Maria's Story

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By Maria Olivieri
August, 2001

I just got back last night from one of the most amazing trips I've ever taken in my life. I just got back from Haiti. I'd like to tell you all about my trip and everywhere I went and everything I did, but first I'd like to tell you what I saw driving through the streets of Port au Prince. I'd like to tell you what I could pick up about the Haitian culture.

Haiti is attached to the Dominican Republic. French and Creole are the two languages spoken there. Port au Prince, with a population of about 2 million and the smallest airport I've seen in my life, is its capital.

Port au Prince is a city of two very extreme opposites. On the upper end, there are houses, schools, government offices, and embassies hidden away from the public behind very high walls. On top of these walls is either barbed wire or smashed glass bottles with the broken sides up, hardened in the cement. If you fall within the other extreme, you have pretty much nothing. These people are living in either old run down stores or houses or in their own shelters. Half of it may be cement blocks, but when the money runs out, these people resort to using tin or anything they can find. Their houses are not even half the size of my little bedroom.

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There were goats all over picking at trash, some cows, hogs, and dogs, and a few mules and 1 horse. The people are so skinny because they all suffer from malnutrition. The men I saw mostly wore pants, whatever shirts they could find and a form of shoes. The women wore dresses or maybe a skirt with sandals of some sort. The boys wore nothing or shirts and shorts. The girls wore dresses or shorts and shirts. All the children either wore no shoes or a plastic flip-flop type shoe.

We did not see any Haitians smoking (well maybe one, but that was it). The streets were in horrible condition. Only some by the heart of the city and in the mountains were paved. The others were just gravel or mud. They were full of bumps and potholes that had just been filled with rainwater. You would not imagine the ride we had as our bus driver tried to maneuver around them. The drivers were pretty crazy passing each other and hurrying around.

Their taxis are called tap-taps and are essentially just pick-up trucks covered in the back to look kind of like a wagon going west. Two benches line each side of the truck's bed and the trucks are painted all beautiful colors with many different sayings on them.

People lined the streets trying to sell vegetables, sugar cane, art, tires, headlights, used clothes and shoes, anything really that they could find. They just sat there day after day watching the cars pass by, waiting for someone to buy something. We also saw the women and girls balancing baskets of stuff on their heads that they were trying to sell. There was also a market in the middle of the city on a few streets that we couldn't even drive through because they were covered with people. It was really kind of sad to see because these people were everywhere sitting along every street.

Now that I've given you an idea of what Haiti is like from the windows of the bus, let me tell you a little about what I saw beyond the tall walls.

We went to the Little Children of Jesus home and orphanage for handicapped children that Church of the Nativity rebuilt after it burned to the ground. The lady in charge was Gladys and you could tell that she loved all those children. Their beds were packed in like sardines, but everyone had a spot and a stuffed animal. The place was spotless. Outside some children played with playdough, others played the drums, and others just sat and watched us. We saw many babies, one of whom is called Baby David. That was kind of hard for me. It's not that easy for me to reach out to those who are ill or different but I smiled and waved. I didn't know what else to do. On the way out I blew kisses and they blew them back. I realized they really aren't so different. The place was full of love and the kids are doing great.

We went to the Maison D'Amour Girls Home. The younger group of girls sang "Welcome" and "You are my Sunshine" to us in addition to some French songs. Then Christine (the other youth) and I pulled out the bubbles. We blew some for them and let them try. They had never seen bubbles before and it was amazing to watch them. Then we moved along to see the older group of girls. They sang the same songs but a few older girls rebelled and barely sang. But there was a group of little tiny girls behind them. Chris and I approached them with the bubbles and watching them jump for them was so fun. They were adorable and so happy. Even the older girls were turning to watch us bring the kiddies joy.

After the bubbles, we went inside and looked around. Their beds were all in straight lines, but they were bunk-beds and there were tons of them crowed in the rooms. We prayed in their chapel, and ate in their little dining courtyard with Sister Ruby (the sister in charge) taking care of us. Then we had to say goodbye, so we blew our kisses again.

