Monday, August 23, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part VIII

The kids with perfect attendance get their crowns.

Day 7 -- Friday, August 13, 2010

While the property where we were staying in Leogane was not really a farm, there were a smattering of farm animals hanging around.  Cows and goats were on the field to one side, and most of them belonged to people from the area who brought their animals to graze.  There were two or three roosters and a family of ducks that roamed free throughout the property, and the occasional dog, cat or pig happened by.  Each morning as the sun came up, I was awakened by one of the roosters crowing.  It bothered me the first night, but after that I got used to it and went back to sleep each day.

On Thursday night, however, something was different outside.  Some dogs appeared to be getting into a fight of some kind directly outside the bedroom window.  They were barking and growling for what seemed like hours, and I had a terrible time going to sleep.  No sooner had they stopped, it seemed, when a rooster and one of the dogs appeared to get into a heated argument.  The rooster would crow, the dog would bark, the rooster would crow again, the dog would bark louder, the rooster would crow louder, and on it went.  Once in a while a cow would chime in from the field, making for a scene that would have been downright funny had it not been the middle of the night and had I not been trying to sleep.  I finally gave up around 5 AM, and so I was quite tired and downright cranky as I entered my last full day in Haiti.

The plan was to grab the three kids we were most worried about before the assembly started that morning, but there was general chaos and disorganization, and we weren't able to do it.  The entire morning was devoted to the last day assembly, during which the various groups of children reported on their activities, performed music, dancing and skits, and generally had a good time.  Hillary had some Burger King crowns she had gotten donated for a craft project, and the kids with perfect attendance got crowns.  Soon, everyone, even the adults, was wearing a Burger King crown.  This might not have gone over very well in the United States, but in a place where Burger King does not exist, the difference between a BK crown and some other kind of crown is nonexistent, and the kid were very happy.

Sometime around 11:30, I hit the wall.  I could not keep my eyes open any more, so I snuck back into the guest house and laid down.  While the music from the assembly was substantially louder than the livestock from the previous night, I was able to put some white noise on my iPod next to my head and go to sleep for about 45 minutes.  When I woke up, the festivities were still underway but almost over.

Amelia got hold of the head counselor for the older children and made it clear that we needed to talk to some of the kids before they left.  Her first thought was to get all 16 kids who had scored high on the assessment, but in the time we had I felt it was most important to reach the children who were suicidal.  Two of the three of them were there that day, and we took them aside together. 

I explained that we wanted to talk to them because they were two of the children who said they had thought about killing themselves, and we were very worried about them.  I gave them the choice to talk to us together or apart, and they both wanted to be apart.  One of them, Olivia, waited off to the side while we spoke to the other, Nicole.  As it turned out, while Nicole was clearly upset and depressed, she was not currently suicidal.  She was 18 and had lost both of her parents in the earthquake.  She was one of the few kids who had a house, but she had no family and no way of supporting herself.  We spent some time problem solving with her, trying to come up with ways she could make sure she had food and was able to go to school, and ways she could find adults to talk to and confide in.  I was not at all sure we had really helped her much when we moved on to Olivia.

Unlike Nicole, Olivia was clearly suicidal.  I went down the usual assessment questions with her:  How often do you think about killing yourself?  What do you think about doing?  Would that be hard or easy to do?  What do you think are the chances you will actually do it?  This girl was straight out of a textbook on suicide, and she was at tremendous risk.  While we were talking to her, her mother came along and she gave us permission to bring her mom into the conversation.  

A Doctors Without Borders clinic in Port-Au-Prince
Had this been a student at my school or a person I was working with in the community at home, I would have referred her to the psych emergency room and made sure she went.  I was in no position to do that, in part because there is no hospital in Leogane right now.  I did the best thing I could think of, which was to impart to her mother how very serious and dangerous this was, and ask her to take her daughter to Doctors Without Borders right away.  I tried to give her language to use with them that would convey the seriousness of the situation.  I said to tell them that a mental health volunteer had assessed her daughter and felt she was in serious danger of hurting herself, and that the volunteer insisted she needed medical attention right away. 

I have no idea whether the mother took her daughter there, or whether Doctors Without Borders had any way of helping Olivia.  It was the best we could do to make the referral and to tell Olivia she was important, that we understood how much pain she was in, and that there was help for her if she could just hold on.  She seemed to believe us.  As I went back into the house for lunch, I said to Amelia and Hillary, "That is the work I came here to do."  While I was worried for Olivia, I also knew that this, unlike any other problem I had worked on all week, was a situation where I had specialized knowledge that could make a difference.  I just hope it did.

After lunch, Daniel attached himself surgically to my hip.  He knew that this was my last day in Haiti, and he clearly wanted to be around me.  The feeling was mutual.  We sat on the porch for the entire afternoon and into the evening, sometimes just us and sometimes with Christopher, playing cards, drawing in my journal and playing Doodle Jump on my iPod. 

My confidence in my ability to communicate with Daniel in French had improved over the week, even though my French itself probably had not.  Still, I ventured into some heavier topics with him.  We talked about my family, his family, and our respective religions, and about stereotypes of Haiti and of black people that are common in the United States.  We talked about his school, and I told him about how important it was for him to do well in school.  We even discussed the possibility of him going to college on scholarship some day.  He asked if it was difficult to come to the United States, and if he could come visit me someday.  I gave him my contact information and email address, and he and Christopher gave me the email address of Christopher's uncle, who also lives on the property, to use to contact them.

As the night drew to a close, I gave Daniel my battery-operated fan, my flashlight, my extra batteries for both and an extra bottle of bug repellent.  I gave Christopher my cards, which he was constantly playing with, and promised him I would leave my other bottle of repellent for him when I left in the morning.  Daniel admitted he was sad that I was leaving, and I certainly was as well.  He asked me if I would return to Haiti, and I told him the truth -- I didn't know.  I told him that if I did, I hoped he had a house when I returned.  He said he wanted one too, but that he really wanted a telephone and a DVD player.  He is, after all, thirteen.  In my lousy French, I summed up the trip, and our newfound friendship, before I headed off to bed:

Before I came here, I didn't know that I loved Haiti.  Now I know that I love Haiti and I have people I love in Haiti, so maybe I will come back.
Tomorrow -- The Journey Home


Julie Zimmerman said...

My daughter is from Haiti - her name is also Olivia - I adopted my love from Barbara Walker - Reach out to Haiti - Ruuska Village... thank you for all you are doing to help .. I hope to travel next summer to work at the Orpahange... I will keep you in my prayers. Thank you for caring.

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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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