With no food and no hope, parents sent their kids away with U.S. Baptists – and they say they would do it again

Thursday, February 4, 2010 – Globe and Mail

CALEBASSE, HAITI — This is the town that sent its children away.

Its subsistence vegetable plots are all but destroyed; its buildings reduced to debris. If it was poor before the earthquake, it is desperately so now.

And the parents of Calebasse say they were just trying to do what was best for the kids they can no longer feed when they gave them to a group of American Baptists arrested for trying to spirit the 33 children across the border.

Many of them say they would try the same thing again.

The unexpected phone call came last Tuesday: Did they want to give away their children to foreigners who would take them to school in another country?

What a month ago would have been unthinkable was now impossible to pass up. Parents of 20 children signed up on the spot. More would have, they say, had there been enough space.

On Thursday morning, Jean-Ricia Geffrard dressed her 10-year-old daughter, Berline, and put her on a bus full of foreigners. She knew theseblans were Americans and that they were taking the kids to the Dominican Republic, where they promised to send them to school and to let the parents visit often.

Her daughter, and the children travelling with her, knew nothing.

Ms. Geffrard watched the blans write her daughter’s name on a pink tag on her shirt before the bus moved off down the rough dirt road.

Of course she knew she would miss her youngest child.

“But little by little,” she thought to herself, “that pain would go away.”

Instead of the Dominican Republic, Berline is in limbo at a children’s refuge in Santo, just outside Port-au-Prince. The Haitian government is accusing the Americans of taking her and 32 other children across the border without proper documentation.

Now, Ms. Geffrard crouches in the sun on the foundation of what was once her house, her left hand sporting a messily bandaged crushed and mangled thumb. Behind her is a heap of rubble and a destroyed vegetable patch that was once her livelihood.

Speaking slowly, sightless eyes darting furtively, Ms. Geffrard insists she just wanted something better than this for her daughter Berline. Since her husband’s death last year, she said, it’s been a struggle to feed and clothe her five children with the proceeds from the family’s vegetable garden. Paying school fees for Berline and her 12-year-old brother was out of the question.

The earthquake, said those gathered around the remains of Ms. Geffrard’s house, has made a challenging situation impossible. Now there’s simply no food – the people joke that no one has to use the toilet any more – and no help on the horizon.

The school is no longer expensive: It’s flattened.

Berline’s 21-year-old sister, Yveline Chéry, had hoped her baby sister could have helped the family from abroad – Yveline dreams of some day opening a patisserie in Port-au-Prince.

“There’s nothing for me here,” she said, gesturing at the ruined concrete dwellings and the rutted road cut into the hills.

“I would have liked to go, but I’m too old.”

This is the first time Calebasse – a neglected district in a neglected province of Haiti – has gotten this kind of outside attention.

“The government barely knows we exist,” said Maggy Moise, who sent her nine-year-old twins Keler and Volny Toussaint with the Baptists.

“It’s because they’re Americans,” she said. “People would never be this interested if Haitians did the same.”

Callebasse is used to evangelical groups stepping in to fill gaps left in government services. The local medical clinic, one of only two for the entire district of Bellevue La Montagne, is funded by the International Evangelical Mission.

On laborious record sheets stuffed into beige folders or held in place by rocks on chairs in the two-room building, Etienne Romain points out the 429 severely undernourished local children now receiving World Food Program supplements.

There are far more that need it, he says, but supplies are limited and families need to pay for a consultation for their children to qualify. So when Isaac Adrien, the man who runs the local orphanage and has made a habit of helping out families in need, phoned last Tuesday with news of the American visitors, the parents jumped at the chance.

All the parents say they trust Mr. Adrien and his American friends. They’re convinced that once the paperwork gets sorted out, their children will be on their way to a better life.

But the children’s fate isn’t that clear-cut. Haiti’s social services ministry will determine what happens to them now. And as the country’s shattered justice system decides what to do with the 10 American Baptists – the last of them were supposed to be questioned yesterday, with a prosecutor deciding how to proceed on charges later this week – their 33 erstwhile charges are stuck in limbo.

They can’t go home while the investigation is ongoing – they can’t even receive visits from the parents they so desperately miss until the social services ministry gives its approval, said George Williet, a spokesman for SOS Children’s Village, where the children are being cared for.

Mr. Williet said it’s not surprising the parents say they gave their children up willingly. But he said that doesn’t make the failed transfer any better.

“This is a misuse of the bad situation the parents are in,” he said. “Nobody’s allowed to rush a family, to ask, ‘Can you give me your child because I can give them a better life?’ … But it’s not the issue of the parents. It’s the fault of organizations who force parents to do that. It’s the fault of people who are coming and asking parents these questions.

“This is really not helping children, this is separating families.”

Mr. Williet added that it’s likely the same scenario is playing out elsewhere in chaos-stricken Haiti.

“I have the feeling this is just one bus that was caught by luck,” he said.

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