SECOND OF THREE IN SERIES
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — She is 16 and she comes from a large family, but the large family is gone now. All of them. Eleven died when the earth opened in Haiti.
Children emerge like spirits from the rubble of disaster; they can hover outside the horror they endured. But where can they go? After the worst earthquake in 250 years, where can anyone in Haiti go? To a stuffy tent in a parking lot? To a mattress atop a pile of crushed concrete? To other family? But what if you lost …your family?
Linda came here, to a small, sand-colored orphanage that, at first, was believed to have been destroyed. It was not. Neither was she. Playing and praying among other children now, many younger than she is, Linda has moments where the demons are at bay, where she smiles and waves. The kids take care of their own at The Mission That Did Not Fall Down, the Caring and Sharing Mission founded by a Detroit pastor 30 years ago, when he was compelled by the poverty he witnessed here.
Now things are worse than ever. And for every Linda whom the mission can embrace, there are hundreds more it cannot. It is the bad math of this troubled nation, the human equation without a solution.
ORPHANS RISE ABOVE THEIR SORROWS
Nighttime at the mission orphanage has a sound all its own. Wild dogs howl in the street. A siren whirs then disappears. In rare stretches of quiet, you hear the soft snoring of six dozen children and teenagers, sleeping outside in tents or on mattresses. They remain too afraid to move back indoors, their dreams darkened by an earthquake that changed their world.
My sleep that first night is sweat-soaked and lasts less than an hour. The air is a moist curtain; mosquitoes circle like trapeze artists. Light breaks in a groggy awakening, and almost instantly, the sound of spoons clanging is everywhere. Breakfast — ramen noodles in small bowls — is being doled out. I peer over the stairs. Although it is barely 7 a.m., the kids are lined up, waiting to eat.
Hunger will wake you quicker than anything.
LIFE ON THE STREETS
We’d gone walking the day before, several colleagues and a posse of the older teens from the Caring and Sharing Mission, celebrated as The Mission That Did Not Fall Down. The teens attached to us like bodyguards. There was Sadrac, whose mother cooks for the orphans, and Lewinsky, who took his name from a doctor who saved his life and has since passed away. There was Israel, whom the kids tease about having a large head, and Djonna, who wears a Jewish star because, he says, “Jesus was Jewish.”
At first, I wondered why we needed such a gaggle. But one block out, I quickly understood. All of Port-au-Prince seemed to be walking the streets, coming at you or surging behind you. The teens circled us protectively, waiting if we stopped to take photos. Watching out for one another — even strangers — is a pretty basic instinct for kids from the mission.
We entered the grounds of a school campus that is now a sprawling tent village, endless rows bumped together like planted crops, thousands and thousands of Haitians everywhere, sitting, lying down, wiping their brows, nursing babies. Some squeezed behind small tables of snacks or jars of orange juice, hoping to sell such delicacies to buy larger quantities of a cheaper food. Others mobbed around a young man with a generator who was offering to charge cell phones for $2 a pop.
“There’s one of the hospitals,” Sam said. He pointed to larger tents, guarded by a man sitting in a chair. “We went there when the earthquake happen. I see a lot of broken arms, a lot of people with eyes blind.”
He inhaled. “A lot of people die.”
We curled around a post and saw several large, bright lights. Three men were sitting at a table, beneath a giant tarp. A yellow trailer was parked behind them. There was rubble all around, so we climbed over jagged mounds to get a better look. Something large was pointed at the men.
A TV camera.
They were on the air.
TELEVISION AND REALITY
“This used to be our television station, a four-story building,” Jean Borges said. A large man with a large voice, Borges is the director general of Radio Tele Ginen. He was on the first floor when the earthquake came. He heard a noise “like a bulldozer hitting a house” and ran out just before the building collapsed.
A self-proclaimed “broadcasting genius,” Borges found a microwave transmitter, some loose equipment and a trailer. A week later, he had somehow pieced together a working TV/radio station for anyone lucky enough to have the means to receive it.
“We are truly ‘reality TV,’ ” he said, laughing. “But Haitians, we are capable of things that you don’t even think about. We believe in ourselves. Things will get better.
“The first thing we broadcast when we started back up was a thank-you to God.”
As he showed us his truck, the mission teens hung back, watching, as if all of this were normal, or at least the new normal, which means strange but true. When we said good-bye to Jean, I promised to bring by a DVD movie of “Inglourious Basterds” that I had in my bag at the mission. He planned to show it to the nation. “I am happy for any programming,” he said.
We left the bright lights behind, the hue of evening now falling, and wandered back past the rubble and through the tents and the tens of thousands of hungry, tired faces. Somewhere, music played, wafting in the breeze. It was surreal, haunting, like something out of “Apocalypse Now.”
How old are you, Natalie?
“I am 17.”
Why did you come here?
“My mommy and daddy is passed away, my daddy since I was 5, my mommy since I was 6.”
What is your room like?
“My room — it’s good. We have seven of us in the room — eight now, because a new girl came in.”
What is your favorite possession?
“My favorite possession is to teach the little ones that are growing everything I knew.”
No, I mean, do you have a favorite thing you own — a radio or an iPod or clothes?
“No, nothing. No phone. No computer. No radio. Just some clothes. And my mattress.”
Do you know that kids your age in America have many things?
“Yes, I know.”
Does that make you sad or angry?
“No. I stay who I am. I just stay in my life. That’s how I am supposed to live. I don’t know. God knows.”
