ever have dreamed of. They must use this as a stepping-stone toward the beginning of a whole new way of life."

In helping women build these new lives, she gives all of hers.

Walker's life is tough.

Instead of enjoying her retirement years, she stays up late at night organizing adoption papers.

Her desk - is her bed.

The tiny twin sized mattress is in the corner of her office and volunteers parade in and out of the room throughout the day to use her computer.

She has zero privacy and zero time to herself.

The roosters outside begin crowing long before dawn - telling her it's time for another grueling day of running errands, buying food, gasoline, supplies, facilitating adoptions, taking phone calls, answering e-mails, organizing volunteers, taking care of children and making sure their mothers are on track.

She is known throughout town for her blue dresses (she has an entire closet full of blue floral dresses - it's ALL she wears) and for her no-nonsense attitude.

When she drives through town, people on the street call out, "'Ello Barbara!" and around the world children are with their new families, living safer, healthier lives because of her.

Walker could walk away now and know that her life has been incredibly impactful.

She could say her work is done and return to her family in the U.S.

But she won't stop.

She is rebuilding what was damaged here in the quake while buying more property to expand the village.

And while much of Haiti is crumbling, her heart and her mission continue to grow.

She knows not every story will have a happy ending like Mirlande Joseph's, but she believes each one like it helps dig Haiti out of its dark grave.

A Reason to Sing

BON REPOS, HAITI -- To close your eyes, you'd never guess these were the voices of children who've lost everything.



Smiling so big you know the joy came from somewhere deep.

Each of the 130 children who call the children's home at World Harvest Missions near Port-au-Prince home have a different sad story.

10-year-old Stevenson was buried in the rubble of his house for hours before he was found.

He was the only person in the house to survive.

His parents, siblings and best friend were all killed.

He had nowhere to go, until Miriam Frederick came along.

The Lake Worth resident founded World Harvest Missions which strives to save lives in Haiti in a number of ways.

The orphanage is continually taking in children, many of whom are found abandoned at their gate or in the streets because they were born with physical or mental disabilities.

The children attend school at the orphanage where classes are still ongoing this summer to make up for time lost in class after the quake.

But this mission is about more than these children who, because of the generosity of donors, are able to play, care-free on the swing sets and know that someone is looking out for them.

This mission is about making an even wider impact on the impoverished nation.

Outside the brightly colored gate of World Harvest, the streets are filthy and people beg for food.

Inside - a sprawling sanctuary that makes your forget you're in Haiti.

When you first enter the grassy compound, you see the food depot were cans, boxes and cartons of food, most of which was donated by people in Palm Beach County, are stored.

The food feeds the orphans here as well as those at other orphanages.

Frederick and her volunteers also take food out to the tent cities.

To the left, there is a beautiful, brightly painted building where volunteers sleep and eat.

So many people have poured into Port-au-Prince to offer a literal helping hand, that Frederick has several groups sleeping in tents in the middle of the property because she has no vacancy inside.

Those volunteers go out an missions throughout the city and go into the mountains to aid the other countless tent cities and orphanages.

Frederick and a team go out to throughout this region of the country looking for men, women and children who lost limbs in the 'quake and need help.

Once a week those people are brought back to World Harvest Missions where they can be fitted for prosthetics.

People's lives are better because of the work being done here.

Despite the horrors just outside the gate, she believes she's bringing a bit of brightness where there would otherwise be none.

And she believes these children, who at one time had nothing, are some of the few in the country with a chance at a life that will really be something to sing about.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Darker clouds

BON REPOS, HAITI -- The literal dark clouds began moving in to Port-au-Prince around 5pm, but the figurative ones blew in for Ifanier Bazile a few weeks ago.

He, like thousands of others here, lost his home in the 'quake.

He has spent the past six-months trying to figure out where to go next, and how - with 9 children he can't afford to feed - he will save enough money to build a new house.

It was stressful to think about even when he thought he had time to continue living for free in a tent just outside of the capital.

Then he found out - he is being evicted.

He along with everyone else in his tent city has been told they have one month to move out because the owner of the land plans to build a hospital on the property.

So, now, the homeless become even more homeless.

And as they learn of the intense rain that is expected to pass over Haiti tonight with this tropical wave, they remember to be grateful for the tarp roof they are fortunate enough to have over their heads...for now.

The Devil's neighbors

BON REPOS, HAITI -- He calls it "the devil's house," refusing to allow anyone to refer to it by its real name, the Presidential Palace.

It is what Carlos Jean Charles has to look at every time he steps out of his home in the tent city just across the street from the crumbling white government building that he says makes him think of the greed of President Preval; greed and carelessness he feels are responsible for the condition this country is still in 6 months after the quake.

Charles's tiny tent, that is just big enough to fit a twin mattress on the dirt, is made of burlap sacks and tin. A bright dinosaur print bed sheet is his front door.

And this is where he lives with his eight year old daughter, five year old son and wife, who lost her leg when the family's house crumbled on top of her during the 'quake.

Theirs is one of approximately 3,800 tents in this one tent city, where Charles explains violence is rampant.

He introduced me to a woman named Natalie who claims she was brutally raped by several men just a month ago.

People living in the tent cities have "lost their minds," he says, and thus turned to crime.

He claims people steal because they can't get food or water and children as young as 8 have turned to prostitution in the tent cities just to earn a few dollars to feed their families.

"I know they say so many donations been made to Haiti. Where are they? I don't see anything," Charles says.

He sells paintings just outside of the "devil's house," but doesn't make enough to feed his family.

Today, he said his wife went out to a place where they heard there would be hand outs.

He said he would have been turned away if he went to ask for food, so his wife offered to go, even though it is a struggle for her to get around on crutches and with no transportation.

