LES CAYES, HAITI – On a recent Thursday afternoon, Siem Lafleur finished a political science class at Madonna University, came back to his dorm room, and packed a small bag.
The next day, while his fellow students were enjoying the early fall weather and planning their weekend fun, Siem was landing in hot and humid Port Au Prince, Haiti, taking a small plane to Les Cayes on the southwestern coast, renting an old car from a stranger at the airport there, and driving to the middle of hell on Earth.
Although Siem spends most of the year pursuing a college degree in Michigan, his heart remains on an island far away. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in August had its epicenter near Les Cayes, just miles from where Siem was born. As the old car rumbles over dirt roads, he recalls getting the news.
“I woke up to a text saying there was an earthquake in Haiti and it was bad. After that, I just tried to find out if my family was alive. I couldn’t get an answer.”
Although it didn’t kill as many people as the one in 2010 that decimated Port Au Prince, this earthquake was actually more powerful in scale. And for many people in the western provinces, it meant complete destruction, utter loss, and death.
“You see that church?” Siem points to a half-collapsed pink and white structure that looks as if a giant fist smashed one end of it. “My aunt, my mother’s sister, was in there when the earthquake hit. The ceiling collapsed. She had her 4-year-old son with her.”
What about her son?
“He died, too. They were buried the next day because they have no place to put the bodies.”
Where were they buried?
“In their yard.”
Death is a constant companion in Haiti. It finds a place in hospitals and malnutrition centers, in violent streets and gang shootings, in dark rooms where people are kidnapped off the street and killed if a ransom is not paid.
Few Haitians feel safe from daily life in this, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But when a natural disaster strikes, death is even more random. Hurricanes and earthquakes bring tremendous carnage to a low-infrastructure place like Haiti. And without safety nets like Americans are used to — government agencies, FEMA, etc. — those who survive are often left on their own to pick up the remains of an already meager existence.
Siem steers the rental car into a village called Edward, named for an older man who once lived there. Trees are thick here, and the road is a dirt path cleared between trunks. The car struggles to ascend through the brush, and stones kick up into its underbelly. At one point, the passengers have to get out for the car to make it uphill.
Finally, we come to a clearing. A cluster of people, old and young — Siem’s extended family — are standing there waiting, wearing ragged clothes, tank tops, shorts. Amongst them is Siem’s mother, Clodine, who, at 57, has lived her entire adult life here in a small concrete structure with a tin roof.
Eleven years ago, her house was destroyed by an earthquake. Slowly, painfully, the family rebuilt it. Now the house is once again flattened, crumbled in pieces as if run through a blender. It has been this way since the latest earthquake, more than a month ago.
“Who has come to help you?” Siem asks, embracing her in a sad reunion.
“Nobody has come,” she says. “You are the first.”
‘I don’t want my family to be homeless’
Siem Lafleur was born in this village 29 years ago, the youngest of Clodine’s then five children. His grandmother’s dying wish was that Clodine’s kids would not grow up in this place, devoid of clean drinking water and sanitary toilets, with no work and little chance of ever going to school.
After her mother’s death, Clodine honored her wish. She reluctantly asked Siem’s uncle to take Siem and an older brother away, to an orphanage in Port Au Prince where they would eat and have a bed and get educated. Because the orphanage was a good 10 hours off by car, Siem, just 5 years old, rarely saw his mother or family again.
Still, he remains tightly tethered to them.
“Especially in Haiti,” he says, “when your family sends you away, you are always expected to give back to them once you can, to help them in once you get the opportunity. They tell you that is the reason they sent you away.”
He is asked if he believes that.
“Not always. But I want to help my family. Not only because I am supposed to, but because of the situation they are in. When the first earthquake happened, they lost their house. It took years to build it back. Now, in less than a minute, it is destroyed again. They have nothing. They are homeless, living in the road.”
He pauses. “I don’t want my family to be homeless people.”
‘What will it take to rebuild her house?’
We have brought with us tents, tarps, solar lights, various foods and bags of water, as much as would fit in the car. Clodine isn’t looking at that. She studies her son, his soft face, his short hair, his thin, muscular build. She tells him he looks healthy. She touches his arm.
He asks her to recount the earthquake experience. She says she was walking outside, almost to a river, when she felt the world shake. She laid down on the ground.
“I prayed to Jesus,” she says, with Siem translating. “I prayed nobody got hurt.”
