Nurse and aid worker Brooke James was on the ground in Port-au-Prince the day that Haiti was hit by the earthquake. A worker for Child Hope/Maison de Lumiere, James was recently featured in CNN’s documentary Rescued, a film following the lives of children and aid workers in Haiti. In this interview, she recalls the quake and reflects on life in Haiti, five months after the catastrophe.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Today, almost six months after the earthquake, what is life like in Haiti? How has daily life changed? What has remained the same?
Brooke James (BJ): People in Haiti are back to selling food and other items on the streets, riding in tap-taps, and going to school. The biggest change that I see is where and how they are living. Before the earthquake, most people had a cement house or tin house to live in, whether they owned it, rented it, or squatted in it. Now, the majority of people sleep in tents, tarps, or bed sheets. For some, food is harder to find, and for others, it’s given out more and not necessary to buy. There is more fear in the country—of earthquakes, of what the future holds for them in respect to jobs and education, as most of the institutions collapsed in the quake. There are also more health problems: there are people living with amputations and there is less access to clean water and sanitation, which leads to increased rates of diarrhea and intestinal diseases.
On the other hand, more people seem to be turning to Jesus for comfort and healing and there are greater numbers of people attending church. In February, one month after the earthquake, President René Préval called for three days of fasting and prayer in Haiti, in which we saw more prayer services and people calling on the name of Jesus.
TOJ: Many people, I think, are surprised by this “turn to Jesus”—are there Haitians who are cynical? Is there a sense of grief and shock that is also present, and if so, does it make faith difficult for Haitians (and for non-Haitian people living and working in Haiti)?
BJ: I haven’t heard about Haitians who are cynical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some were. There is a lot of grief over losing loved ones and seeing how Port-au-Prince has been destroyed. There is a lot of fear over more earthquakes. I think the media in particular, and most non-Christians that are not in Haiti, would fail to see the good things that have emerged from the earthquake.
TOJ: When you recall the day of the earthquake, what stands out the most in your mind?
BJ: During the earthquake, I was walking out of the play area of our boys’ orphanage. When the earth stopped shaking, I heard the screams of our kids. One kid handed me Daphne, a four-year-old, who at the time I thought had just a small cut on her neck. Later we realized she had broken her leg. A cement block, part of the wall surrounding our boys’ home, had fallen on her femur. Right after we realized Daphne was injured, people in our community started arriving, bloodied and injured, to receive care at our very small medical clinic, which was in our boys’ orphanage. The front patio of our boys’ home became a hospital for six days.
I felt very unqualified to be running a hospital. We had myself and another nurse with our ministry, Ashley, running things until other missionaries and Haitians showed up a few hours later to donate their supplies and services. I am most thankful to, and amazed by, the Haitian community who stepped in to help their friends, loved ones, and strangers. Doctors, nurses, teenagers, our orphanage kids, and strangers all wanted to help and continually showed up each day without being asked.
TOJ: Most of the public has a collection of images surrounding the Haitian earthquake, but you, as a person on the ground, must have specific memories and experiences that capture a part of this catastrophe in a way that we cannot imagine. What are some of those memories?
BJ: We had two Haitian doctors who arrived about two days after the quake. They performed an arm and a foot amputation in the yard of the boys’ home. They used a flat bike tire as a tourniquet for lack of a real one that was large enough. During one of the surgeries, a cockroach flew at the doctors and they started screaming like girls. After they batted it away, one of them burst out singing “La Cucaracha.” It just highlighted the ridiculousness of the fact that we were performing these surgeries in a dirty boys’ home (even though we tried to be as sterile as possible). But it was a needed moment of laughter. We had other times where kids in pain were swearing at their parents or making comments that you wouldn’t expect to hear from a child, which also caused a lot of laughter.
BJ: We had a three-year-old boy who, while we were doing surgery on his leg, said, “Put a diaper on my ass; look at my suffering; and give me a little rice.”
TOJ: Wow—“Put a diaper on my ass.”
