Longform

Saint Aaron

Page 5 of 9

"What is your name?" Accede asks Ritchy's brother.

"Je m'appelle Clarence," he answers quickly.

"What is your mother's name?"

Clarence shifts uncomfortably on the wooden bench before answering. He looks down at his feet dangling off the floor. "My mother is dead," he answers in Creole.

Accede doesn't correct him for speaking in Creole. But she asks again in French, "What was her name?"

Clarence fidgets and then whispers the name of his mother, whom he watched drown just eight months earlier. "Doune."

At the orphanage, it's hard to picture the lives these children had before. Here, they are profoundly happy. They seem to smile constantly, giggling nonstop, and the reason seems as simple as the fact that they have a roof over their heads and three meals a day. When they arrived, Dieubon gave each one matching pairs of black plastic sandals. For many, it was their first pair of shoes. Then they got new shorts and T-shirts for play and dresses and khakis for school, the first time for many that they had more than just the ratty set of clothes on their backs. It was also the first time that they ate hot food regularly and bathed in anything but rainwater.

While sitting in a folding chair with Rico and Clarence fidgeting in his lap, Dieubon tells of how he found the seven kids. The only furniture in the orphanage's living room are folding chairs and some old schoolhouse desks, so Dieubon's voice echoes eerily. He tells the story in English, so the children, who are running around fighting over Jackson's hat, don't know that he is telling of the horrors they lived through before coming here.

Virtually every morning of their lives before they landed at the orphanage, 6-year-old Kerlinda Chrisostome and 3-year-old Stephanie Dad woke up to somebody kicking them off a front porch. Their homeless mother, looking for any dry spot for them to bed down, usually waited to sneak onto the porches until the homeowners went to sleep only to be awakened when their unwitting hosts shooed them off. Like two-thirds of Haiti's population, they had no access to clean water, drinking mostly from puddles. They ate only rare handouts.

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton