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[meet] Haiti

15 January 2010 by verb [ICT] staff 16 Comments


Guest post by Dr. Jean C. Griffith

Before January 12, 2010, most Americans didn’t know much about Haiti. Take the cabbie who drove my husband and me from the airport recently: when told where we’d been, he asked, presumably in all seriousness, if Port-au-Prince was in Wisconsin.

By now, he and others know a few things about Haiti: that it’s the poorest country in the hemisphere, that most of the population lives in poverty, that most are illiterate, that Haitians are known for their fortitude, their ability to survive despite enormous obstacles. All of these factoids, which you probably are already sick of hearing, are true, and I hope in the weeks to come, you’ll begin to explore the roots from which these complex truths spring.

As an academic with a personal interest in Haiti and in one Haitian in particular, there is a lot I could tell you about these complexities. But now, with bodies still lining the streets of the capital city and survivors running out of food and water, is the time for basics. So let me take you on a simple drive from the Port-au-Prince airport to introduce you to a certain house whose inhabitants can tell you a little something about Haiti.

When you step out of the plane and into the airport, you’re greeted by musicians playing one of the forms of music unique to Haiti. One result of illiteracy that the news probably won’t tell you is that it tends to foster thriving oral and visual forms of expression.

When you step outside the airport again, you are greeted by quasi-official looking gentlemen who try to grab your luggage, not to steal it, but to carry it for a few bucks to whomever is waiting to pick you up. Once you get in the car, resist the urge to grab your seatbelt—in my experience at least, people who work as drivers for a living remove them.

As you approach the congestion of Port-au-Prince, you’ll see a few beggars, but they’ll be far outweighed by people walking on the street or sitting in tap-tap buses – group taxis – who may give you a passing glance (especially, because you stand out, if you are white) but who have other places to go and things to do. Poor, illiterate, strong, and always busy.

The streets, created before cars and not improved much since, are lined by buildings that, as someone once observed, you can’t tell are just going up or falling down. There are people everywhere, bartering and selling, carrying with grace more than you think humanly possible on their heads, and, of course, busily walking… somewhere.

Look closer, and you’ll see a number of boys—members of the street gangs, not in our drive-by Crips sort of way, but more like gangs at the turn of the 20th century: homeless and trying to survive by sticking together. You will see ramshackle hair salons, private schools (there is no other kind in Haiti), big white UN vehicles. In the distance, you may catch a glimpse of the deforested but still breathtakingly beautiful mountains that give the country its name.

Wind through the city and you’ll come to a road that drops off on either side (resist the urge to reach for that seatbelt—it wouldn’t help you anyway) to a dry creek bed where people are busy doing… something. Always busy. As you head up a steep road with holes so large you fear they’ll swallow the car, you’ll see a brightly-painted iron gate on your right. Many houses in Port-au-Prince have gates, flimsy, mostly symbolic barriers against not crime but rather the unrest that has for the last century tested that Haitian fortitude.

As the gate opens and you drive into a small open courtyard lined with bougainvillea, several pairs of eyes, at about the height of your knees, peer at you from between the posts of a fence enclosing the small, open front room of a stone house. It’s a rental, and its current tenant is one of the three branches of the Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye orphanage, the one they call “Jamie and Ali’s House.”

Let me introduce you to some of the residents here. Ahead of the pack is Rafa, a wide grin on his face that threatens to dislodge the pacifier in his mouth. A little girl named Farica waits for you to pick her up, although she may scream at the site of you if you’re a white man (she doesn’t see so many of them, but she’s learning). Sitting on the ground is Jake, who’s getting a bit too fat, and Gavin, whose glance already seems far away. A little boy, Samuel, and two older girls, Samantha and Bettania, coddle and coo over the young ones; they’ll make excellent parents someday. If you are patient, you may catch the glance of shy Marie, or a smile from Fredo or Christa, always ready to pose for a camera. Sit down on the floor and you’ll be surrounded by children.

Sitting or standing among them are Haitian women, the nannies and the nurse who staff the house, and two American women, Jamie and her younger sister, Ali. Jamie and Ali, both in their twenties, don’t weigh more than about 200 pounds together. Ali just graduated from high school a few years ago. The sisters live amongst the children, caring for them, eating what they eat, and raising them with as much love as any “real” parent. They seldom get back to their family and friends in Pittsburgh; Jamie seldom sees her husband, who lives there. They have been here through coups, through weeks without power, and now, through the unimaginable devastation of the earthquake, they have refused to evacuate. They take no pay. Officially, they are just “volunteers” who can come and go as they please. In reality, they are the heart of this place, the people who comfort abandoned babies or desperate birth families who relinquish their sons and daughters in the hope that they will live to adulthood.

If you are me, Ali is standing and looking directly at you with a baby boy in her arms named Alexander, or “Ti [little] Ali.” He is beautiful and perfect. And if you were me standing there, he’d be your son, the child you can, for now, only visit, whom you must behind every time you get back on that plane. The child that you wait for and worry about even without earthquakes, the child who is now, as far as you know, alive but, like nearly everyone else in the city, living outside, running out of what food and water there is.

