Michele Blaise, with her handicapped charges, settling into their new lodgings in November 2007 (Photo courtesy Eric Doubt)
Waiting for God in a Haitian orphanage
December 18, 2007
Here's a bit of holiday cheer: A little girl I once wrote about named Theresa has had one of her feet amputated. The stump has been fitted with a prosthetic boot and she can now run, which is a survival skill where she lives. In Haiti.
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Happily, the little girl remains in the maternal orbit of Michele Blaise, which means that for the time being, she's sheltered from the random mercilessness of Haitian society. And from its roving pigs.
I met Theresa in 2006. She was just a baby then. I was in Port-au-Prince covering a conflict, but I peeled off for a day and visited Madame Blaise, a woman who probably deserves to be sainted.
Theresa, in November 2007, with her prosthetic boot (Eric Doubt)
After a career driving a bus in New York city, she returned to her native Haiti where, after church one Sunday, she set about rescuing children from a locked ward in Port-au-Prince's central hospital.
For the poorest families of Haiti, disabled, deformed or mentally handicapped children are often regarded as a burden too extreme to bear. Adding to the misery, the country's superstitious underclass considers the helpless little souls bad luck.
Haiti is what happens when poverty and ignorance and unimaginable desperation strip the varnish of civility from human interaction. The country is a reminder that Darwin was probably right about the fate of the weakest.
Clinging to life's lowest rung
In the toughest neighbourhoods, as advocates for the disabled explained to me, crippled girls are often raped and degraded, passed around until they are of no further use to their tormentors. Handicapped boys can be found clinging to life at the lowest rungs of human existence. It follows that they don't have much of a life expectancy.
Sometimes, as more than one aid worker has told me, these children are dumped — dead or alive — on piles of rotting garbage, left for the hardy, near-feral pigs that roam the Port-au-Prince slums.
Others, from more compassionate families, are abandoned at birth in the city's central hospital. There, they are kept in a locked ward, where they receive at least some care.
Still, it is an awful place. I saw children lying silent, others making pitiable noises to attract some adult attention. Some, who were severely handicapped, were in cages.
Michele Blaise, following what she said was an instruction from God, simply walked into the ward that day after church, picking out children as she went. She made several subsequent trips and eventually accumulated a large group of needy, high-maintenance infants. Theresa was among them.
I used film footage of the locked ward and of Theresa in the television story I filed at the time. Then, the little girl's feet were lumpy balls of gristle and flesh. One of her hands was deformed, as well.
The good news, though, was that Blaise, who had exhausted her small pension setting up her makeshift orphanage, had attracted the attention of a charity called Healing Hands for Haiti, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based group that was looking for a doctor to perform some pro bono surgery on the infant.
Healing Hands had already established its own prosthetic shop in Port-au-Prince and its director there believed that with the right equipment and medical attention, Theresa might be able to walk.
Watching the CBC story from his home in Georgetown, Ont., Eric Doubt, a lifelong marketing professional, reacted as if he had just received an electric shock.
Eric Doubt and Theresa in April 2006 (Eric Doubt)
He wrote me recently to say that even before getting up off his couch that evening he realized that helping people such as Blaise was what he wanted to do with his life.
"For many decades," he wrote, "I had wept and squirmed inside at the overwhelming faces of suffering and misery depicted in the stream of infomercials we often have to surf away from, so as not to lose a grip on what peace we have gathered from the day."
The next day, he contacted Healing Hands and joined their Canadian team. "Seven weeks later, at 61, I found myself in Madame Blaise's orphanage, holding the same beautiful little girl, Theresa."
Physical and moral rubble
Doubt has spent considerable time in Port-au-Prince since then. He's been able to watch Theresa grow and adjust to the prosthetics. She runs around now like any other little girl, he says. She might even get to go to school someday, which would truly lift her from the conditions into which she was born.
Doubt found his place down there: "It was quite a happy coincidence. I had been looking for something to give myself over to, and found it."
He's also seen things that no one should have to, let alone a child. And while Haiti's dark nature has not dulled his desire to do the right thing, it has sobered his view of how people can treat one another, given the circumstances and opportunity.
"I have been extremely disturbed by it," he told me the other day. "It is a society reduced to physical and moral rubble."
When he first visited in 2006, he discovered that Blaise was not just rescuing children from the locked ward. A few of her wards had been left for the pigs.
"It's a story that is very hard to bring home because not many people would understand it," he said last week from his Ontario home. "I share it with few people here."
Then, on a trip last month, he learned that Haiti's savagery had penetrated even Madame Blaise's little redoubt.
Attacking an orphanage
A few weeks earlier, several men had broken into the orphanage. First, they attacked the three country girls Madame Blaise had brought in as caregivers. "They hurt the ladies, they beat them up, and everything," Blaise told me by phone.
Two of the girls disappeared the next day. Blaise hasn't been able to find them. The third, after being treated for rape, returned to work.
But there was nothing left. The thieves took the freezer, the refrigerator, the television, the furniture, the orphanage's precious generator, even the children's clothes and food. The children themselves were untouched.
"They made two trips," said Blaise, who was asleep in her own apartment nearby when the invasion happened. "They came, they tie them up, they rape them, they tie them again, they steal, then they come back and steal more."
Blaise filed a police report, which, if you're poor, is usually a useless act in Haiti.
Blaise now has all 18 children, along with the one remaining caregiver, in her own apartment.
"Ah, you know, they left me in a bad situation," says Blaise. "Thank God they left me the kids."
Blaise has tried to raise money to rebuild, but there's terrific competition in Haiti for charity dollars and corrupt officials, looking to pocket some of the money for themselves, make it all the more difficult.
She is not a professional and has no real idea how to go about fundraising. But she has had one bit of good luck: A Haitian woman living in the U.S. heard about the rapes and the theft and donated the use of an empty building she owns in Delmas, a middle-class neighbourhood, a few kilometres uphill from the slums.
But Madame Blaise has neither the money, nor the ability to outfit the building as an orphanage.
"I am waiting for God, Mr. Macdonald," she told me last week. "I am always waiting for God."
After reading Mr. Macdonald's report on the orphanage in Haiti - I am struck how one reporter can make such a difference. I was sincerely moved, yet again, by one of his reports.
I have watched him on CBC for years and have benefited from his frank and compelling interpretation of events. With due respect to Rex Murphy, I would much rather hear Mr. MacDonald's point of view featured on the National. He is the ultimate reporter in my opinion.
– Gregory Bisch | Waterloo, Ontario
Big THANK YOU to Neil for his article "Waiting For God..." In his article he states "The country is a reminder that Darwin was probably right about the fate of the weakest." In fact Darwin did not say it's the strongest that survive. Survival of the fittest was never his thesis and it is an incomplete lens through which to view the world.
What he said was "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." I look forward to the end of people misquoting Darwin. Especially when it is such a bleak misquote.
I'm currently here in Cambodia working with some of the most vulnerable children who have had horrible experiences in their short lives and tremendous odds stacked against them. (ps Canada has to stop exporting it's pedophiles here.) Yet they're resilient and when given even the smallest chance to move their lives forward they show, once again, how adaptive they are.
– Peggy Ward | Mississauga, Ontario