When we pulled up to Drouin, it was after a long ride in the car. Hours on the bumpy and winding dirt roads. Through tiny villages and weaving around trucks spilling out Haitians. We drove until we came to what felt like the end of the earth. It wasn’t the end of the earth, but it was Drouin, where mud huts meant you were doing better than most of the community.
Drouin is an area of rice farmers far from any cities. After the 2010 earthquake, foreign aid poured in from all over the world, much of that providing rice to homeless and displaced Haitians. But out in Drouin, where the earthquake damage was minimal, this meant that the rice farmers could no longer sell their crop since everyone was receiving the rice for free. It didn’t take long for this already poor area to reach a place of real desperation.
There is no such thing as public school in Haiti. This is not something the government provides. So the schools are either private or part of a church or orphanage. A small school already existed in Drouin, founded by Help One Now’s friend and partner Jean Alix, who pastors the church we attended on Sunday and who we’ve spent a bit of time with on this trip. (If you’ve ever wanted to feel unproductive and unholy, stand next to this man. He is doing some serious work and just being in his proximity lit a fire under me.) But since the kids in the school belonged to families in the area, the community and the children weren’t receiving any outside help even though they were close to literally starving. The conversation turned from being about orphan care to being about orphan prevention.
Help One Now started the sponsorship program in Drouin, a $40 monthly pledge that goes so much farther than just that one sponsored kid. The school serves the students lunch, and most of the time that’s the only meal that child will get that day. Having the kids in school also gives the parents the opportunity to work during the day, and is one less meal to worry about. If Drouin can match 100 more sponsors with kids, they can double the number of kids that the school serves.
Drouin is so remote that they rarely see white people. We stepped in to some of the classrooms to watch the kids do their schoolwork, but as soon as they were released for recess, they raced to us chattering in Creole. The little girls couldn’t stop touching my soft cotton maxi skirt and held up my hands to look closely at my pink nail polish.
I pulled out my phone and we took selfies and they watched videos of my kids. They were so affectionate, wanting to hug and hold hands, and even though everyone’s intentions were good, at first this made me a little uncomfortable. It’s not our culture to be so demonstrative with strangers. But within minutes all that melted away. Kids are kids are kids. Some were shy, some were silly, all were curious. They laughed and sang and picked on one another. So many things are universal. My world got bigger and smaller this week.
On Tuesday we drove to a town called Ferrier, about 10 miles from the border of the Dominican Republic, where Pastor Jean Alix and Help One Now has started what they call Ferrier Village. Ferrier Village has been open almost one year, and was born out of the need to care for children rescued from human trafficking.
I’m going to be really honest here and say that whenever I heard the words “human trafficking” before, my eyes glazed over. Poverty isn’t something I fully understand, but at least I can grasp the concept. Human trafficking just sounds like not a real thing in 2014. But I was uninformed and somewhat willfully blind.
While there is a small element of human sex trafficking in Haiti, the much bigger problem is child slave labor. Homeless children, orphan children, children whose families were promised they were being taken to a better life are smuggled across the border into the Dominican Republic and used as labor in fields or in homes. There are more worldwide slaves right now than at any other time in history.
Though Pastor Jean Alix already had a church and a girls orphanage in Ferrier, when he mentioned to the mayor that he was starting a program for victims of human trafficking, the mayor asked if he could take the 30 kids he had right now that his policeman had rescued at the border crossing. They prevent the kids from being smuggled every day, and since they don’t have any place for the children, they were currently housing them in the jail.
Ferrier Village has 25 kids right now, with eight “moms” that care for them in a family-style care system. A few children live with each “mom” in a small home within the walls of Ferrier Village, where they structure their day like any other family, with school and church and meals.
When these kids were brought to Ferrier Village, many had no names or backstory and their malnutrition was evident in their hair and nails. Within just one year of being cared for, you could see the healthy roots of hair growing out and smiles on these little faces. While Pastor Jean Alix was talking to us about growing Ferrier Village to accommodate 25 more children, one little girl curled up in my lap and fell fast asleep wearing my sunglasses.
After lunch, Help One Now passed out letters to the kids from their sponsors. Many had included little stickers or small gifts like bracelets and the kids were delighted by them. They shared their stickers with me, covering my face and giggling at how I looked.
Like the other days on this trip, where we played with children in orphanages or from extreme poverty, I laughed with these kids. But unlike the other children, my heart hurt extra for the life that someone else tried to force on them, for the children who weren’t intercepted at the border. These children who didn’t even have names.
If you thought too much about it, it was much too much to bear. Instead we sang songs, and marveled at the beauty of nail polish.
Photos by the amazing Scott Wade