PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — They are just children. Some arrived as babies. Some lost their parents. Others were turned over because no one could afford to feed them. Together, over the years, they formed a cherished bond inside the walls of a Haitian mission, where they were taught to speak and pray in English by John Hearn, a Detroit pastor, and Florence Moffett, a devoted woman who had a midlife calling to be a missionary.
They never had much.
But there was love.
And then the ground shook.
This is a story about a small oasis of hope in Haiti, a little story amid the huge story of the worst earthquake in 250 years. We took a trip to the Caring and Sharing Mission, stayed there, slept on the floor, watched as 70 children battled something kids should never have to battle: their fears, their hunger, their flashbacks at the horror they witnessed as so many were killed.
What we saw might break your heart. Children sleeping on mattresses in the dirt, afraid to even step inside a building for fear that it will come down on them. Teens eating two meager meals a day, rice and beans every night, surrounded by flies, forced to shower with cans of water, often in front of one another, using bathrooms that are no more than holes in the ground.
And yet, they smile. They sing. They pray with a joyous spirit rarely seen in our comfortable lives. I hope we can help them. I hope, if you follow this three-day journey, you will want to help them.
“Everything has changed,” one of the youngsters told me. “No one seems to be normal.”
How could they be?
On a long journey back to normal
When it happened, what did you think?
“I think: This is the end.”
“I think: This is the armageddon.”
“This is the first time I see dead bodies — all these dead bodies at a time. Everybody covered up with blood, screaming, some of them have their brains coming out. It was very ugly to see.”
What has it been like since then?
“Everything has changed. No one seems to be normal. No one seems to know what they’re doing. They are just walking around in the street. They have no objective to where they are going. They’re walking. Just walking.”
— Michael, 22
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The dirty blue van, its side door slung open against the heat, bounces hard on a road of holes and stones. A dog watches, its head on its paws, too hot to leave the shade. The sky is cloudless, the air sticky and still. When the van reaches the mission, a teenage boy, his skin caked with dust that kicks up from the rubble, yanks open a metal gate.
We pull inside.
Suddenly, dozens of children swarm the vehicle, mostly shoeless, many topless, their faces between exuberant and fearful, as if even happy moments are also suspicious: What comes next, fire or rain, the hell or the heaven-sent? When we step out, a few take my hand. Some back away. Others look up shyly, smiling when our eyes meet, as if caught in the act. Two pastors who have flown down with us, a father and son, and two other colleagues help unload duffel bags, gas cans, cases of Tylenol.
Finally, from the van’s backseat, a small figure emerges, a woman in her 80s with her hair in bangs.
“Mommy! Mommy!” the children yell, even the ones tall enough to be adults.
Taking stock of the situation
We are not here to tell the big story of Haiti and last month’s massive earthquake that has devastated it, because you could be here for years and not be capable of that. How would you measure? How would you analyze? This is not a place of charts or statistics. They cannot even count their dead. Some say 240,000. Some say far more. Who knows? Bodies are still undiscovered, you can smell the rotting corpses in buildings flattened like stomped sand castles, and all of Port-au-Prince seems to be living in the street — “They’re walking. Just walking” — so things like addresses, home phones, knocking on doors, calling offices, finding schools open? Useless. All useless. Even getting lights to turn on is an iffy proposition.
Which means that at this hot moment in Haiti, the anecdotal can become the analytical. Someone sees a man shot for food, and suddenly everyone is shooting one another for food. Someone sees an empty medical tent, and suddenly no one is getting medical aid. Someone hears of babies disappearing, and one group says they’re being sold for adoption and another says they’re being sacrificed in voodoo ceremonies and everything, you sense, is a little false and a little true. Even the unimaginable.
Seeing the miraculous
So you give up on telling the big official story of this country — how official can you be when the airport has a huge crack in its outer wall and a sign for “Haitian Immigration” is a piece of paper duct-taped to a wall? — and instead, you find a corner of the wreckage to try to tell a smaller tale, go inside out, a glimpse at life after the worst earthquake to hit this troubled island in a quarter of a millennium.
What follows is such a glimpse: three days in a mission orphanage in Port-au-Prince off Delmas Street, tucked behind concrete walls, some of which tumbled when the earth moved.
The place is called the Caring and Sharing Mission, started in the early ’80s by a Detroit pastor, John Hearn, who came to Haiti and couldn’t turn away.
There are, when we arrive, around 70 kids staying here. No one really counts, because all counts are fluid these days. The numbers have swelled since the earthquake, because some from the outside who lost everything wandered back in, so did others who heard it was a safe place, a place with at least some food and water, although there is barbed wire atop the walls and a guard at the gate.
