PORT-AU-PRINCE — Life at the orphanage begins before sunup. If the roosters don’t wake you, the kids will. Squealing. Laughing. A lone teenager singing a pop song as he rolls a wheel barrel across the courtyard.
Early to rise is a way of life in Haiti. As soon as the skies lighten, the country comes alive. Darkness here can mean oblivion. No power. No electricity. No light to read or work. When the sun rises, you make your hay, before the world goes dark again.
I never use an alarm clock at the orphanage. There’s no point. I am jostled into consciousness every morning by childish laughter outside my window, or one kid yelling for another from across the way.
I sleep well here. Better than in the States. I wake up happy. The idea that there are nearly 50 kids waiting energizes the exit from bed. I use a small bathroom, brush my teeth, throw on a t-shirt and shorts, and am out the door.
Today the sun is strong and clear, the skies cloudless, the air already hot. I have been thinking about the recent news of kidnappings here, which are taking place daily, as are attacks on stores and organizations. Even orphanages are not spared. We are not in a great neighborhood. My Haitian friends tell me to be careful. To stay inside. Keep our kids away from the streets.
I make my way through the courtyard to the dorm, weaving through a parade of kids racing up and hugging me. I stop in the doorway.
I’ve mentioned that perhaps it’s time to move. I am staring at one reason why. There is a massive crack that runs above the dormitory door frame and down the wall. It screams fragility, danger. It tightens my stomach to look at it.
It has been here for nearly 12 years.
Ever since the earthquake.
The earthquake is ground zero for many people like me, who found themselves drawn to Haiti in 2010 and somehow, all these years later, remain. That earthquake was devastating; it struck late in afternoon of January 12th, lasted less than a minute, yet wiped out nearly three percent of Haiti’s population, or close to 300,000 people. Nearly 10 percent of the population was left homeless.
It was a siren call for help, and help came from many corners of the globe. I arrived a few weeks after the earth shook, on a small plane with a few fellow Dertoiters. I remember the stillness of the air, and the endless blue tarpaulins that covered makeshift tents. The Louverture Toussaint airport façade was cracked above the “T” in Toussaint. “Customs” was a piece of paper taped to a wall. We flashed our passports and walked out, without as much as a question as to what we were doing there.
As we drove to the orphanage, I wasn’t sure how much of it would be left. I was with an elderly pastor who operated the place at the time. He was worried the whole structure had been destroyed. I had arranged the trip as a humanitarian gesture for him.
I came along to find a story.
Instead, a story found me. The images became pages in my brain. Citizens covered in white dust. Endless small mountains of rubble, often draped with desperate family members trying to hand shovel their way inside, hoping to find a missing parent or spouse or child. Grown men in the street, on their knees, scooping up dirty rainwater to have something to drink. People dragging through crowds in a daze, missing limbs, clothes stained with blood. Everybody outside, everybody, because nobody trusted the indoors anymore. The indoors was the devil’s domain.
I often tell the story of my second day, standing on the orphanage grounds, which were covered with mattresses and makeshift tents for people who came seeking shelter. There was precious little to eat and barely enough drinking water. It was incredibly hot and I was foolishly wearing black jeans and sweating profusely inside them. My head felt light and dizzy and I was staring at all the people, so many people with no place else to go, and suddenly I felt two hands in mine.
I looked down to see a little boy on one side and a little girl on the other. They smiled at me and began walking me forward. And while I did not know it then, they were walking me into their story, their country, their pain.
And their joy.
Joy. It is the fuel that makes this orphanage go. You might think it strange to mention joy in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, a place where two dollars a day is a common wage and where the life expectancy is more than 15 years shy of the average American.
But joy is everywhere in our little pocket of Haiti. I mentioned the name Appoloste. He is one of the few kids left who was also here during the earthquake. He remembers racing out of the dormitory and seeing the whole planet shake.
I met him that month, when he was 4. He took to me from the moment we arrived, and followed me around like an apprentice. He was adorable, high cheeks, mischievous gap-toothed smile. I made him Nutella sandwiches that he scarfed down before motioning for more. The first English word he learned was “hungry.”
Today Appoloste stands taller than me, with a thin, muscular frame, the same gap-toothed smile, and a terrific singing voice. He is 16. We talk often about the day he’ll leave this place and go to college in America and live not far from my wife and me and visit us every Sunday for dinner. We have been sharing the same dream for more than a decade. There is a special kinship here, I suppose because we go back to the earliest days.
A year or so ago, he began asking for photos from that time.
“Mr. Mitch, do you have the picture when I had a green sticker on my cheek? You know, from the first time you came here.”
“Yes,” I said. “Somewhere. I’ll bring it.”
I never did. Months passed.
“Mr. Mitch, did you ever find that picture with the sticker on my cheek?”
“Oh, sorry. I‘ll look for it when I get home.”
More months passed. He kept asking, and I wondered why it mattered so much. When I finally located the photo, I loaded it into my phone and brought it down and showed him. He stared at it and smiled. He didn’t show it to anyone else. Didn’t call anyone over. He just wanted the two of us to see it together.
“Do you remember when you put that sticker on my face?” he asked.
“Sure, I do,“ I said. “My first time here.”
“I was really young.”
“Yeah. But look at you now.”
He smiled again, almost wistful. And I realized, by the look on his face, that I had just learned another of the million lessons the kids here teach me. That everyone wants roots. Everyone wants a starting block. Appoloste has no evidence of the days before he got to the orphanage, no photos, no old toys, no relatives to regale him with stories of his birth.
But that photo, with the green sticker on his cheek - he has that. It plants him on the timeline. It gives him a beginning. It gives me a beginning, too, a front end to the most important story of my life, the relationships I have forged the last 11 years with Appoloste and the 50 plus other children here, the closest I will ever come to having kids of my own.
That crack in the dormitory wall is a hanging sword that warns me we are crumbling, that our future may require a new address. But it doesn’t change the past. What started in horror and rubble dust has grown into something beautiful here, something older and more mature and more peaceful and purposeful, even amidst the dangers outside. It remains the same simple thing that commences each morning at first light, with children and roosters making the noises that come naturally.
Beginnings. No wonder we cling to them. They are beams from the shore, as we drift further into the unknown.
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