Understanding through a different color; loving the children of Hispaniola
|I sat on the hard stone of the narrow alley way that snaked its way through the maze of 400 shanties. Expert little worker hands separated and tugged my thin sun hair into tightly braided rows, thoughtfully organizing every strand, like their rice and boiling pots that hung in dark corners from molded rafters whose dull silver surfaces were scrubbed so clean that my repugnant reflection of white spit back offensively. The warm, heavy scent of urine, charcoal smoke and refugee life permeated my pores, drifted by in the hand sculpted concrete gutters and rose up with every inflection of the primal rhythmic Creole tongue that beat the air in gospel chatter.
For seven years she had been carrying the weight of her sister, whose deformed and folded limbs would never let her grow more than three feet tall, never allow her to walk, or even crawl, although her mind was all there.
Their mother had left them, running back to Haiti.
They relied on the community spirit of all who remained, (‘no child left behind’ is an unspoken assumption in Haitian culture), and slept wherever there was a surplus of food that night.
Katia was nine that day she came to me, drawn only to the hopeful, boisterous otherness of my privileged whiteness. From her hip she placed her sister into my arms so she could join in on the fun of exposing my naked vulnerable scalp.
Her every breath was raspy, fluid filled. I used my sleeve to clean the fever that dripped from her face.
A month later a well meaning volunteer placed the Small One into an orphanage where she could be looked after for the rest of her days.
Katia, now alone in the rat infested colony of clapboard shacks, was unbearably light without the familiar familial warmth clinging to her every move.
The last of her everything had been taken.
A tropical rain hammered down relentlessly. At first a cool relief from the blistering rays, it surged to no end until the alleys and creeks could hold no more. Sewer, waste, unwantedness with nowhere to go, had but to stay.
We too, were forced to retreat into the shadowed protection of his windowless tin roofed hut.
I had been feeding families, before the deluge dispersed everyone.
Bananas, salami, whole grain bread and Nutella.
The drumming rain was deafening. Slivers of light interrupted the soggy blackness through uneven cracks as minutes turned to hours.
I relented, letting him hold me through damp clothes, on the one kind surface that bore forgiveness, his sole possession.
The storm, my anger and tears, the hurricane force, revolted against a world so unjust. Under one roof, two separate worlds swelled into wordless mutual understanding, the mirror of us seemingly reflecting the essence of humanity; the humaneness of simply being together lent enough love to mere strangers to ride out the fiercest of storms.
Compassion drowned me.
Katia, the half Haitian, half Dominican, stateless, undocumented Island girl, had never set foot on the
beach, or seen the vast blue sparkling body of water breathing just one mile from her imprisoned world.
She mourned, no longer needed, confused as to why and where her sister had been taken.
"We will go visit her," I promised.
Suddenly she became everyone's child when I sought permission to take her 'outside'. I spent two days convincing community members of my intent.
They decided to trust me.
A wise mentor and owner of a volunteer foundation, warned me of the many dangers and possible repercussions of taking her alone; one being false accusations.
" They are so desperate for money. They can say anything and it's their word against yours."
Riddled with pedophiles, buyers and sellers, visitors and locals here are either in The Business, or not.
Katia was worth the risk.
Any child is.
We bought a pretty new dress and a pair of socks, and went to visit her sister. A 45 minute gua-gua ride found her in beautiful new surroundings. Everything was white, clean and smelled like flower blossoms. The nurses all smiled and there were toys to play with. Bathrooms and running water.
Katia could not cry.
It would have broken her.
"Now for your surprise!" She felt unreachable.
Her sweaty palm in mine, we stood silently alone on the side of the sweltering highway, waiting for what felt like an eternity for the 10 m.p.h. puttering gua-gua that would take us back in the direction of the ocean.
Like a lightening bolt, when her toes touched the hot sand, and the salty breeze kissed her soft bronze skin, the embrace of the endless turquoise horizon unlocked her spirit. Unfettered, her lean, graceful body exalted, from shock and joy. Eyes immense with awe, she took off spinning and skipping.
Never by anything human had I ever been so moved by raw beauty.
Katia arched low, still dancing forward, took her forefinger to the sand like a paintbrush, and drew a masterpiece. Leaving her artful deposition of flowing lines that circled, sang and intertwined, ending where ocean met earth, she spoke her story for the first time.
Like a wild caged animal being released, tempted to flee forever, yet so afraid, Katia tasted the power of Nature’s freedom.
Blinded by tears, I took her hand and we ran, giggling and breathless, leaving happy footprints, unaware of skeptical onlookers. I scooped her in my arms and in her shrills of innocent anticipation, she allowed me to carry her into the mysterious, mesmerizing sea. Consumed by sheer terror and bliss, she trembled in my safety and in the truth of it all.
Perfection graced this moment with perhaps the purest kind of human love ever known.
Loyalty of unyielding intensity possessed me.
This young life worthy of dying for I could not abandon, as the world had.
Floating in the gentle current of blue-green, holding each other equally, painless peace became us; our two souls bridging divisions of societies silent ongoing wars.
The sum of our parts no greater than grains of sand, the power of our love could change the tides.
Freedom was hers for a day.
In my personal mission of breaking down the racist and socioeconomic barriers by gaining the trust of strangers, and believing I was improving lives in small ways, I lived on this tumultuous soil until my own family had nearly forsaken me, until my own hunger gripped my soul, until the politics of the world stopped me dead.
Around every corner they reared their ugly head, determined to snuff out the love.
No, I am not a Christian, or UNICEF worker. I am no part of anyone’s organization, I hold no license or degree that can tell anyone what should be done.
I am merely a woman, walking alone with my ears and eyes open to the hunger and suffering.
Living as they.
That I may understand.
I could not always be there, or ultimately control the destiny of even one girl, let alone the countless other young innocent lives.
Katia slowly slipped out of my grip, taken over by the underworld that would never allow me in. She was never alone, but never with enough.
A food credit set up in her name at the local Colmado gave her a generous budget for food every month.
A culture of survivalists, there is no sense of "I." Food meant for her growth was dispersed through an overflowing household run by Dominican woman who had 'let her in.'
No Dominican house is ever free.
Especially with half black skin.
No, I was not allowed to take her.
She would have to earn her keep.
In the streets.
Who am I to fight the industry of human trafficking?
In this place where the the Central Bank strips a Haitians fruit from the tree.
After three years of giving, I returned to the States with empty pockets, exhausted time and heart.
I promised to return after a year of working.
She was fourteen when I saw her next; the womanly figure in scuffed high heels, holding herself up in the doorway of the smokey, black and humid shack.
The silky, strapless dress of polyester pink and rayon revealed the innocence that had been stolen too many times to remember, and wrapped ‘round her full, upright pregnant belly.
She had heard I was coming, had been waiting there to wave.
Her hollow smile was unrecognizable.
Teeth blackening, hope lost.
Light non-existent under the cruel Dominican sun.
“Her mom came back,” he told me.
“It’s crack. They smoke together.”
I smiled and waved from afar, too weak to let her any closer.
Feeling the blows of a thousand beatings.
The caress of the waves remember all they have erased.