Reflecting on the trip I have much to ponder.
I’m sitting on the plane, and I feel like Doogie Howser – like I’m supposed to write something with a moral, as if we’ve all just learned an important life lesson. (This blog is a little more long-winded that Doogie, however, so be warned)
I’m sure we have learned much, but it’s affect on us (and on me), the lesson, will only be proven months from now when we are back in our regular routine of life. Only then will we be able to see what has changed. That being true, I still feel as though I have already seen a bit of a transformation in myself.
When we first arrived in Haiti, I was very hesitant to look the Haitians directly in the eye. I was reluctant to interact with the kids at the schools and in the streets. And I really did not like taking pictures of any person without their permission at first. I suppose I was nervous. But why? Perhaps it was because I wanted to respect the Haitians. I didn’t want them to believe I thought I was better than them. I didn’t want to accidentally look at my fellow humans with sorrow in my eyes, thereby saying to them “my life is so much better than yours, and so I am sorry for the life you have”. I didn’t even want an opportunity for that kind of misunderstanding. I’m sure that wouldn’t help anyone.
Or perhaps I was nervous because of a language barrier. If I don’t look at them, then I won’t end up in an uncomfortable conversation where I might not understand. Like a child’s mindset – if I can’t see you, you can’t see me and I can avoid anything uncomfortable.
Or, perhaps it was because I have been absolutely astounded at what I’ve seen, and immediately had a feeling of helplessness toward all that needs to be done to simply restore the most basic of human rights.
Or, perhaps it was because I know I was sent here with the purpose of helping, but was worried that we wouldn’t be able to do enough. Maybe it was all of this and more.
However, by the end of our trip a change had occurred. I had no problem looking any Haitian in the eye, and smiling a warm and welcoming smile – as opposed to one of apology toward them. And some of the most lasting and memorable moments I had were my interactions with the children during the last few days. My favorite pictures are the candid ones where no one was looking, and the ones where children are staring up at me with their initial curious expression, not with a pose akin to just being asked to be photographed. So what happened?
I think I found comfort. A comfort I could only realize through understanding. The strength that I witnessed in those children, and equally in any passionate Haitian, gave me the understanding that they will prevail, and that I can indeed offer some help, not just my empathy. I gained the ability to smile because I know I really can help… even if I can’t change everything that I may want to alone or immediately. There is no reason to look apologetic if I know in my heart that I am going to work diligently with them. That makes us equals. That makes it okay to share a smile with a stranger on the street. Or at least it did for me. I didn’t look at them with sorrow, but instead with hope and happiness.
But it is hard to decide what projects to give time to, or perhaps where to donate money or effort when there is so much need. That difficult road is still ahead of us. I keep telling myself not to carry too much grief or burden (it would only render me catatonic and unable to take action), but I do hope to carry some for a very long time. I don’t want to forget. I truly hope that I always have a weight from Haiti to remind me of what I have experienced and learned here. I don’t want to fall back into my daily routine of luxurious life by comparison – only to forget about everything that has inspired me over the last two weeks.
As I fly away from all the need that I have witnessed, I contemplate the moments that had the most impact on me. What allowed me the understanding and comfort to change in just two weeks? What images will I still have vividly in my mind months from now as I’m comfortably sitting in my home with a roof, running water, and electricity – both sanitary and private – with very little chance to cave in on me at any moment?
I can say that I certainly hope I don’t forget the look in the little girls’ eye who grabbed my hand to hold it as we walked through the JP/HRO tent city to look at their “school”. She stared at me with an expectation of hope, and a longing for help. It pierced me.
To get to the school we had to walk through a large part of this camp – which is the appropriate word for it. Except that most of us think of camping as being something that you do for fun for a short, and certainly temporary, period of time. These people have been here, with the hopes of leaving, for over 8 months now. Here there are tents (or tarps) everywhere, but I didn’t see any beds, cots, or even sleeping pads. Water is trucked in by Oxfam (an organization in Haiti helping with sanitation and water) but you have to walk at least halfway up the hill in crazy heat to fetch it. It happened to rain the night before our getting there (which is a frequent and common occurrence) and mud collected on our shoes as we walked around – which made me about 2 inches taller.
