Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part IV

Kids play with my iPod and journal in the dark.
Day 4 -- Monday, August 9, 2010

Today was a camp day.  We were told that the children arrive at 8:30 and the morning assembly starts at 9 and goes for 45 minutes or an hour.  And so it was that I was introduced to the concept of "Haitian time."  Some of the kids showed up as early as 8, but most came right around 9.  The assembly started more like 9:20.  It was over around 10:15.  This was exceedingly prompt as these things go, and closer to "on time" than anything the rest of the week.

Before the assembly, we met with all of the counselors.  We agreed that Amelia and I would work with the older kids while Hillary worked with the youngest ones.  Before we came, Hillary took the children's book Brave Bart, a story about a black cat who had a "bad, sad and scary thing" happen to him and who learns about trauma, and rewrote it to be about a turtle because there are superstitions about black cats in Haiti.  She redid the illustrations and a friend of hers translated it into Kreyol.  She was reading it with the kids and using it as a way to help them deal.  They could talk about Kiki (the turtle) instead of about themselves, and make suggestions for what might help Kiki.  She also made puppets with them and told them they could talk to their puppets anytime a bad, sad or scary thing happened to them.

The assembly began with a prayer.  The children closed their eyes and sang in French.  Amelia translated for me, but once she started I recognized what they were saying:
My God
My God
Give me the serenity
To accept the things that I cannot change
The courage to change
That which I can
And the wisdom
To know the difference
It was lovely, and so powerful given the situation that these kids are in.

After prayer, the head counselor told the kids that they had new visitors and introduced us.  The kids then sang a song of welcome to us, and then they sang some songs and danced in a circle.  I took lots of pictures, mostly of individual kids (who kept coming up to me saying, "Fais le photo!")

After the assembly, Amelia and I took the two oldest groups and combined them into one group of 50.  I explained, and she translated, that we had come to talk to them about the earthquake.  I've never been through something like that, I told them, but I've worked with lots of kids who have and I might be able to help.  I told them they didn't have to talk if they didn't want to, and that while they might be feeling OK they might be able to help someone else who isn't.

Then we handed out the workbooks.  These books take the kids through a deliberate process of thinking about who they are, who and what is important to them, what their lives were like before the earthquake, what happened during the earthquake, the good things that happened after the earthquake, the bad things that happened afterwards, the reactions (particularly nightmares) they may be having, their hopes for the future, their ideas about safety, and the things they can do to help themselves feel secure.  It also has a triage assessment in the back.

Just getting the kids situated, handing out the books and making sure everyone had something to write with was a major undertaking.  As we worked, more kids trickled in, but we were out of workbooks.  We had the kids turn to the first page and answer the first questions:  My name is ________ and Here is a portrait of myself.  That may not seem like a lot to ask, but those of you who have been teachers may relate to the notion that getting a big group of kids to do something that would be trivial for an individual child is a lot like herding cats or, perhaps, stuffing spaghetti into a cocktail straw.  The kids wanted to draw very detailed pictures of themselves, and that was taking a long time.

Finally, we looked at our watches and realized we'd probably better skip ahead if we were going to get to talk about anything about the earthquake at all.  We skipped to what I consider a very interesting section of the book -- a reading about the history of Haiti.  That might seem like an odd thing to put in a workbook like this, but actually it was very interesting to the kids and very relevant to the work we were doing.  The reading began with the slave revolt in 1804 and the pride of Haiti at being the first free black country in the Western Hemisphere.  It also talked about how the French demanded and received reparations and the US blockaded Haiti after independence, and said, "Haiti has never recovered from this unfair beginning."  It talked briefly about other natural disasters, corruption in the government and various coups d'etat, and pointed out that Haiti has gone through difficulties before.  For the kids, this was both interesting intellectually and gave them a sense of community, pride and dermination -- all good things following a traumatic event.