That child is Haiti, and he’d be very glad to meet you. Please, consider yourself introduced.

Dr. Jean C. Griffith is an English professor at Wichita State University. She and her husband have been in the process of adopting their son, Alexander, from Haiti since 2008 and have traveled to Port-au-Prince four times.

To follow the progress made in aiding Jamie, Ali and the children at the BRESMA orphanage,  follow the hashtag #BRESMA on Twitter for frequent updates.

If you can help in any way, please email editors@verbict.com.

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  • Jennifer said:

    I am praying almost constantly for you and Alex and your family. I have friends who, like you, have a special place in their hearts for Haiti. They have been on and led several missions trips there, are planning to become full time missionaries there and have a beautiful 8 year old son named Jimso that they adopted from Haiti. I know that Jake has been in touch with your family and is trying to do what he can to help. I’m praying for answers for your family. For safe travels for Jake as he heads into what seems to be the pit of hell. I have petitioned our lawmakers and hope others will do the same to help bring Alex home. Thank you for the introduction. I hope to meet you and him in person someday very soon!


  • Stephanie said:

    It’s sad that overseas adoptions take so long. Actually, it’s ridiculous that adoptions in general take so long: it took me over a year to adopt IN the U.S. I hope that this can be resolved and Alex can join his American family soon. I worry that the red tape will only be more complex with all the devastation. Records may be missing, paperwork lost. I would advise Jean to make sure all her copies of everything are in order, and that any agency she is using has their copies ready to go in case it is necessary to duplicate paperwork as things progress again.

    Good luck, and have faith. Remember you have a whole community behind you.

  • Shea Sylvia said:

    More info published today in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where efforts are being made to try and bring Jamie, Ali and the kids to the US: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_662301.html.

    Also, if you can contact your US Senator, please help. Info here: http://blog.sheasylvia.com/post/334789664

  • Tweets that mention verb [ICT] » Blog Archive » [meet] Haiti -- Topsy.com said:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shea Sylvia, ChrisKirk and Andrea Caballer, verb [ICT]. verb [ICT] said: Today: a very special post by Dr. Jean C. Griffith, who is in the process of adopting a son from #BRESMA in Haiti. http://bit.ly/8QZ9UI [...]

  • uberVU - social comments said:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by verbict: Today: a very special post by Dr. Jean C. Griffith, who is in the process of adopting a son from #BRESMA in Haiti. http://bit.ly/8QZ9UI…

  • Afton said:

    Dr. Griffith,

    I contacted my congressmen and asked them to help. My family and friends are praying for you, your family, and the BRESMA orphanage. If there is anything else we can do to help, please let us know.


  • Shannon said:


    There are no words.
    I’m so deeply sorry you are going through this.
    Please know that I’m sending prayers and thoughts of Peace, comfort and more Peace to you, your husband and of course, your beautiful son, Alexander.

    I have two internationally adopted daughters myself and my youngest (from China) was caught up in the
    ’slowdown’ etc… while I cannot fathom what you are experiencing right now- I have the deepest compassion for you and your husband.

    Blessings and Godspeed to you all,


  • Jessie said:

    My heart is breaking for your family and all of the families waiting for their little ones to come home! My son is adopted and is very close in age to your little boy. As I tucked him in bed tonight and we said prayers we prayed for the children, Ali and Jamie, and all you parents waiting. God bless your family!

    Jessie and Sylas K

  • Jenny, Bloggess said:

    My thoughts and prayers are with you. Tonight I’ll donate again. I hope it helps.

  • rockle said:

    Throughout all that has been going on since the quake, the stories that I have been following most closely are the stories of the BRESMA orphans. We just adopted last year, a child from the U.S., and … I don’t even have words for all that I am feeling about this. I cannot possibly imagine all that you are feeling right now. I am not a person who prays, not often, but I will be praying for you, and for Jamie and Ali, and most especially for those children. Much respect, and many blessing. Keeping you in my thoughts.

  • Beverly McNeil said:

    Jean and Russ,
    My family, which includes my two daughers aged 4 and 6, have been watching CNN since the earthquake. And we’ve been glued to the reports about the children in orphanages … and Alexander. We watched the footage of him in the blue shirt, pointing at the camera and tugging on his shirt. Both of my girls are very concerned about what will happen to the children (I’ve explained the process of adoption several times over the last few days); my youngest asked me this morning “Did Alexander get home yet?”. Please know that my little family, all the way up here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada are thinking about you guys and praying for you.
    All our best, The McNeils

  • alison said:

    You’ve put into words emotions I’ve never been able to articulate, emotions I thought were to precious to attempt speaking.

    I brought my daughter Isla/Dieunika home from Jamie and Ali’s house right after the last hurricane in the summer of 2008.

    I hope Ti Ali was one of the lucky ones who reached Pittsburgh today.
    Jamie and Ali are simply too amazing

    Thanks for the beautiful article, it’s become part of Isla’s lifebook.

    with love
    alison and isla in toronto

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