Then we went to Our Lady of Hope boy's home. When we got off the bus, they were just about ready to eat, but they stood up and sang "Welcome." Then we walked on by and looked at the school. Sister Flora was the Sister in charge. She is Spanish and I know the language, so I got to play translator for a while. She gave Sisters Mary Attilia, Donatella, and Francis (nuns in our pilgrimage group) a flower to represent each person of the Trinity. Chris and I ended up with them in our hair (I tried drying mine out once we got to the hotel later, but I left it there). Then she showed us some rooms that they had in the back near where a French priest stays with them. She said she would love to have us, especially Chris and I, come to spend a day or two teaching the boys some English. She was so happy to have visitors.

We also saw the boy's soccer field and swings. The swings must have been newer, but the soccer field was not even covered with grass and in very bad condition. On the way back, we saw the boys had wolfed down their lunch and were washing their dishes. Seeing boys washing dishes was definitely a first. Of course on the way back Norm, our French-speaking fellow pilgrim, got Chris and I involved in a conversation with some older boys. We just rolled our eyes, but went to humor him. Norm found out how old they were and told them how old we were and said we were beautiful to which the boys nodded and we made him tell them they weren't so bad either. Then we went on our way. We laughed because boys aren't any different in Haiti.

We all stopped by their chapel then walked through the side to the St. Vincent de Paul senior citizen village. We were told that we wouldn't be able to leave until we danced with them so Chris and I were a little curious and anxious about what that might mean. We heard the music as we approached. We were met in their courtyard by applause. Then the music began again, as did the singing and dancing. Chris and I finally ventured over there and just clapped and swayed for a while. Then followed others example and grabbed someone and just danced. It was the most unique experience I've ever had in my life. Just smiling and dancing with these elderly people. I was hot, dressed in khakis and an oversized scooby-doo t-shirt, but I was having the time of my life. I was thinking why I should ever waste my time and money for school dances ever again because they've never been as fun or worth it as those fifteen minutes swaying with senior citizens was. We waved and blew kisses goodbye as we went to see their clinic.

Up on the roof we looked out over the village and their garden. It was so beautiful. The houses were really small, but just perfect for these people because they are so happy to have decent shelter they can call their own. All the 310 one-room houses were different colors. Inside the clinic building was a map with each house on it and the name of who paid for that house and on the houses I think were little plaques of each name too. That was kind of cool to see. Then we had to walk back by the dancing singing people and their houses to get back to the boys home. From there we loaded the bus and passed on the waves and blown kisses to the boys as well. We arrived at the hotel and got everything situated. The hotel was gorgeous. It was all open with fountains and plants and little creatures (fish, turtles, cockroaches, and lizards) all over. We had a little meeting and then ate dinner and collapsed into bed.

Day two included one of the highlights of my trip. We traveled to the Village of Merger. There was a sugar company in Haiti called Hasco, but since the embargo it was shut down. The land the company owned now belongs to the descendants of its employees. The village of Merger contains the remnants of some houses built by the company for its employees. But the village has a new name. With three houses rebuilt so far, it is quickly on its way to becoming Nativity Village.

The plan is to rebuild all the houses. The new ones are small, but sturdy and all pretty colors. So as the bus came into the village, a few people trickled out of their homes, but by the time we stopped and got out, there was a huge crowd waiting to greet us. It began with a handshake and hello in French but by the time we left we had kids hanging all over us. They all longed to stare and to touch and to know us. We walked through their village and saw what their houses are now.

The path between houses was full of mud and dirt and rocks and glass. But those kids were walking through the sharp rocks and squishy mud in bare feet, so I didn't even bother to side-step any of it. I could do it with shoes and socks if they could do it in bare feet.

We finished our little tour and gathered in a giant group. Carla (a fellow pilgrim from Chicago) took pictures as the kids counted to five in English. Then she got them chanting each of our names. They loved reading our name tags. Then we tried to gather them in a circle to do "ring around the rosie," the "hokey-pokey", and the "bunny hop" (which I've never done). It was a thrill to be able to teach them a little about our culture and see how they reacted. Some older girls were laughing and saying who knows what about Chris and I, but I didn't care because I was surrounded by children who weren't laughing at us, children that were so innocent and sweet. On the way to the schoolhouse, Dan, the cameraman asked Chris and I for our reaction so far. With kids still hanging all over us we told him that we felt like celebrities. But I thought about it later and decided that's how Jesus must have felt. It was incredible to compare that simple experience to one man's whole life, but I really believe that's how he must have felt. Then we all crowded into their one-room schoolhouse. Many of the other villagers had to look in from outside. At first Chris and I sat in the desks with everyone, but then had to go stand up front. I was standing in front of a gated door holding the hand of a little girl next to me and the hand of a boy outside the gate. He was very interested in my fingernails. Another was pulling my hair from outside the gate while another yet said I love you. I just blew him a kiss. Such boys! But the mayor and town leader were talking about how happy they were and thankful for our help.