"I'd almost rather die than live in this misery," Charles says, "That's really terrible."

Haitian Sunrise

BON REPOS, HAITI -- The roosters began crowing long before dawn.

Laying on a cot on a second story porch here in Ruuska Village, I finally cracked my eyes open as the first dashes of sunlight began peeking over the mountains.

What a beautiful way to wake up on a day when I know I'll see such sadness.

I'm about to head out with the orphanage director, Barbara Walker, to pick up some of the paperwork for a few of the babies who are being adopted.

We're also going to try to get more paperwork for Mishna.

After that we'll head into a tent city that is at risk of being evicted because they are on private property.

I walked through a small tent city yesterday and was overwhelmed by the poverty. There were dozens of children, many not wearing shoes.

They had no toys - except one child who laughed as he played with his new-found balloon.

Only, it was not a balloon.

It was a condom.

This spoke so much to the lack of knowledge these parents have.

Not one tried to take the possibly disease infected latex from the child.

It probably never crossed their minds.

I can only image what else I'll see in the larger tent cities today.

After hours of rain yesterday, I'm sure they are a muddy mess and from what I'm hearing, that's just a taste of what's to come with this tropical wave.

For now, the sun is high in the sky and already pounding its oppressive heat on the people of Haiti.

Today, knowing the potential alternative, it is a welcome discomfort.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Return to Haiti

aBON REPOS, HAITI-- The sound of the drums and maracas threw me.

Hadn't I just gotten off the plane in Port-au-Prince?

Despite the beautiful mountains and teal waters surrounding this city, this was certainly not the island vacation the music made me think of.

But, sure enough, as I reached the first floor of the airport, there was a live band singing and playing instruments.

I thought that was a good omen that hope was returning to Haiti. My friend, Joe Hurston, the founder of Air Mobile ministries out of Titusville, FL, met me at the airport to fill me on on what he's seen in his weekly trips to Haiti.

He said, "Things here are worse...much worse." He told me about a tent city that is about to be evicted because on private property.

He talked about his fear about, "not if but when a storm hits Haiti," and the need to develop a plan to evacuate the thousands still living under tarps held up by sticks.

And they are. The tent cities are in the same place I saw them when I left here six months ago - only they're bigger.

In some ways they're more sophisticated. Many of the tents are really nice: the kind you might take on your family camping trip.

Many have access to food, water, and free medical care. But, then, there are still the massive heaps of trash and human waste just feet from those tents that have been set on fire.

There is still the nearly sophocating feeling of living in a tent on a day when the temperature is around 100 degrees and the humidity makes the air feel like soup. And, of course, there is the rain.

Although this rainy season has not been especially bad, according to locals, days like today in which the drizzle begins around 4pm and grows into a steady pitter patter of drops on the blue tarps that spot the city by 6 and continues for hours makes this dirty, dusty place into a mud pit.

Families whose tents are placed on top of the foundation that was once their home consider themselves lucky; their home may be gone, but at least that foundation keeps the floors from flooding into a muddy mess. Jean Prezilus and his 22-year-old girlfriend are one such family.

They're grateful for the concrete foundation below their 10ft by 10ft home that is just burlap bags held together with wooden sticks and zip ties.

Prezilus and his girlfriend share the home with their three daughters, his brother and his wife.

Seven people, two beds, a few chairs and tables - all crammed into a place that is smaller than my bedroom.

And six months ago - there was an eighth person: two and a half year old Mishna. She was born with clubbed feet and required expensive medical treatment.

Prezilus earns the equivalent of nine US dollars each week at his job at a lottery store: hardly enough to feed a family, let alone cover her medical needs. So, they brought the little girl, named Mishna, to an orphanage called Ruuska Village.

The founder, an American named Barbara Walker, found a doctor in the states who performed surgery to fix her clubbed feet.

She then returned to Haiti, and her parents, again, brought her to Ruuska Village, explaining they simply couldn't care for the girl who had since forgotten Creole and only spoke English. Then, the quake hit.

Mishna was scheduled for follow up treatment in the states.

When I arrived at Ruuska Village the day after the quake, Walker asked if the group I was traveling with would be willing to transport Mishna to the United States for that follow-up care.

So, we did. Mishna refused to leave my arms as we walked passed the military helicopters and aid planes to board our tiny Cessna to return to Florida.

After a few hours of peek-a-boo and napping, I carried Mishna into customs at Palm Beach International Airport.

That's when we learned there was a problem. A very big problem. Her passport was not marked for a return visit, making it "invalid."

I was held for 9 hours and questioned by investigators on suspiscion of kidnapping.

Despite their personal compassion for Mishna's plight, they had to put her into U.S. custody.

Mishna was screaming, and reaching her arms out to me, crying, "Momma NO!" as they put her in a van and drove towards Miami.

She's been held at a federal facility there ever since.

Two families want to adopt her: a doctor in Titusville and the family who cared for her during her surgery.

Both have filed paperwork to facilitate the adoption, but still, the process drags on.

The orphanage director claims no one can get a straight answer about why, despite form after form being filled out, nothing is being done to release Mishna.

Standing in their tiny tent home, Mishna's parents look at pictures of their little girl and wonder if she knows why this is happening to her.

They say they are happy she is away from this place, but worry about her not living with a family.

As they plead for the United States to move her case along, they plan to go into the city tomorrow to pick up more paperwork in hopes these forms might be the last needed to put their daughter in the loving arms of a family that can actually care for her.

The sun has now set, and the rain is pounding even harder.

And while Jean Prezilus has some hope, he and thousands of others are laying down to sleep tonight with those drops falling through the their tents onto their tired faces.