July 5, 2010
Haitian Orphans Have Little but One Another
By DEBORAH SONTAG
CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, Haiti — More than five months after the earthquake that killed her single mother, Daphne Joseph, 14, lost her bearings a second time when she was forced to leave the makeshift orphanage where she had felt at home.
Immediately after the earthquake, she watched with horror as her mother’s mangled body was carted away in a wheelbarrow from a shattered marketplace. Dropped at the doorstep of a community aid group, she contemplated suicide.
Yet within a couple of months, displaying a resilience that many in this shattered country exhibited, Daphne righted herself. She found an improvised family in a ragtag group of fellow earthquake orphans and the adults who nurtured them. Skipping cheerily to greet a visitor in March, she announced, “I’m so much better!”
In mid-June, however, Daphne was claimed by a relative who is not really a relative — the 23-year-old common-law wife of her half brother’s father — and moved into a squalid tent city. It made her feel unmoored once again. Where did she belong? she wondered.
What made her questioning especially poignant was that the makeshift, open-air orphanage where she longs to return is an unsteady anchor. The community aid group that runs the place — which is little more than a pair of tents — is caring, but lacks expertise and resources. And neither the Haitian government nor international organizations here have helped it in a lasting way.
Like Daphne, the orphanage faces an uncertain future, with an eviction looming.
“We don’t really know what to do next,” said the Rev. Gerald Bataille, the primary supervisor of the children. “Somehow, the whole world wants to help Haiti, but we feel like we’re on our own.”
The lives of Daphne and 14 younger children hang in the balance, although conditions at the makeshift orphanage are far from ideal.
On a recent Sunday, the newest arrivals, 11-month-old twin girls named Magda and Magdaline Charles, lay limp and entwined on a urine-soaked rug under a mango tree. They were covered with flies.
“They arrived naked and dehydrated,” Pastor Bataille said. “Their mother said, ‘If you leave them with me, they’re going to die.’ So although we’re not equipped for babies, we took them.”
Pastor Bataille’s organization, known by the acronym Frades, is a grass-roots collective that specializes in microloans. Although it was not a child-care organization before the earthquake, it assumed responsibility for local children who were orphaned or abandoned afterward, about 26 of them at first.
With the help of the mayor’s office, Frades board members found a place to keep the children: an idle construction site where a foundation had been laid for a nightclub that never materialized. Save the Children provided two large tents, but nothing to furnish them.
A Frades board member, through a personal connection, got a two-month supply of water and basic food from Ceci, a Canadian group. Readers of a January article in The New York Times about Daphne and the other children contributed about $1,000 in cash and Medika Mamba, a nutritionally fortified peanut butter, and they formed a support group.
But Frades needed more: mattresses, latrines, showers, medical care, money to pay cooks and counselors and a continuing water and food supply. And even with so many international aid groups in the country, sustained help was hard to find.
Frades board members said they had visited the United Nations logistics base and asked Unicef for beds. They were directed to a supply request form on the Internet, which they filled out. They never received a response, they said. (Contacted by The Times, a spokeswoman for Unicef suggested that they try again, and offered contact information.)
Next, they sought further aid from Save the Children. In February, they submitted an application for a project they called “For Children to Reclaim Life in Croix-des-Bouquets.” They supplied three versions of a budget, they said, met with Save the Children administrators and followed up with phone calls in which they were passed from one person to another.
Finally, this month, a Save the Children administrator sent an e-mail message, which began “I regret to inform you ...” The letter concluded, “According to our current standards and operational criteria, we can’t unfortunately validate Frades’s proposal, as it doesn’t match with the objectives of our internal strategy nor with our areas of intervention.”
Kate Conradt, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, said the note meant that her group did not serve the Croix-des-Bouquets area; World Vision does. Why nobody told Frades this sooner is unclear. But as a result, the children at Frades were not registered in the program that was supposed to evaluate each stranded child’s situation, assign the child a government caseworker and either arrange interim care or link the caregiver to support.
Ms. Conradt said Save the Children would now ask World Vision to contact Frades, whose situation is increasingly dire.
The Miami-based landlord of the site is seeking to evict the group, having found a paying tenant — a Christian school — that does not want to share the space. The tents provided by Save the Children, swelteringly hot inside, are still unfurnished but for a few school desks. The children sleep on thin scraps of carpet laid over sandy concrete.
And their universe of caregivers has shrunk as the organization has run low on money. Mostly, the children, with their runny noses, distended bellies and homemade kites, take care of one another.
Thirteen-year-old Michaelle Point du Jour, who lost both parents in the earthquake, cooks for and feeds the younger children. She prepares rice and beans and, while many of the children appear healthier now than a couple of months ago, most if not all are malnourished and have chronic intestinal parasitic infections, said Dr. Patricia Back, a Cincinnati-based family doctor who visited them recently.
Michaelle is the oldest since Daphne left. Pastor Bataille said that Daphne’s half brother’s stepmother, Manouchca Deravine, came to take Daphne away when he was out. He said he could not go reclaim her because Frades had no right — even if Ms. Deravine had no legal claim to her, either. He has to tread lightly in the community, he said, where some displaced people are suspicious that Frades is using the children to get more assistance than everyone else.
Pastor Bataille said he did not know where Daphne had gone. But one of the other children and Chantal Dumas, a former school secretary who has been serving as a teacher at Frades, helped visitors track her down. It turns out that Daphne now lives in the tent city directly behind the wall of the Frades construction site. She shares a small camping tent with five others.
Daphne sat in her visitors’ car, looking down at her lap at first, with ear buds from a banged-up MP3 player in her ears. “It’s O.K.,” she said about her new living arrangement. When asked if she thought about her mother, she grew animated.
Right after the earthquake, Daphne had described her mother’s spirit as a wind at her back, pushing her forward. Now, she said, she is plagued by dreams in which her mother tries to smother her with a white towel. Her mother’s spirit haunts her. “She’s a zombie,” Daphne said.
She was speaking a few days after she had left Frades, and she said Ms. Deravine was treating her fine. But soon, Daphne said, the woman would probably start mistreating her, as she had in the past. Ms. Dumas, her confidante, said that Daphne feared she would be used as a restavek — a child servant.
“I lived at Frades since January, and nobody ever talked to me badly there,” she said plaintively, her head leaning on Ms. Dumas’s shoulder.
In a brief interview, Ms. Deravine complained that Frades had not sent Daphne to school. She is not, either.
When Daphne’s visitors were leaving, she clung to the side of their car. “You’re not going to leave me here, are you?” she whispered anxiously. “Please, take me with you. Please.”