Then Mrs. Mack (our pastoral minister) and Father Rick (our FFP leader) talked about how glad we are to help them and how by God's grace the project will be finished soon. There was a lot of clapping and joy. But we did find out later that that one-room schoolhouse is not very good and that some people are sending their kids farther away to other schools. So we're trying to see what we can do to get better teachers out there or add onto the building itself.

As we made our way back, a few kids saw that we had water on the bus. They were saying "agua, agua" and knocking on the window and shaking empty bottles. That was difficult for me because it's very hard for me to say no to people and that just about broke my heart. Another girl spotted my necklace and pointed to herself, but I couldn't give it to her. It was so hard, but if we gave anyone anything there would have been a mob scene and who knows who would have gotten hurt, but nevertheless they happily chased the bus out of their village and we just waved and blew kisses again. It's amazing how much you can say with a smile, a wave, and a kiss. Nativity Village was so beautiful even though it's nowhere near finished because of the people that lived there and their hope and faith.

After the rush to get there, we moved on to drive through the slums in Cite Soleil. Now that was pretty depressing. As we drove through there, we saw the people that just kind of sat and stared. Some kids waved, but no one else really reacted to us. You could see the desperation and pain in their eyes. The houses and conditions there were terrible. The garbage was just piled up all over. And of course part of Cite Soleil is along the river where the people drink, wash, and go to the bathroom. That was hard to see too.

In the middle of Cite Soleil, we stopped at the Marguerite Naseau Kindergarten. School wasn't in session, so no one was there, but there was a group of mothers in one of the classrooms who were making peanut butter and alcohol cream stuff. They were the club of mothers that have children at that school. They are the ones that clean the school every afternoon. The school was like a seed of hope planted in the midst of Cite Soleil,s desperation. Next we went to the FFP headquarters. We looked around at the clinic, warehouse, and offices. We helped serve the poor through the feeding program. There were giant bowls of rice all over inside the building that were swarming with flies. But the people were lined up outside with their tickets and their buckets, bowls, pots, whatever they could find. They would come up with blank expressions, but as I scooped the rice I could see gratitude reflected in their eyes.

There were those that made faces at the amount of rice I had given, so of course I wrongly scooped more. This one boy came back a few times, but I filled his buckets every time. That was probably their only meal that day, so I just could not turn them away. For one time that whole trip I could say yes and get away with it (even though I wasn't supposed to), so I took the opportunity. After we all had a turn to serve, we went upstairs and ate lunch then talked to the lady in charge of the Nativity Village Project for awhile. Then we said goodbye to the FFP headquarters, got gas and went on our way.

We went to see Father Tony and the Brothers of Charity (Male Mother Theresas). We got up on their roof and looked out. A few kids had gathered below and were waving and posing for pictures. But then an older boy came out, grabbed his siblings, and ushered them into the house as he yelled at them. We didn't know what that was about; what did he have against us? Anyway, then we went over to the clinic.

There were naked and half naked shriveled up old men lying in bare beds all over. They all tried to get up or say hi. One was making the wiping eyes motion, trying to tell us he was sad and hurt or something. Chris and I walked through the next room, then left. Outside the door, some boys said I love you, so we blew kisses. We found out later that that was an AIDS clinic. It was pretty depressing in there because there was such a stench, and their sores and bodies were just covered in flies. The conditions were so horrible and I realized that animals in America are treated better than they are and that's just not right.