As I looked around for a place to clean the mud off my shoes, I realized how fortunate I was to even have shoes. Many of the people, especially the children, didn’t have any – or what they did have were worn through, mismatched, or just cheap flip-flops. That little girl who grabbed my hand, who was also shoeless, went to all of us – to hold each of our hands – as if to say: “Please help us. We don’t want to live in a tent camp anymore. We don’t want to slog through the mud to get water. We don’t want to sleep on the wet ground under a leaky tarp. This is inhumane. Please, please help us.” It took everything I had at the time not to react emotionally, but as I write this I find that am not quite as successful.
This experience at JPHRO happened on our last day, and weighed me down for the majority of the day. I’m not sure to what extent the previous days here in Haiti assisted in a potential build-up, but I did draw connections to other things I had seen. When that little girl held my hand, I couldn’t help but think of the 3 children we met in the street in Petionville earlier in the trip.
We walked out of a local fast food restaurant and were planning to wait for our driver across the street where there were a few street vendors. We crossed the road twice (essentially going to the diagonal corner, dodging traffic both times) and all the while a little boy and girl followed us. As I turned around, they were there behind me looking up at me for help in a very similar way. I gave them the ice cold bottle of water that we left the restaurant with, and they immediately opened it and shared it. The girl called over for her friend to share as well, and he hurried over. I had 2 energy bars in my pack so I offered them, and we rustled up a 3rd granola bar so they each had something.
We stood there talking with them for awhile in broken French and partial Creole until the girl said to me, in English, “I want to go to your house”. We responded that we didn’t have a house (Parfait lives in a studio in Portland and was telling her in French) and she said “Hotel?” as if maybe she could come back to our hotel.
Her life is so bad that she wanted to leave her family and she wanted to go home with us, complete strangers. I’m sure we weren’t the first to whom she had said this, given that it seemed one of just a few phrases she knew in English, and it had an immediate impact on me. I believe that it had nothing to do with who we were, other than we looked like we didn’t live in a tent, and possibly that we showed a glint of compassion. We found out that one boy lived in a tent, but the other two slept outside in a nearby neighborhood/tent city. My mind was racing to try to think of anything I could do that would make a long-term difference for them. What can you give to children in the street, whom you meet on a chance encounter, which will allow them a chance at a better life?
Nor will I forget the 40 minutes we spent in a little community outside of Jacmel. A rural community – where all the families live in 1 room houses (sometimes with up to 12 kids) and the “school” is part of the Restoration Ministry Church (also 1 room). I could have spent the whole day there (and have regrets about the events leading up to getting there).
As I took a few pictures, and showed the digital images to every child that was captured in the picture, I was mobbed by a group of kids who were thrilled by this. They just wanted to see, to play, and to smile and the pictures were just a catalyst. I sat on the ground to take pictures closer up, and to be a part of the kids’ excitement. I wasn’t on the ground 60 seconds before one little girl just sat right down on my lap and cuddled in. Part of this was because she wanted to take a picture too (and since my heart melted when she sat down I let her), but I can say that she looked genuinely happy sitting there playing, and I was a part of that. I shared that with her, and all of them.
I won’t forget it. These children are not likely to have a single material possession in the world. Some of them may not even enjoy shelter and food on a regular basis. But somehow, they still find a way to play, have fun, and keep on smiling. It gives me immense respect for a child’s resilience, as well as the human spirit in general, and helps to remind me of what I think life should really be about.
So what experiences have I brought home with me that will have a lasting impact?
I can say it’s every interaction I’ve had with the people and children of Haiti. From my comfortable home in the U.S., I saw pictures, or perhaps even some video shot by CNN about Haiti. It was sad when I saw that, and no person I know would wish the lives depicted in those images upon anyone. But I realize that simply looking at those pictures I am still removed. I couldn’t gain true understanding.
From actually being there I will certainly remember all the tarps and tents, the dust and debris, the rubble and the madness – all of those same images. But the experiences that are going to last, for me, will be these interactions. The interactions I couldn’t have possibly gotten by reading every Haitian book, or looking at any number of photos or videos.
Haitians are people with spirit, with culture, and with life – and they are what I hope to remember most about this place. I will remember this spirit, these children, and it will give me the motivation and drive to continue to pursue the right kind of help. For all of them.