When the trembling stopped, Clodine ran back home. She saw the house closest to her, belonging to a cousin, crushed into pieces. Then she saw her own: a pile of busted concrete in big and small chunks, as if sledgehammered into submission.
“That night we all slept outside together,” she says. “We prayed. We were crying. We slept on the ground for many nights.”
She points. “Finally, we decided we should sleep in there.”
“There” is the remains of her cousins’ meager home. The earthquake sunk the structure into the ground. But there is a 3-foot opening under the collapsed tin roof. So Clodine and her cousin Guerline pushed several mattresses through that hole and propped them up on cinderblocks to keep them off the dirt. At night they crawl inside and go to bed.
“At least it protects them from the rain,” Siem says.
Like a dutiful son, he unpacks the bags of supplies. He unrolls the tarp. He distributes the water and the food. Before we are done, he will have done this for his mother, his cousins and half a dozen others who live nearby and are family to young children at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, where Siem graduated from school, got admitted to Madonna University, and earned his chance at a better life.
As he returns to the car, his eyes dart around the destruction. He is asked what he is thinking.
“I am wondering,” he says, “what it will take to rebuild her house.”
The news cycle moves on
The August earthquake is believed to have killed over 2,200 people, injured over 12,000, and left countless Haitians, like those in Siem’s family, without a place to live. It had its moment in the global news cycle and on cable news networks in America.
But then the Afghanistan withdrawal quickly took over, and the next time you heard about Haitians, a few weeks later, pundits were fretting over 15,000 of them amassed under a bridge at the Texas border.
Those startling images from Del Rio — people living under tarps, baking in the heat, bathing in filthy water — produced righteous outcries from humanitarian corners, demanding — and getting — action.
But Haitians in places like Edward are living like that every day. Every night. No one is protesting on their behalf. No one is demanding action. The refugees in Del Rio at least had portable toilets.
What do they use for toilets here? Siem is asked.
“A big hole,” he says, pointing to the woods.
And for electricity?
“There’s no electricity.”
And what about drinking water?
“My mother has to walk with a bucket,” he says. “She gets it from a community well about an hour away. Then she walks back.”
‘I will be back’
It would not take a lot of money to rebuild Clodine’s three-room home, maybe $20,000, quite low by American standards. But that might as well be millions to families like hers, who exist on farming the food they eat, cook over open fires, and get no help from the government who, as Clodine puts it, “don’t even know we are here.”
The average working wage in Haiti is $3 a day. That’s if you can find a job. Employment is scarce. Relief, even more so.
Siem sets up the tent for his mother and his cousins. There is more talk and a few smiles. Before he departs, Siem hands her a small envelope of money that the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage has gathered for the families of their children. It will help her buy the basics for a few weeks.
Clodine hugs her son. She says she is proud of him. He tells her “I will be back.” On the afternoon return to the Les Cayes airport, Siem’s rented car breaks down in a thicket near a bridge. When Siem opens the hood, he sees the sparkplugs are shot, and masking tape had been holding pieces of the engine together. The stranger had rented him a lemon.
He abandons the car and flags down a passing van. After extended negotiations, a ride to the airport is agreed upon — for a hefty price.
Siem gets in the van and sighs. Even trying to get home feels like an obstacle course.
A deeper meaning of giving back
When people send money to loved ones in their native countries, it is called a remittance. In Haiti, remarkably, remittances make up a third of the nation’s overall economy.
That speaks to Haiti’s poverty. And it speaks to the idea that if you are lucky enough to get out, you owe something to your relatives who did not.
Understand that, and you understand the painful obligation that grips Haitian students like Siem who are studying in America. Siem’s intention is to return to Port Au Prince after college. He is in the U.S. only for an education. He had hoped his university years would be a pleasant respite from the daily rigors of life back home.
“But you never get away from Haiti,” he says. “It is like, there are always problems, and the problems hurt your family, and you feel you have to help them because you were the one given a chance for a better life.”
Siem is trying to raise funds to rebuild his family’s home. But like the rickety rental car trying to make it up a hill, stones keep kicking up into the underbelly. People are tired of helping Haiti. Their attention turns elsewhere. How can he get it done as a student?
Someone once said, “if you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” You wonder if Haiti overdoes it. Siem LaFleur is back in a Michigan classroom now, but his heart is always someplace else.
To help Siem LaFleur’s family, you can make donations at havefaithhaiti.org and select “Earthquake Relief.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.