Then we had some water and went into the Brothers chapel to have mass. The Brothers brought out more chairs, but Chris and I still ended up on the floor. There's something more humbling about sitting on the floor for mass, in such a chapel under such conditions. I did the Responsorial Psalm and was not afraid or nervous, just at peace. During the mass, these two skinny sick-looking cats came and wandered around. It was interesting, but I guess they are part of God's creation too. It was so hot in there and we were all dying, so I promised myself that I would never complain about how cold Nativity Church is in the summer ever again. The "sign of peace" time was bond time for us as pilgrims. We were all going around hugging each other, people we barely knew. We were so spiritually connected, it was amazing and it felt really good.

The last place we went to on day two was one place I never expected to see in Haiti. It was run by Patrick Monaghan (sp?), an American. He up and moved his four little kids and wife to Haiti to work on this school. It's a secondary school that is under construction right now for the new year, but promising and amazing nonetheless. They were working on a library, an auditorium, a new cafeteria, and new classrooms including science labs. The most amazing thing about the place was the fact that they keep their trash on the campus. They clean and recycle all they can and bury the rest. The other thing is the programs they run. These students do 100-150 hours of community service every year compared to my fifteen. They clean up their communities, and spend afternoons teaching the younger kids and reading extra. The school's purpose seems to be to get the kids ready for the real world and continuing education. They like to see students that come back to work at that school or elsewhere in Haiti, so they tried to set up their school in a way that would encourage this.

We met a few teachers that graduated from there and came back to teach, so their system seems to be working. There were also a few teachers from America that were spending a year there. There are two dormitories there that will house some of their students and they have adopted an affirmative action plan to have at least a 40% female presence in their student body because of the difficulties women in Haiti face when trying to succeed. I think it was an even better school than my Catholic School here in Northern VA. Granted, the quality of the education may not be as great, but the atmosphere and school definitely was. It really was run wonderfully and Mr. Patrick seemed strict, but definitely had a vision and will hopefully be ordained as a deacon this October. Then we retired for our meeting and dinner back at Hotel Montana.

We started out day three with a trip to FFP's hospital. We drove along the water and it was such a gorgeous color. We finally got there and went in. No one was in labor in the maternity section, but there were three beaming mothers that had just delivered. We saw the clinic where they treat at least 200 people daily. They have all the medical specialties and most of the resources that we would find here in America, but more people to treat, fewer doctors to help, and less medicine and supplies available on a regular basis. But that hospital runs on the $60,000 that would pay two hospital secretaries' salaries in America.

The last place we stopped in was the pediatric section. The mothers sat in vigils by their babies. There were four tiny ones in incubators that didn't even look like real people because they were so tiny and skinny. There were a few babies and kids that the mothers proudly showed off. Only a few didn't look pleased to have us parading around there. There was one neatly dressed lady that just sat by her sleeping child staring out at us. When I neared, I saw that the child was covered in burns and bruises. Her face was covered in a white powder that must have been medicine. The mother told Norm that there was an explosion. It was such a painful thing to see, I just stared. That is one memory from Haiti that won't leave my mind.

Then we went to Canape Vert, where Nativity first built houses. Those that visited them before when they were first built said that in these two years, the houses were turned into homes. They were now full of belongings with gardens outside. The people had a place to call their own and they were satisfied. There were soccer goals and a bunch of boys playing soccer while some just watched and other kids rode bikes and ran around. Some boys were fighting over a bike and I really wanted them to stop, but couldn't figure out a way to get in there and communicate with them. Then another boy saw me looking and went to try and break it up. I looked at him with gratitude, it was nice to see that some people still value peace.

We went farther up the mountain to the Baptist Mission and ate there off an American type menu with a beautiful view behind us. Then we shopped in their store and some ventured out to barter with the natives. That was amusing until one of them offered to show Chris and me his machete. We headed for the bus, but they were still bartering through the bus windows. We got away and went through the mountains again to what I think was everyone's favorite place.

That place was Rainbow House, an orphanage for children with AIDS. Danielle and her husband that were in charge told us all about it and then asked if we wanted to see the kids. Chris and I jumped up and were ready to go. She led us into the most beautiful and friendly place I've ever seen. It reminded me of a doctor's office that is decorated to make the kids feel comfortable, but unlike the doctor's office, this place really did.

