Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The UN's Commitment Problem

Last week an orphanage in Croix-des-Boquets, a village not far from Port-au-Prince, was attacked. The orphanage director, a Catholic sister, had fired a teacher for a problem, and he retaliated by returning with about 120 people, who were armed with machetes, sticks, and clubs. They wanted to execute the three sisters in charge and burn the building to the ground. The Haitian police couldn’t handle the situation, so the UN was called in. They surrounded the building and escorted the sisters from the premises.

Rather than disperse the violent crowd, though, which given their significant firepower—tanks, machine guns, etc—one would think they could do, they guarded the building until arrangements could be made to transport the children to other orphanages. After about two days, they loaded up the children on a school bus and took them to their new homes, namely other orphanages that had agreed to take them in. The bus got stuck in a ravine, and the UN soldiers had to call the orphanage director to come and get the 11 boys they would be caring for, all of whom had been riding around in the hot bus all day with no food or water.

In the meantime, back at the orphanage, the crowd was allowed to loot and demolish the orphanage contents and buildings—home, school, church. It is doubtful that any of those children will ever return to this location. And who knows if the Sisters can safely continue to work in Haiti.

The minimal response from the UN soldiers—peacekeepers—is why most people in Haiti vastly preferred the presence of the U.S. Marines to the UN. The Marines wouldn’t tolerate this kind of behavior by a lawless crowd. All over the world, the UN peacekeeping forces have been criticized for their lack of action. They stand around while crimes are committed in front of them. The forces here in Haiti are drawn from countries all over the world—Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Chile, Brazil, China. It’s a stretch to call some of these guys professional soldiers. In fact, the Haitians call them tourists, as the main goal of some of the soldiers seems to be hooking up with local girls.

Occupation by a foreign power is never ideal and centuries of complicated history involving the exploitation of Haitians has led to this state of affairs. But if you are going to have occupiers who carry big guns, they should use their power to defend and protect the innocent and not allow the bad guys to carry out crimes resulting in the displacement of 50 children and the theft and destruction of property.

Hard Life, Big Smile


Smiles seem more dazzling in Port-au-Prince, where they stand out against the harshness of life and the bleakness of the cityscape. This man is one of the lucky poor. He has a job. He cleans our floors and bathroom, and he cleans them very well. He removes his shoes when he comes into the room so that he does not track while he mops; he puts one of those white paper bands over the toilet bowel when he has finished cleaning it; he scrubbed part of the floor extra hard to get up a sticky substance. He has pride in his work. This is not true of all of his counterparts. Some of them beg from us, an offense that would get them fired if the owners of the hotel knew about it.

But many of the staff here are very competent. As I was writing this, a waiter we particularly admire handed me a piece of paper with the word “saucers” written on it and asked me how to pronounce it. He got it correct on the first try. This waiter, with his quiet dignity, is always trying to improve himself. This morning another waiter saw our almost-empty water jug sitting on the table and filled it for us. This may seem rather basic, but in Haiti we learn not to expect the basics. John has said of a few of the workers, I would hire him.”


The employees here have a nice place to work. They make a wage that helps them support their families. They all look like they have enough to eat. This is why I call them lucky. Many Haitians, including some who work here, have a dream, and that dream is to get to the United States. For a poor Haitian, this is not a very realistic dream, equivalent to an American’s dream of winning the lottery. And even those of us who are largely satisfied with our lives and have endless options, seem to want more: more money, more happiness, more love, more things. More. More. More. I watch the way the man in the picture cleans our room, with almost a Zen-like involvement in the process and attention to detail and I think: For those of us with enough to eat, this man teaches us a lesson, to live our days well, wherever we find ourselves, and to give our best to others.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Living Saint


Can't you see how good this woman's soul is by looking at her eyes? Her name is Madame Therese (pronounced Thereze). She is a devout Catholic, who prays the Rosary at least four times a day. Actually, Madame Therese prays all day long--starting with kneeling by the side of her bed in the morning, giving thanks and praise to God for another day. She ends the day this way also. You can tell by her peaceful, warm presence that she spends a lot of time with God. You don't have to ask Madame Therese what the most important thing in her life is to know it's her faith. She walks to Sacre Coeur, her church in downtown Port-au-Prince. When Madame Therese received a gift of a rosary and a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Haiti's patron saint, she reacted as if she had been given silver and gold.