But most appealing, in a country bubbling with superstition, where voodoo thrives and natural disasters are whispered to be messages from God, there is something lucky, even miraculous, about this small, peaceful combine of a dormitory, school and chapel.
It is still standing.
And all of the children survived.
SNAPSHOTS OF HAITI: Goats. Orange rinds. Spray-painted messages on doorways: “We Find Nothing. Help Us.” A kid in the street, flying a kite made from a trash liner. The Palace of Justice, Haiti’s Supreme Court building, collapsed and crumbled, a mountain of small white stones. Stray dogs. A pile of sneakers. Women walking and holding plastic bags. The bags are filled with water.
Feeling joy and pain
The old woman with the bangs is Florence Moffett, a onetime Detroit bank worker who, for 27 years, was the driving force of this mission, a stern, loving instructor who insisted the youths learn to speak and pray in English, not their native Creole or French, but English, and a schoolteacher’s English at that.
So here in this enclave of plaster, mud and cinderblock, you hear a delightful vocabulary from children, even children without shoes who have never known a shower (unless you count scooping water from a bowl and pouring it over their heads a shower) and whose toilets are exposed holes in the ground with no privacy and swarms of flies.
These children speak politely and intelligently, especially the older ones. In the States, they’d pass easily as foreign exchange students. But this is not the States. Instead, it is a place of survival and worry, which explains why all the kids’ mattresses, once inside on bed frames, are now outside in the dirt or inside tents pitched side by side.
Moffett sees this the moment she steps from the van. An entire yard full of children and teens who refuse to go indoors, because the indoors is cursed, they tell you, the indoors is where you die when the earth shakes.
“They fill our head up: Don’t go in halls, don’t stay in front of walls,” says a 17-year-old named Natalie. She has stepped inside the dormitory where she used to sleep just twice since the earthquake, racing in to retrieve something and racing out again.
“I am afraid,” she quickly admits.
Natalie learned her English from Moffett, as did a gangly 17-year-old named Sadrac, who came here when he was 1 year old, and a short, sweet-faced young man named Lewinsky, 20, who was left here as a boy when his parents couldn’t take care of him, same as Sam, 18, who has been here a decade, and
Michael, 22, who has been here since he was 5.
All of them refer to Moffett as “Mommy,” and she absorbs their affection with the quiet dignity of a woman who has seen the worst and is unshaken. Moffett speaks softly, carries a Bible and refers often to the calling she received when she was in her 40s in Detroit. The Lord, she says, wanted her to do missionary work. She came to Haiti and stayed, educating and influencing one child after another — even a baby that was left outside the gate, a baby she had to name herself — until age and circumstances led her back to Michigan a few years ago, when she was in her late 70s.
This is her first visit since the earthquake. And it is clear, even as the children cling to her legs and all but break into song at her return, that her heart is split in two the joy at seeing these faces again, and the ache of the devastation that they’ve had to witness.
“No child should have to go through this,” she says.
Describe what happened, Michael.
“Well, I was in school. The ground was shaking. Then everybody start screaming. The door collapsed. It wouldn’t open. The only option we have is the windows. Everybody start jumping out.”
You jumped out a window?
Your friends, too?
“Yes. Some of them got foot injuries. Arm injuries. Some of them don’t make it because they just fell on their heads.
“When we got out in the streets, we couldn’t see anything. Only dust. Everyone was very strange, screaming, blood all over them.
“You could not remember your own body if it was next to you.”
Doing what we must
It does not take long to settle in here. I put down my bag, blow up an air mattress and place it on the floor of the pastor’s quarters. That’s it. On other assignments, you might take out a computer and go online, or flick on the TV news or call for a taxi.
That would be laughable here. It is quiet, save for the rumble of a generator or the distant sound of traffic. And you realize that in addition to the death and destruction that has crippled Port-au-Prince, the earthquake also rendered much of this city depressingly idle. No work. No school. No electricity. The world for many here is as basic as it might have been 200 years ago: find food, find water, hide from the sun, sleep under cover.
When I step outside, the kids are waiting, circling aimlessly. What else is on their agenda? There are but two meals a day, and it is not time for the second. There are evening prayers, but the sun is still beating down.
And so they surround me in what feels like a protective circle, and after a few minutes, we do what everyone seems to be doing in this city of ruins.
We pull open the gate.
And we start walking.
Coming Friday: Death, hope and Oreo cookies.