First we met the older kids who were doing their afternoon reading. Then they told us some of their names, read our nametags, and grabbed our hands. Then they led us upstairs to where the younger ones were sleeping and resting and playing. They were all so cute and happy. I was not afraid to reach out and touch these 37 children. I don't understand how it was any different than those in the handicapped hospital, they're all sick. Maybe it was because the AIDS children didn't look sick or because I had reached out to so many already during the week. Anyway, the children were intrigued by our cameras. Chris and I pulled out the bubbles and made them with both the girls and some boys. They were so surprised and amused. It was nice for us to give something back to them because they gave us so much in that little half-hour we were there.

We were on our way out when the kids' dance teacher showed up. Most people were on the bus already, but they got off and we all watched the children dance, first to a Haitian drum. Their movements and grace were amazing. Then we saw them do what I thought of as a death dance to a taped song that was just music, no vocals. Everyone else thought it was death and resurrection, I guess it was, but it was still kind of eerie to watch them do it knowing that they would be dying at some point. Then we had to leave, but not after waving and blowing kisses, and hugging the lady in charge. She had told us about the programs they have started and want to start in order to educate the community about AIDS and some other outreach programs to help mothers with AIDS and their children. She really has a great vision for the future, I just hope it can all become a reality.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to look down on Port au Prince. It was so gorgeous from up there and we could pick out the palace and cathedral. It was hard to imagine that once you got close enough you could see that it was just slums and trash. Then we retired to the hotel, dinner and one last meeting.

Day four was just a little extra sleep and a beautiful mass outside in the hotel courtyard with Port au Prince in the background. That was another high point of the week. By then we all knew each other a little better and felt more at peace and comfortable. Then we had to head for the airport and I honestly was not ready to come home. I knew I'd be coming back to everything that I hadn't needed in the last week and I was not ready to leave everything I had just encountered, but I had to.

The thing that I think I was most struck by during the week was how easy it was to reach out. I always remember my mom's grip tightening on my hand when we walked by beggars and people that were different. She was scared. But this past week, fear was the last thing on my mind. I didn't even notice that the Haitians had different colored skin than me, and the fact that we didn't speak the same language didn't bother me. It was hard to communicate because there was so much I wanted to know and say, but I got by with smiles, waves, handshakes, and kisses.

It was not hard to adjust to life in Haiti. It really was not that complicated to close my mouth in the shower and not eat fresh fruit for a few days. I was surprised at how similar the people in Haiti are to Americans. I don't know what I expected, but seeing the boys try to flirt with us, and the girls laugh at Chris and me really struck me and reminded me that we're all human, no matter where we live. I guess I just hadn't thought about society and relationships like that.

But I think the thing that most surprised me this week was how happy the people in Haiti are. Yes the slums were awful and the politics corrupt, but in the eyes of children everywhere and beyond those walls was pure joy. It was hard to think about the poverty and desperation when smiling faces surrounded me. They have so little compared to what I have, yet they are happier than I have ever been. It took children in Haiti to really make me understand that happiness is not materialistic.

The thing that most affected me during last week was the faith that the people I met had. It was particularly evident in Sister Flora, Sister Ruby, Father Tony, Gladys, Patrick, and Danielle who gave up credit for everything. They told us that all the joy and comfort these children had came from God. Without Him none of their projects and programs would be possible. I guess I'm not used to people openly praising Him in such a way. In America it seems like it takes people longer to realize how awesome God is.

Then there was Philippe, the FFP guy in charge of our tour. He would just start praying on the bus for no apparent reason. And in every chapel we stopped at, he would say a prayer or two or three. Also the bus driver, Yvon, would not leave in the mornings without a prayer. It was amazing to see how strong the faith of all the Haitians is. We have retreats and masses and all sorts of programs and activities at Nativity. All they have is maybe a chapel with a little statue, yet their faith seems so much stronger. I guess I understand though.

I'm convinced that because I did the devotion to St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible things, that my parents finally agreed to let me go. And I prayed just about every day leading up to the trip that I would be safe and have a good experience, which I did. Just seeing the Haitians praying and praising God made me really believe in the power of prayer.

I was really struck throughout the week by the joy and faith that everyone had. I'd like to think that as a result, my faith is stronger and my petty needs lesser. And I hope that as you read this you are imagining what Haiti is like and how desperate these people are. I'd ask that you say a prayer right now for these people and the poor everywhere that someday they may have everything that they need and want and for the final day that they may truly be first.

God Bless You!!!

Love,
Maria