Heartache Over Haiti Lingers

Last of three parts

Part 1: Children in Haiti cling to way of life at mission
Part 2: Amid Devastation in Haiti, Gratitude Fills Their Hearts

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – His body jerks uncontrollably. His right arm pounds against his chest. His eyes are rolled back. His legs rise and fall.

“Unnnn!” he grunts, repeatedly, a horrible sound, a frightening sound, you can see the fright on the faces of the shoeless children who have quickly gathered around the blanket on which he lies.

“Unnnn … UNNNNH!!”

The young man, who lives at the mission orphanage started decades ago by a Detroiter, is suffering a powerful seizure. We lean over him, mopping a wet towel against his dripping sweat. His arm and chest muscles are so taut, I think he might snap. I ask for something to put between his teeth, realizing suddenly that we are the only “adults” nearby – two colleagues and myself – because the pastors left an hour ago with Mr. Herbert to hunt down supplies.

“UNNNH!”

We try to steer away the young children, and the older ones follow our lead and pull them to the tents. We hover over the young man, trying to hold him, comfort him. Normally, at least in American normal, you would call a doctor immediately, but no phones are working here, and who is there to call? One of his friends yells in Creole, telling him to focus, to think about God, to repeat God’s name, to be strong, be strong!

In time, his breathing slows, his chest drops, his eyes focus. He nods when we speak. We get more water. We prop him up. I glance at the schoolchildren who have regathered, scared silent, fingers to their lips, and I see the look that the young give the old in times of panic, the you-must-know-something-so-please-help-us look.

But what do we know? How can we help? So much they don’t have

By our third day at the Caring and Sharing Mission (or, as some refer to it after the earthquake, The Mission That Did Not Fall Down), a familiarity has set in, a dulled, sweaty thump to the daylight hours. The kids recognize us, and call our names. We walk in lazy circles. The heat slows our thinking. We move as the children move, from here to there, from sitting point to sitting point, a vacant step, a couch with no cushions, a shady spot against a wall. Time passes. The emptiness swallows it.

What the residents of this mission don’t have is telling. After the worst earthquake in 250 years, they are without electricity, without power to run a fan, without light to read their schoolbooks at night. Without refrigeration, without hot water, without showers. Without privacy in their bathrooms, because a wall collapsed. Without a roof to shelter from the rain, because they all sleep outside. Without schooling because the schools are closed or destroyed, without an answer, a timetable or a reliable return to normal. Without a doctor to call when one of them goes into seizure.

What the children don’t have here tells their story far more than what they do.

What is the most money you ever had in your pocket? I ask Sadrac. He is 17, on the verge of manhood.

“Ten dollars.”

How did you get it?

“A man who visited the mission gave it to me.”

Did that feel like a lot of money?

“Oh, yes, because $10 is the same as 80 Haitian dollars. And with $80, I live for a month.”

A month?

“Uh-huh. Because I know how to save.”

Our third day in Haiti has been declared a national day of prayer by President René Préval, the first of three in a row. Citizens are told to pray for hours on end, then start over again.

Here in the mission, the kids comply, and by 7 a.m., as we groggily rise and count the evening’s mosquito bites, they already are gathered in folding chairs by the wall or sitting on the ground: the infants, the grade-schoolers, the teens, some with their heads in their hands. They sit in the mounting heat for hour after hour, singing, chanting, responding to whomever stands in front and leads them.

“We must pray,” a young man named Lewinsky tells me, “because a woman has warned the president that if we do not pray for three days, more bad things will happen.

“She told him this before the earthquake, but he did not listen. Now he listen.”

It is typical of how events unfold in Port-au-Prince. There is the official version – the president’s declared period of national mourning – and then there is the street version – a woman with a vision warning the president to repent, like a Moses to a Pharaoh, the president being too scared to refuse. In a superstitious country that still actively practices voodoo, visions and prophecies are not to be scoffed at. Besides, it is Friday and it is hot, and in a powered-down city of rubble, sitting and praying is hardly a farfetched activity. There’s death all around

Later in the morning, we take a group of the teenagers and walk the city one more time. Sadrac wants to see his school. He misses going. (When was the last time your teenager said that?) He leads us past encampments of tents, some no more than sheet metal resting against poles, in which entire families sleep, sipping water, staring as we pass, the children holding out their hands in hopes of something, anything, you might place in them.

“The earthquake is the first time I see so much dead body,” Sadrac says. “I think it is a dream because it is so bad in the street. A lot of people dead. I see people in hospital, they lose hands, foots, some be crazy now, too, about the earthquake.

“In Port-au-Prince, we got 5 million people, and I can say it feel like 2 1/2 million are dead.”

In truth, a latest death count is 240,000, but that must be just an educated guess. As we walk past a collapsed shopping center, people pull their shirts up over their noses, because the stench of decaying bodies is overwhelming. So much death is yet to be accounted for. The president is saying three years just to clear the rubble of this earthquake. Three years? And until the rubble is cleared, who will really know the breadth of the catastrophe?

“After you see this,” Sadrac says, eyeing the countless little mountains of destroyed buildings, “all you can do is lift up your hand and thank God.”

For what?

“For living.” Future is full of questions

The Detroit man who started this mission, the Rev. John Hearn Sr., and the Detroit woman who taught faith and English here for 27 years, Florence Moffett, are in their 80s now. This visit has brought them joy and grief. The joy speaks for itself, in the hugs of the children who follow their every step.

The grief lies in contemplating the future. How will their mission go on? How will they pay for repairs? How many more orphans, teenagers, kids whose parents truly have nothing, can they accept inside their walls?

“If we wanted, we could have 50 more children by this afternoon,” Hearn laments. He is afraid to tell people on the street about the mission for fear they will hand him their children right there on the spot. It already has happened.

Haiti. The future of this devastated country is as frightening as its immediate past. How long to clear the rubble? What will go up in its place? Who has money to build? What about all the destroyed businesses? Are any structures safe? What about the rainy season – which is about to commence? All these people living on the ground? They’ll be washed away. Living in mud and filthy water. Disease could grow rampant. Malaria, dysentery, maybe tuberculosis. We already have seen hogs eating fruit rinds in the market, just a short distance from children who walk barefoot. Who handles garbage, sewage, sanitation? What does “sanitary” even mean here anymore?

As we walk to Sadrac’s school, there are huge piles of trash, covered with flies. A one-time classroom now has become a bathroom – the smell of human waste is choking – and again, it is covered with flies. Small grills are lit here and there, a few hot dogs being cooked, or a rare helping of goat meat, again swarmed with insects. I don’t want to judge too much about Haiti, but I’m pretty sure the only truly happy creatures here are the bugs.

“My name is Sam. I have been at this mission since I am 7 years old. I am 18 now.

“I’m a simple person here. When they are gonna wash something down, I’ll get the water. I will sweep the yard. I’ll hold the gate key. Those are my jobs.”

You don’t sleep inside, either?

“No. I sleep in a tent in the yard.”

Why?

“Because everybody is scared. Every time they hear something – even if it’s a car passing by – if it goes fast and makes fhsoooo noise like that, the kids are scared. They think it’s the earthquake again.

“So we sleep outside. We are being careful.”

All they can do is wait

When we reach the school, the Greater Works Academy/College de L’excellence, Sadrac’s head lifts and his eyes dart around. The center section has collapsed. A water tank is leaning precariously atop rubble. A man is shoveling concrete into brick molds, alone, one worker, one brick at a time.

Sadrac hustles up into the rubble. A few minutes later, he returns with two women and some girls his age.

“My school also has an orphanage for girls,” he says. “But look it at.”

He points to a crumbled section of the building.

When we ask where the girls sleep now, he points to several mattresses out in the open, atop the ruins.

“There,” he says.

We ask when the school will reopen. We are told no one knows. Maybe April. Sadrac shrugs unhappily. He points to a basketball court and says he played many games there.

We hang around a few more minutes. It is a particular form of heartbreak to see a kid, on what should be a school day, lingering around his place of learning, as if hoping a class might start up. Nothing does. Nothing starts up. The man keeps making bricks, one at a time, and finally, Sadrac poses for a picture by the school sign, and the group turns and walks away, the girls on their mattresses waving good-bye. It’s hard to forget

A few hours later, we zip our bags and bring them to the blue van. The bags weigh little. We leave everything. Every towel. Every candy bar. Every extension cord.

Earlier, Natalie, a soft-voiced teen who lost both her parents by age 5, wondered whether she could ask me a question. She seemed nervous. She looked at her feet. Finally, she finally blurted it out. “Do you have a battery?”

So we leave everything – every battery, every toothbrush, every pen – and we approach the van, and the kids mill about in mixed emotions. Some hug Florence; some cry, “Mommy, Mommy, good-bye, Mommy!” Rev. John Hearn Jr., the Detroiter who has inherited the wheel from his father and who drives fund-raising and operations and arranges for food to be flown in, shakes hands with the older boys and goes over details.

My colleagues and I make the rounds, picking up the smallest kids, giving them a farewell hoist, slapping and hugging the teens who, at first, hang back, perhaps protective of showing too much attachment, because what you attach to in Haiti can go away quickly.

The night before, the generator ran for a few hours, so I took out my computer and opened an iTunes program for four of the teenagers, who gathered around the screen. They were amazed at the idea of it, and quickly asked whether I had music from their favorite groups, which were mostly rappers, R&B artists, and, surprisingly, Enrique Iglesias.

I played a few songs for them from artists I liked. They mostly looked at one another and laughed, then shook their heads no. But when I played the first beats of the Motown song “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, I noticed they just listened, reserving judgment, until finally, they began to nod their heads in rhythm.

“OK,” they said.

I think a lot about Haiti now. I think about the earth opening up, how scared those kids must have been. I think about the horror they have seen. I think about “Mommy” Moffett sitting in the open chapel room, dozens of quiet children at her feet as she reads them a Bible passage the way she used to do.

I think about Mr. Herbert, alias Herbert Studstill, who spent his life working in Ford plants in Michigan, trying to rebuild toilets that were disgracefully inadequate even before the quake. I think about giving out tennis balls on our second day, and how it almost changed the weather inside the mission, the balls flinging about, voices squealing, energy rising. Tennis balls?

I think about Sadrac, Michael, Natalie, Linda, Israel. I think about Lewinsky and Sam, as evening fell, singing a song to us with no instruments, just their young voices, a duet of “Shout to the Lord.”

Mountains bow down

and the seas will roar

at the sound of your name …

I think about families living under pieces of sheet metal, mountains of garbage, hospitals comprised of tents.

I think about rice and beans for dinner every night, about washing your body from a bowl of water, about barefoot infants and a young man having a seizure on a blanket in the dirt and how the older tend to the younger, except they are all so young in this place.

I think about the toothy smiles despite all that, I think about the nodding heads to the Motown music, I think about the last thing most of the teenagers said to us:

“When do you come back?”

There is an emptiness to The Mission That Did Not Fall Down, but there is an emptiness when you depart it, as well. And that’s the thing about Haiti and the earthquake. You can leave the rubble, the smells, the heat, the noise, the mosquitoes, the prayers, the pleading eyes and hopeful faces. You can leave it all, but it doesn’t leave you.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. www.freep.com/mitch.

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