On May 12, 2010, Adoption Attorney Michele Jackson and Adoption Coordinator Amber Burton Small of Jocham Harden Dimick Jackson traveled to Haiti with 2 representatives of MLJ Adoptions, Inc. and The Fatherless Foundation to visit orphanages and deliver supplies. During their brief stay, they visited 4 different orphanages in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Tomasin, and Fermathe to meet with directors to assess the facilities’ needs and discuss resuming adoptions from Haiti. What follows is Amber’s recounting of the experience.
Part 1/Day 1
Since news broke of the earthquake in January, JHDJ Law has closely followed the situation in Haiti and monitored communication from agencies, media and the US State Department regarding conditions. Our interest in Haiti was not new – Indiana has a very prominent presence in Haiti through the many ministries and orphanages affiliated with Indiana-based churches. Plus, we had clients who were in the process of an independent adoption from Haiti and our first concerns were to find out if their son was safe. Michele even serves on a local charitable board which supports an orphanage in Haiti and her own nonprofit foundation provides orphanage relief and support.
We immediately began to strategize how we could best help. Meetings were hastily assembled and resources accessed, favors called in. We were on the forefront of the media flurry that occurred in the ensuing days when plans were circulating about orphans potentially coming to Indiana who needed host and/or adoptive families. Throughout the months, our focus was to travel to Haiti personally. We knew we would have to wait some time to allow for immediate disaster relief services. We grimly watched news about child-trafficking and were appalled by the scandal involving the Baptists from Iowa – regardless of their sincerity or naïveté, as legitimate adoption professionals we knew their actions had actually harmed thousands of orphans because of the repercussions and backlash damaging the reputation of international adoption would grind the adoption process to a halt. Children would remain in unsafe conditions because of the fallout and increased scrutiny. In the wake of everything, we were now embarking for Haiti. We are not inexperienced travelers and we have seen extreme poverty. However, despite the startling images which have inundated us through the media, we were not prepared for the devastation we encountered when we arrived in Haiti.
Our long day of travel began with a flight departure of 5:20. The only luggage we checked contained clothing, medicine and other donations for the orphanages. Multiple flights and connections wearied before we arrived in Port-au-Prince at 3:15 in the afternoon and we ruminated about what we could expect once we arrived. As our plane approached the island, at first it simply looked like any other lush, green Caribbean island, until we began to descend over Port-au-Prince and could begin to see the destruction. I was speechless as the enormity of it began to sink in. Images and video cannot adequately convey it until you see it firsthand.
Disembarking from the plane, we walked down a long corridor and could hear a steel drum band playing to welcome us. Typical of the Caribbean, it made me smile. But as I looked out the windows of the corridor, I could see the guy wires which had been secured to the terminal building to reinforce it-celebration sounds in a mostly empty, damaged building. At the end of the corridor, our group boarded a shuttle which took us to a different building for immigration and baggage claim. Inside that structure was a combination of order and bedlam. Without much instruction and without an overload of signage (in stark contrast to airports at the U.S.), people fell into line as they awaited immigration control. That was an orderly process which seemed rather perfunctory – but I admired the beautiful stamp the officer affixed in my passport to which he added an exaggerated signature. From that point, we were in the midst of a baggage claim system which looked more like a Black Friday sale. Hundreds of people crowded around a crude baggage conveyor belt awaiting luggage as porters in uniform attempted to grab bags to assist tourists. As soon as they saw Americans, they were especially eager, and I listened to their excited chatter in a combination of French, English and Creole. The heat was stifling and the noise nearly deafening as we strained to see through the partition to the contents on the carts loaded with bags pulling up outside. We waited and waited and finally sighed with relief as all of ours arrived. We stacked them on a cart and began to maneuver through the sea of people, the noise making it difficult to communicate. I pulled at the front of our cart, half-backing out as I steered us toward the exit. I assumed once we were outside, it would be much easier to assess our situation. I was wrong.
Exiting the airport doors, I saw even more commotion and a sea of people, with no sign of any kind of pick-up/drop-off lane to which we are accustomed. I searched vainly for a sign identifying our driver, Jean-Claude. We were immediately rushed by a number of taxi drivers and more porters attempting to “help” us, all competing for a chance for a tip. I told several no or explained that we had a driver and were waiting for someone. Although my French is very good, my ears were trying to adjust to the accent and the jumble of the mix of languages. After several minutes, we realized that our driver wasn’t there, nor were our cell phones working (despite a certain cell phone company’s assurances they would). One of the porters saw our frustrated attempts to call and offered his phone to help. We had no choice but to relinquish and accept the offer. He called our driver and found out he was close, but the traffic had delayed him (we would soon learn why). Despite the fact we had “selected” a porter, we were still besieged by others attempting to assist us, their persistence bewildering us, but it spoke of their desperation. Finally, our host and chauffeur, an orphanage director and minister, Jean-Claude Pierre, arrived. His presence immediately provided a bit more order as he obviously commanded some respect among the porters and taxi drivers and they realized we did indeed have a local representative. He corralled everything and we began following him through the throng of people. The scene on the street outside the airport was just as chaotic, as it became apparent that pedestrians risk life and limb and we began to get a taste for the traffic and driving in Haiti.