Madame Therese represents the rubric "poverty with dignity." By American, material standards, she is poor. But she has enough to eat, clothes to wear, a small home, and some education behind her. She speaks French as well as Creole. You can see this dignity in the neatness of her dress and her deliberate, graceful movements. People aren’t more valuable because they have more money.

Madame Therese says that the biggest problem in Haiti is that, "Haitians don't love each other." Certainly we have found that to be the case; many rich Haitians have nothing to do with the poor, and the poor are too busy fighting for survival to care for each other.

Madame Therese spent some time caring for the little boy she is holding in the picture. She would sit on the edge of the bed, watching him as he napped on his mattress on the floor. She laid sideways on the bed when she slept so that she could easily see him. She cared for him with kindness and gentleness, as if he was a temple for the Holy Spirit.

Madame Therese is 54. She looks older than this because life is hard in Haiti, even for those who aren't sick and starving. But her soul is fresh, lively, gleaming, eternal.

Madame Therese is what is good about Haiti.

Blog Over Kill?


No, the above isn’t some kind of evil creature from a planet far, far away. It’s a pair of sickened, blackened, diseased lungs, which got that way by too many years of inhaling smoke, against their will. Pictures of this ilk are sometimes used to try to scare people into stopping unhealthy behavior. But I have it on good authority that these tactics don’t work. Maybe the pictures are too overwhelming or the gruesome consequences are too far in the future to worry about.

So what does all of this have to do with Haiti? One of the main reasons I started this blog was to tell the stories of poor people in Haiti. The details of their lives are largely missing from media and therefore our consciousness. I’ve been on a run of very tragic posts. This being Haiti, the-poorest-country-in-the-western-hemisphere, sad stories beat down the door, especially those involving children. But I don’t want to kill hope along with ignorance. We want things to improve, and for that to happen, we need a lot of people to get involved. I don’t make calls for action in this blog, but my wish is that in reading about how poorly some people are forced to live, you’ll be motivated to do something about it.

So, in view of the possibility that negativity overkill depresses the likelihood of people feeling they can make a difference, in the next few offerings, I’m going to highlight what we like about Haiti—mainly some of these poor people I’ve been writing about. They are survivors—some of the toughest, most resilient people on earth. They have lessons to teach us.

P.S. Oh yeah, I’d stay away from the cigarettes.

Hidden Deaths


The above picture is of the body of a four-year-old boy, wrapped in a sheet. Over the weekend, he had a fever and a seizure. By the time his mother brought him to the clinic on Monday, he was in a coma. He received an IV of electrolyte solution. Four hours later, his respirations turned agonal, the slow, irregular rate heralding death. And then he was gone.

As of 2004, 117 children out of every 1,000 born in Haiti don’t live to see their fifth birthday. These children die of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, pneumonia, diarrhea. Their lives and deaths aren’t reported in western media, other than as an aggregate statistic. At the beginning of this month, a child in Massachusetts died of a mosquito-borne illness. I know this because it was reported in an article by the Associated Press, along with a beautiful picture and a description of the child.

I would like the above photograph to literally flesh out the sad statistic of child death in Haiti. Let’s not protect ourselves from the truth.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

How Haitian Mothers Find Out Their Children Have Died




What happens, is that you show up at the hospital in the morning, like you have every morning for the past two months, this being where your baby is a patient. You’re not from Port-au-Prince, so you’ve been spending your nights in a slum nearby. Back in May, when you first came to the capital, trying to figure out what was wrong with your daughter, you had to scrounge the money from some Sisters to pay for the echocardiogram. The echo confirmed the diagnosis of the nice blan doctor; your baby has a hole in her heart and this is why she won’t grow and is sick a lot

You walk up the stairs to the in patient unit, a little preoccupied. Your baby, Ferna, has been having a hard time breathing lately, although no one else seems too concerned. You walk to your baby’s bed: it is empty. You turn slowly, looking for a nurse. “Li mouri,” she says, with a wave of her hand. She died.

