PORT-AU-PRINCE — It takes many things to work in a Haitian orphanage. Patience. Love. Endless energy. A sense of humor. The ability to go long stretches without a hot shower.
At least these days. You have likely been following the headlines coming out of Haiti. Over the weekend, a group of missionaries, 16 Americans and one Canadian, were heading to the airport — after visiting an orphanage — when a gang stopped their vehicle, took it over, and is now holding them captive, demanding millions in ransom money.
I was actually eating dinner with a group of friends that night when a local official received a Whatsapp message on her phone. It was sent from one of those missionaries, inside the bus, telling recipients that men with guns were outside trying to kidnap them. Spread the word.
It was like witnessing a crime through a locked window.
Terror isn’t measured by the number of awful acts committed. It’s measured by the fear those acts create. The gangs that have seized control of certain areas of Port-au-Prince may have only actually kidnapped hundreds of people, but they have frightened millions. They have made the thought of traveling the streets an “is it worth it?” equation.
And they have effectively locked nearly half a nation behind doors.
We take many precautions at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage. We make almost no outside trips with kids or our American volunteers. Our vehicles have no identifying markings. We never, ever, go near the areas known to be gang controlled. We have security on our grounds at all times, and travel with security when we go back and forth to the airport.
As a result, we have, fortunately, had no incidents like the one happening now. Still, we hear the stories. It is why I so admire our volunteers, who come to the orphanage despite this, who stay on despite this, working tirelessly every day, teaching, feeding, nurturing and loving the children.
Why do they do it? Why do you do it? I hear that all the time. The State Department has issued a travel warning for Americans. You shouldn’t be there.
Well. I can only answer for myself, but I can also tell you what the volunteers now and over the years have said.
We do it for the kids. For the smiles they flash when they see us, for the arms they lift when they need to be comforted, for the eyes that widen when they learn something in school and the eyes that close peacefully when they fall asleep in our laps. You simply don’t want to trade that vital human interaction for the fear of a small group of criminals.
And, to be frank, the State department has been telling people to avoid Haiti for most of the nearly 12 years I’ve been there.
So we do it because it feels worth the risk, because these children are worth sacrifice, because we can’t imagine not being there for them.
But there’s something else.
There’s also the fact that every day, our Haitian staff, teachers, nannies, maintenance staff and security guards, take a chance by coming to the orphanage to work.
Understand that, despite the blazing headlines about this missionary group currently being held for ransom, kidnappings in Haiti are not largely foreign targets.
Of the more than 600 people documented as kidnapped this year, only around 40 have been foreigners. The rest are Haitians, most of them average — a street vendor, a restaurant worker, a student on his or her way to school. They are accosted and taken away despite their poverty. The kidnappers, who almost always make ridiculous monetary demands, usually settle for a handful of dollars. But that handful of dollars means a great deal to the families that have to pony it up.
They are robbing from the poor. They are robbing form their neighbors. It makes going out a daily act of bravery for Haitians who won’t get a CNN story if they are abducted, who can’t afford security guards, who can’t stay inside forever, because food needs to be found and money needs to be earned.
And if they can brave the daily anxieties, should we do less?
Still, it is no way to exist. It is bad enough to live in abject poverty. People shouldn’t have to live in terror. It is the reason I publicly beseech the American government and the international community to get more involved.
The police in Haiti are crippled. They are overworked, underfunded, under-armed, and constantly enticed by the gangs to take a bribe, look the other way, or even come join them. With the government effectively collapsed after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, there is no real force to enhance the police, to direct new funding or training.
Haiti needs help. The outside world should step in. A relatively small but constant force could send these gangs scattering. The largest gang, 400 Mawozo, the one believed responsible for the missionaries capture, is reportedly 150 members. That’s not an army.
Meanwhile, terror is met every day here by determination. In fact, it is swamped by it. There is far more bravery than horror in Haiti. You only need to look down any street.
It takes a lot to work in an orphanage. But it takes even more to call this island nation home and shoulder the daily burdens of poverty, corruption and the knowledge that you are largely on your own when it comes to protection.
Yet millions do it every day. They are an inspiration. And I do believe their fearlessness, and the morality of the world, will ultimately win out in Haiti.
Until then, we soldier on, carefully, wisely, with endless precautions. And we turn to the light the shines in the faces of the children and fills the heart with courage.
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Top image: A woman walks in the deserted street in Port-au-Prince on October 18, 2021. - A nationwide general strike emptied the streets of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on Monday with organisers denouncing the rapidly disintegrating security situation highlighted by the kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries at the weekend. The kidnapping of 17 adults and children by one of Haiti's brazen criminal gangs underlined the country's troubles following the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse in July and amid mounting lawlessness in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)