We had to walk a block to where Jean-Claude had his vehicle parked. Bags were transferred and we took our seats, mine in the front to help translate as needed. Jean-Claude admonished us to lock our doors and we sighed with relief at the air-conditioning in his vehicle. Just the short walk in the humid conditions was a bit much as we had left much cooler temps in Indiana. Jean-Claude expertly began maneuvering through the disorder on the streets. As the crush of people thinned and we entered regular traffic just outside the airport we saw the first of the tent cities. Again, the magnitude of the devastation was just beginning to be revealed to us.
We questioned Jean-Claude to become more acquainted with him and learn more about his perspective on the disaster and relief efforts. We also learned that the drive to Jacmel would take at least 4 hours. We were all stunned by this news. It is only 50 miles in distance, but we soon learned that travel in Haiti is slow and treacherous due to road conditions, volume of traffic and detours necessary because of the earthquake damage. Not to mention there is only one road connecting Port-au-Prince and Jacmel – and it is a winding passage through mountains, not for the faint of heart. As we entered Port-au-Prince, our cameras began whirring and clicking as we saw buildings toppled, some pancaked, others at rakish angles, some rubble piles barely resembling a structure at all. And everywhere there was debris. Debris and rubble blocked or narrowed streets. Traffic seemed to come from everywhere, and the word “flow” would not be an accurate description. It was more like a forward sludge, interrupted by staccato moments of quick dashes and life-risking rushes and turns. The colorful “tap-taps” seems to surround us. They are garishly decorated pick-up trucks and buses which serve as a form of public transportation. Some were so heavily painted and adorned they more closely resembled parade floats than taxis. Some tap-taps were so crammed full of people, it seemed a challenge to physics. Everywhere we looked, people were moving about. It was afternoon, and we began to see children dressed in uniforms as schools let out. Jean-Claude explained that each school had their own uniform and it was relief to see the schools opening again to give the children some sense of normalcy and routine. Given the turmoil in the country, it was one thing that made sense. We were all slightly shocked as we glanced over at one particular scene – an adult male, fully nude, lathered head to toe in soap, “bathing” in a filthy canal. He was obviously taking advantage of the only water source he had access too. We were more shocked by the sad choice of his bath water than his nudity. The water conditions and sources were appalling. Drainage ditches and canals were choked with trash, many of it obviously from relief programs (food cartons, water bottles and such). Trash disposal on any island is normally a delicate, difficult issue, but in a post-catastrophic situation, the urgency for a solution is even more apparent, but sadly often one of the first things ignored. The trash become critical as it fosters disease and pest issues.
As we wound our way through the city, over streets that barely qualified as such, we learned the value of the horn as a form of traffic control. There were few traffic devices and I never did quite decipher the rules for right-of-way. As we passed ruined building after ruined building and tent city after tent city, it all seemed to become blend – a certain numbness, as if our minds had seen it all and we were detaching due to the overwhelming nature of it. Then we passed by a section where shanties constructed of wood, aluminum and the ubiquitous blue tarp straddled the concrete median in the middle of the street! They had sprung up following the earthquake. How anyone could try to live in the middle of a congested roadway seems unfathomable to us. Then Jean-Claude would point out a building and tell us how many people had died in it and we’d gasp or murmur or comment on the sad loss. After passing a college where more than 300 had died, I asked Jean-Claude what had been done about the human remains. That is when he reminded us that most were still entombed in the buildings, unable to be retrieved or excavated since there was no equipment. We all grew quiet at this indignity. I asked him about the “official” estimates of the death toll of 250,000 and he confidently remarked he believed that was conservative and that 400,000 was a more likely number according to sources in country. My mind thought back to the tsunami and the death toll and how this had likely doubled that number. What a macabre comparison – which disaster killed more people? Any life lost is precious, but we do have to put things in perspective when assessing the social, cultural and financial impact of a tragedy. The loss of human life in U.S. weather disasters cannot even begin to compare to the loss in Haiti. And we’re a developed nation, with a population of over 307 million people, with a military, social services, a plethora of charities, churches and aid organizations, not to mention wealth and a powerful media. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a population of 9 million, and 1/5 of that population now consists of displaced or orphaned children. We were all pondering the question: how does a country begin to rebuild when it has lost a significant number of its population and more than 2 million of its residents are children who cannot contribute to financial, political or social growth?