The next page asked the children to tell and/or draw where they were when the earthquake started and who they were with.  We circulated, looking at their pictures.  This was very frustrating for me, because ordinarily at this point I would take the opportunity to talk to some kids one-on-one about their drawings and do a little processing with them.  However, my French, and certainly my Kreyol, are not sufficient to do that, so the aim of splitting up and circulating was mutually exclusive with the aim of processing with kids.

Our alotted time was coming to an end and we had done about 6 pages of this 70+ page book.  Some of the kids really wanted to keep working, while others were tired of it.  I asked the kids how many of them had told their story about the earthquake to someone before, and most raised their hands.  I asked how many had never told it to anyone, and was surprised by the large minority for whom that was true.  In seven months, they had never told anyone where they were and what happened to them during the earthquake.

Many of us have had the experience of being in a stressful or emergent situation and going into a sort of "autopilot" where our training just takes over.  At this point in the activity, that's what happened to me.  We had 50 kids writing about emotional stuff and no way to process it with them effectively.  My training kicked in, and I remembered a mantra I once heard from Jeff Mitchell:  "When all else fails, push information."  While some of the kids continued to work, I shared some good stress management and stress reaction education with them.  My key points were:
  • This is your story.  It will always be yours, and no one can take it away from you.  You may feel like it's upsetting and you wish you didn't have it, but it is very important and it is very important to tell it to other people because it will help it not be so upsetting.
  • You are among the only people in the world who know what happened in Leogane that day.  That makes you very important, too.
  • Nightmares (which a lot of kids said they had) are your brain's way of trying to make sense of what happened and put it away.  They're no fun, but they're normal.
  • Being grumpy and moody is a typical reaction to stress.  (None of them admitted to being grumpy themselves, but they identified with their caregivers being grumpy.)
  • You can help yourself by doing things that you like to do, being with people who care about you, getting exercise and other ways of taking good care of yourself.
Despite this decent information push, I felt pretty ineffective by lunchtime.  Hillary and Amelia were raving about how well things went, but I felt like this had been a truly half-assed job of even getting started with the kids.

In the afternoon, I sat down to write in my journal and Daniel came by with the baby.  He simply walked up and plopped the baby into my arms -- he knew I liked holding him, and this was the most direct way to accomplish that.  After a while he took the baby back down to the tents and then returned, soon followed by a 14-year-old girl named Iris.  They sat on either side of me, and I drew some basic pictures and we exchanged English and Kreyol vocabulary words.  They helped me draw a simple family tree for each of them so I could understand how many parents they each had, their brothers and sisters and their ages.  We covered terms for family members, weather, parts of a house, clothes and parts of the body.  Then we attempted sports. 

The football/soccer/American football distinctions were complicated enough, but then I tried to explain hockey.  Keep in mind that these kids do not have and possibly have never watched television, and they live in a climate where "cold" is 50 degrees.  They had a concept of ice, and so I thought we were getting somewhere.  However, when they thought of ice they thought of ice cubes.  When I told them that the players in hockey stand on ice, they looked at me like I had three heads.

Iris taught me to play a card game they called "casino," which bore no resemblance to the game of the same name I knew.  She taught it to me with no words at all, which was cool in and of itself.  After a while, more kids came.  The generator wasn't working because someone had accidentally put the wrong fuel in and damaged it, so as the evening came the house got darker and darker.  By 8 o'clock, there were two groups of kids sitting in the main room of the guest house.  The first were passing my journal back and forth and drawing pictures while other kids held my flashlight so they could see.  The second were sharing my iPod, playing Doodle Jump, which is apparently addictive in any culture.

In my journal, I wrote:
I don't know how much I'm helping from a CISM standpoint here, but I'm glad I'm spending quality time with some of the kids.  It's going to be hard to leave, I can tell already.  At the same time, I really want to go home.  Internet is out so I haven't talked to [my husband and son] today.  I miss them terribly.  Five more days.
Tomorrow:  A Whole Lot of Nothing

If you're not familiar with the history of Haiti, it's worth a few minutes of your time to read the Wikipedia article on this topic.  It puts a lot of what is happening there now in very important context. You can access it here.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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