By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Stephanie was malnourished even before she was born. She had never learned to walk, even at 3 years old, her legs too weak to support her weight. A friend told Dieubon about them, and in December, he convinced their mother to let him take them. "I said, 'I am going to help you with those girls because I know you have no place to live. '" In May, she stopped by the orphanage for the first time to check on them. "She was amazed," Dieubon says. "She didn't know her daughter could walk."
Dieubon found 5-year-old Steve Michel living in a mud hut with his family, hidden in the rural area east of Port-au-Prince. Like hundreds of thousands of families in Haiti, his parents moved from the countryside to the city in the hope of finding work. Cheap imported rice from the United States has put many Haitian farmers out of work, and they now live in makeshift shantytowns built into Port-au-Prince's hillsides. Steve's family had no food and relied on rainwater to drink. Dieubon heard about the family's inability to feed Steve, and when he asked, they didn't hesitate to turn him over.
Rico and Minouche came from an orphanage managed by a priest who had run out of food and money. "In Haiti," Dieubon says, "many people try to make money by running an orphanage. They will take the money and give no food to the children." When Minouche arrived, she had an infection that had festered on her chin. It looked like a macabre goatee of puss and scabs. Dieubon treated it easily with an antibiotic; there's nothing left of it now but a slight shadow on the spot where it once grew.
Ritchy and Clarence Exama came after the floods washed away everything they had. In September of last year, the brothers were living with their parents in a tin hut in a town north of Port-au-Prince, in the country's largely out-of-work agricultural valley. In Haiti, 99 percent of its forests have been cut down, mostly to make charcoal, the only source of cooking fuel for the poor. When Hurricane Jeanne parked itself over Haiti in September, the deforestation caused landslides and floods that washed into the valley. At least 1,500 died, and 300,000 lost their homes. When asked about it, Ritchy speaks as if he's talking about something far removed from him.
"The water came inside our house," Ritchy recalls in Creole. "It came in, and people were killed. Houses floated away." Ritchy says his house was spared. His father, a watch repairman, kept the family safe until American soldiers arrived to save them. "They are still alive," he says of his parents. He tells the story with a bright, toothy smile. It's a grin that gives away nothing of his refusal to believe what really happened to his family.
Speaking in English, Dieubon says their father was the first to drown in the flood. Then their mother washed away. A grandfather took in the boys but couldn't afford to feed them. Dieubon heard their story and took them to the orphanage in December. "They watched their whole family die," he says.
Clarence and Ritchy are rarely out of arm's length of each other since they watched their parents wash away. They share a bunk bed and crowd together on the wooden bench when they report for morning lessons. So when Clarence heard that Ritchy was leaving in the morning, he burst into tears that streamed down his cheeks. Accede picked him up and cradled the 6-year-old in her arms like a toddler, but nothing could make him stop. Ritchy, meanwhile, changed into a striped polo shirt and a pair of dress pants that were two inches too short. He piled into a Toyota van Dieubon had borrowed, and for the rest of the day, Ritchy would see what life would be like if Jackson hadn't taken him in.
Out the rutted road from the orphanage, Dieubon headed southwest into the places foreigners aren't supposed to go. He angled the van through a roundabout and onto a potholed, two-lane boulevard nicknamed Airport Road. This strip is where thugs often pull motorists from their cars and torture them until their families can come up with tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Abandoned airplanes rot in a field off to the left. Stripped cars lay forgotten on dirt paths that serve as sidewalks. Few people are walking, which is rare in a city with little public transportation, a clear sign of the dangers that lurk down this road. Even though 8,500 peacekeepers from the United Nations patrol Haiti, they are rarely seen in the dangerous parts.
Jackson is perhaps one of the only foreigners for miles. He's a clear target riding in the front seat. "Yes," Dieubon admits, "it is not so OK here."
But Dieubon says they have little choice. They must travel this road or feel personally responsible for the suffering of the children at the end of it, who could starve or die of malnutrition without his regular visits. They're headed to one of Port-au-Prince's poorest orphanages, the Centre El-Bethel House of Children. It's common to find the orphanage with no food. The road dumps onto a truss bridge covered in mud that spans the swollen Riviére Grise, or Gray River. Then the road thins as it enters another of Port-au-Prince's ramshackle and unnamed neighborhoods. Vendors lined everywhere on the road hawk lottery tickets and buckets of charcoal made from the trees stripped off the hillsides.