As regular readers know, we were unable to go to Haiti as originally planned, due to an outbreak of violence between Haitians and Dominicans that resulted in UN intervention and a closing of the border. So we spent a day wandering around Santiago, wondering whether the border would be open on Saturday. Early that morning we got a call from one of the missionaries telling us that the border had reopened, and that we could enter.
It is a three hour drive from Santiago to the Haitian border at the DR town of Dajabon. Almost the entire way the road is bordered by lush rice paddies, orchards and pastures. While most of the homes along the way were small by US standards, we saw nothing that would indicate any significant poverty. There were lots of cars, the roads were paved, there was electricity, factories, stores, and billboards. We would come to see that this would contrast starkly with where we were heading.
Things got a little weird when we entered Dajabon. It’s not really possible to express in words, but there was a very real sense of tension in the air. As we pulled up at the border crossing point (a narrow gate opening on to a bridge over the Masacre River) the tension was palpable. There were five of us in the van, along with our driver. No one was saying anything. The driver stopped the van and we could see Dominican soldiers with M16s, and lots of Haitians milling about. As Haitians began to approach our van, the driver (who spoke no English) said in English, “Lock.” We all locked our doors, even though we all knew this is where we were supposed to get out.
As we sat there quietly, unsure of what we were supposed to do, we saw a well-dressed pretty young white woman walking through the mob. She was obviously as completely unconcerned about the situation as if she was walking into a church on Sunday. We all realized that had to be Brenda, the missionary we were supposed to meet. That poise and confidence was reassuring, and we learned that it is characteristic of the missionaries there.
We all nervously exited the van and Brenda greeted us all with smiles and a warm welcome. She hired some Haitian boys to take our bags (including seven large duffel bags filled with shoes for the orphans), and they loaded them onto a wheelbarrow-like cart. Brenda took our passports and we crossed through the gate and into Haiti.
The scene there was bizarre. There were four armed UN sentries on the bridge. In the river below people were bathing, washing clothes and wading across carrying bags. Ahead of us was a desolate landscape, with almost no grass, and piles of trash everywhere, some of it on fire. There were lots of people around, all of them obviously very poor. The air was thick and hot, and the atmosphere was eerie.
While Brenda was inside dealing with Dominican customs (we assume) an American man came up to us. He indentified himself as Steve, and said he was returning from a visit to Cap Haitien, where he was working with the Missionaries of the Poor, a group of monks working with the sick and dying in Cap Haitien. We learned that he was from New Jersey, and that he made his first trip to Haiti in 2001, after learning about the organization. He told us that first trip changed his life and that it had completely cured him of the desire for “stuff.” Now he comes every chance he gets, several times each year. He said his wife and kids have no interest in it, so he comes alone. Helping Haiti is his passion. He told us that he once brought a group with him; some of them were moved like he was; some of them hated it and couldn’t wait to get home; one woman was so overwhelmed that she had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. When Brenda returned we said our goodbyes. During the following week, we thought and spoke often about what Steve had said to us, as we came to understand what had happened to him.
We crossed the bridge, and then had to wait while Brenda and our passports were in the Haitian customs office. It was brutally hot and humid, and we were standing in a sea of squalor, with Haitian kids begging us to let them shine our shoes.
Once all the paperwork was done, we walked with the Brenda a few hundred more yards to the entrance of the orphanage. We stepped inside the gate of the Hope for Haiti Children’s Center, and it was like diving into a pool of love. Immediately we were surrounded by beautiful happy children, anxious to be held and hugged.