The first picture is of Ferna's mom. She returned to Port-au-Prince several weeks after her daughter died. She and her husband did not have the money to bury Ferna. They do not know what happened to her body.

The second picture is of Ferna, a week or so before she died.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day




Today is Labor Day in the United States. Haiti has more than its share of holidays—Ancestors Day anyone?—but people who are lucky enough to have a job, don’t get off the first Monday in September day. Haiti’s unemployment rate is high, by some estimates 80 percent. This is only accurate if we consider paid employment. For in fact, the average Haitian without a job has to labor very hard just to survive. Getting water can require people to walk several miles a day carrying heavy containers. I think that’s one of the secrets of being poor: it is hard work.

I am re-reading “Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell. Here is his description of tumbling temporarily into the suburbs of the poor.

“You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinary complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping. . . Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. . . .You discover what it is like to be hungry. . . you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruy√®re cheese like grindstones. . . [Poverty] annihilates the future. . . When you have only three francs, you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till to-morrow, and you cannot think further than that. . . You think vaguely, ‘I shall be starving in a day or two—shocking isn’t it?’”

The people in Haiti know a different magnitude of poverty than the one Orwell is describing, but there are similarities. Haiti is largely deforested, a natural disaster complicating a humanitarian one. There are many reasons for this. Of late, Haitians cut down trees, turn the wood into charcoal, and sell it. The rich fuel this practice as much as the poor, often preferring to have their food cooked over this charcoal. A couple of years ago, John and I passed by a shanty. Out in front sat several coffee tins full of this blackened wood charcoal for sale. As we looked at it, the man there said, “We know it is not good for the land to cut down the trees. But we need to feed our families.”

Hidden Lives




I’ve read two books within the last few months that have talked about hidden lives. “My Life with the Saints” by James Martin, has a chapter discussing the largely unknown life of St. Joseph, one of the most revered saints. “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin describes the repression and censorship in Burma that allow constant injustice to occur in secret.

I find the lives of the poor in Haiti to be hidden from modern view. Oh, the media occasionally punctuates its free flowing, hip, upper class, western narrative with pictures of famine and war victims, refugees and AIDS orphans. But they appear as an exception, rather than the rule, when in life the opposite is true. And the coverage is thin; we only get a snapshot. What are these people’s lives really like? What are their dreams? What are their gifts? What do they contribute to their families and communities? What will they tell you they need for life to be better? What are their personalities like? What makes them laugh?

When a mother and child sit in front of John at the clinic, I wonder what their home is like; what they will do the rest of the day after they leave; what does the mother think about her status as one of the poorest people in the western hemisphere? Does she wonder why people don’t do more to help or just accept that this is the way it is? Who knows about her and her suffering?

We are very familiar with a three-year-old Haitian boy, whose first year of his life is a secret to us, as it soon will be to him, buried in the deep chambers of his memory. We will wonder about this hidden year all of our lives.

To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, poor people may be hidden from the world but they are visible to God. Important things are often hidden. We know very little about the life of St. Joseph or even the first 30 years of Jesus’s life. While the developed world lacks the will to “find” the hidden people of the developing world, most of us want others to know of our good deeds. Jesus said to do good and pray in secret. We have it backwards.

There are those people who are determined to record the secrets that everyone should know, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Emma Larkin writes of such people in Burma. “One friend of mine spent hours each day in front of a run-down computer recording the day’s events as he heard them through the grapevine. ‘I have to do this,’ he said. ‘Nothing is reported in the official news here, so, if I do not write these things down, tomorrow they will be forgotten.’ I also met a historian who is busy compiling a modern history of Shan State in eastern Burma. It is a history of the military occupation of the Shan lands by this government, he explained. ‘I know it will not be published, but I must write it. I must make a record. Then at least it is there, and maybe one day . . .”

I hope this blog reveals some of these hidden people to you, not completely, but at least you will know they exist and a little of what their lives are like.