High noon. Our second day in Port-au-Prince. The blue van is stuffed with passengers, including the Rev. John Hearn Sr., the Detroit pastor who founded the mission, now in his 80s, and several kids who sit on bags in the back. The driver is Herbert Studstill, who at 61 looks much younger, with a dash of Denzel Washington in his profile. Studstill spent his working life in Ford plants in Michigan, mostly construction, he says. A few years ago, he came to Haiti in response to an inner calling to help others.
Today, Studstill (or “Mr. Herbert” as the kids call him) is the all-purpose man at the Caring and Sharing Mission, the guy who will fix a hole in the wall and soothe a crying child to sleep. On the day of the January quake, he was supposed to be getting a haircut. That morning, he canceled his appointment.
“You see that?”
He points to a building that looks like a club sandwich after an anvil fell on it. “That was my barbershop. That’s where I was supposed to be.”
He shakes his head. “When I think about that …”
Studstill navigates through a diesel-choked phalanx of trucks, cars and makeshift buses called “tap-taps.” Every block we pass has one constant: rubble. Endless rubble. Rubble of walls. Rubble of floors. Chunks of concrete, stones and sand everywhere, as if the Lord opened a giant bag of crushed buildings and poured it overtop of Port-au-Prince. Occasionally, you see a sneaker, a dress, a piece of a green chair, a Hefty bag, sticking out of the debris.
“In the first few days, you saw individuals trying to dig people out,” Studstill says. “People with mallet hammers, sledgehammers, picks, trying to get at loved ones inside. “What did it take, 30 seconds?”
Studstill’s voice lowers. “This much destruction? Thirty seconds?”
SO POOR, AND HURTING
We stop at the Haitian capitol, a sort of Caribbean cousin to the White House. Except it, too, is collapsed, as if a bomb exploded in the middle. Across the street, a once-beautiful park has been transformed into another sea of tents and the teeming homeless people who inhabit them.
Hearn steps out alongside me. He wears a bowler hat against the heat. When he first came to Haiti, in the ’70s, it was the poverty that compelled him to do more, poverty that made him buy a small piece of vacant land, poverty that urged him to solicit funds to build a mission, poverty that filled it with its first 50 children.
Now he looks over the waves of suffering and he knows it is even worse. “What we call poverty in the United States is luxury here,” he says. “People here do not have what we throw out.”
A heavyset mother in a sleeveless blouse rises from the ground, holding one of her babies. She approaches Hearn, and they speak softly for a good long while.
Later he will tell me she wanted to give him her child.
THANKFUL FOR ALL OF IT
Back at the mission, I go to my luggage and retrieve two bags of Oreo cookies. Within 30 seconds, the kids have found me and are lined up. They hold out their hands, small, unwashed hands, caked with rubble dust. I give one Oreo per set of fingers, cautious of what Hearn has warned me, that all must get the same. The older kids stand behind me, and if one of the young ones tries to take two cookies, they offer a swift reprimand.
This is how it works here, the older kids watch over the younger kids. No one objects. No one says, “You’re not my boss.” There is precious little that passes for parental scolding, and the kids sop up any drop they find.
Later, as the hours pass, we play basketball on a bent hoop between waterlogged potholes. We sit on a cushionless couch. We look at the sky, sweating, not talking.
“You don’t always have to speak here,” the Rev. John Hearn Jr., the founder’s son and current driving force of the mission, says to me. “They’re happy just to have company. They will never forget that you came.”
But it’s just a visit, I say.
“Doesn’t matter. They know what you left.”
What do you mean?
“You have a home, a car, comforts. And they know you left it to come see them.”
The sun goes down. The evening devotional begins. A young man thumps a plastic tub and another runs a spoon over a grater, creating a driving beat. The prayers. How can you describe these prayers? They are joyous, high-pitched, girls almost shouting, little boys unable to control their smiles. They sing of Jesus, of having a friend, of surrender to God, of being lifted.
“Mommy,” Detroiter Florence Moffett, who for 27 years led the mission, smiles, and the two reverends nod. The 20-year-olds lead the 15-year-olds, who lead the 10-year-olds, who hold the 4-year-olds. They have eaten less all day than many of us eat in a single helping. They will wash with a scooped can of water and sit exposed on cinder-block holes when they need a toilet.
But another night falls at The Mission That Did Not Fall Down, and the sounds of gratitude can be heard, gratitude that wafts toward the dark Haitian sky, dotted with stars.
And we start walking.
Coming Sunday: A prayer among the ruins.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.
How you can help
The Caring and Sharing Mission in Haiti desperately needs toilets, showers, an indoor kitchen and decent dormitory rooms. In the next 30 days, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom hopes to raise $70,000 to benefit the orphanage suffering from the ravages of the recent earthquake.
In 2009, Albom started the A Hole in the Roof Foundation, a charity to help faith groups of every denomination who care for people who are homeless. The first project of the 501(c)3 charity based in Detroit was to fix the hole in the roof of Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in downtown Detroit.
That church and its pastor, the Rev. Henry Covington, were central figures in Albom’s latest best-selling book, “Have a Little Faith.”
Final repairs to the church’s roof were completed in December.
Albom will use his A Hole in the Roof Foundation to help the Caring and Sharing Mission. But he needs your help, too.
To donate, go to:
aholeintheroof.com, call 313-993-4700 or write A Hole in the Roof Foundation, 150 Stimson St., Detroit 48201