BJ: The little boy also said “F*** you, Mommy!”
TOJ: Developing nations face the fear of collapse when natural catastrophes hit, wrecking weak infrastructures and plummeting vulnerable people further into the margins. Do you think that this is true?
BJ: I don’t know that Haitians feared that their infrastructure would collapse before the earthquake, but this is definitely true now. The kids in our orphanage were very fearful to sleep inside. It took about two weeks for them to move back into their houses, even though they weren’t damaged. Even if their homes weren’t damaged, most Haitians sleep outside because the government has told them they should or they are living in fear of aftershocks, which caused damage and deaths as well.
TOJ: What is Child Hope/Maison de Lumiere? How would you describe their history and work? How badly did the earthquake affect its programs, and what are some obstacles currently facing the organization?
BJ: Child Hope/Maison de Lumiere is a Christian ministry to orphans and at-risk children: children whose parents abandoned them to the streets or to families where they became slaves, or restaveks in Creole. The ministry includes a boys’ home and a girls’ home, a clinic, a feeding program, and a school. The ministry started in Haiti in 2003 with a group of twelve boys who were former street children. The boys’ home expanded over the years to a current total of twenty-eight boys. The girls’ home was started in 2006 and includes eighteen girls. In the earthquake, our buildings all had a surrounding security wall fall down and Daphne broke her leg (which is healing well), but that was the extent of the physical damage. The earthquake put a two-week halt to the feeding program, but it is back in action and feeding up to one hundred children in our community three times weekly. Our children were out of school for six weeks, so we started a school for them.
A challenge has been figuring out a curriculum for them when they have been educated in French, but now we are educating them in English and French. It has also been a challenge to find teachers, but we do have a group coming from the states to teach for the summer. The fall teaching staff is still being decided. It has also been a challenge to figure out how to help the community when aid to the country is decreasing and we want to equip these families, not leave them dependent on us.
TOJ: You name a very vulnerable population in Haiti—the restaveks, or child slaves. Could you talk about this problem, its history and causes, and how it relates to other social problems in Haiti?
BJ: Restavek means “stay with.” Parents in the countryside send their kids to the city, and vice versa, to live with relatives or friends to receive an education or some form of what they think will be a better life. Often, however, the relatives will send the kids out on the streets to beg or work and beat them if they don’t return with enough money, and they are often taken advantage of out on the streets. Our directors at Child Hope knew a group of girls and boys who were restaveks and “worked” on the streets, washing windshields. They took in most of these boys to our boys’ home, and when they started the girls’ home, the first group of girls was restaveks.
TOJ: When you think about the children of Haiti, what do you think they need the most? How would you want Americans, and Christians of all denominations, to think about the children of Haiti?
BJ: Haitian children need love, just like other children. I think there are many different ways people can help Haitian children. I am a huge advocate of adoption, so I would urge people to consider adopting from Haiti. There are thousands of orphans in Haiti, but there are also thousands of children living in homes where they are essentially slaves. Ministries to these children are also essential because there are not enough people out there adopting. The kids need attention, food, education, life skills, and most importantly to receive the love of Christ. Haitian children are generally friendly, curious, beautiful, resourceful, and mischievous.
TOJ: There have been lots of scandals and legal actions involving post-earthquake adoptions, and many would say that adoption takes away children who, with the right education and support, could help rebuild Haiti. What would you say to those who see adoption as a problem for the people of Haiti?
BJ: I think the solution for children in Haiti is multifaceted. There are good parents here who can provide for their children and want their children. Obviously those children should remain with their parents. We need programs to help parents learn how to take care of their children and to provide jobs for these parents. On the other hand, there are many parents in Haiti who cannot financially or emotionally provide for their children and have abandoned them. I think organizations like Child Hope are important because children learn and experience the love of Christ, and are cared for and educated by adults who love them and want to see Haiti change. These children who know Jesus and have job skills will be future parents who will, Lord-willing, love their children and be able provide for their kids. Our children are not infants, and most are older than the age that children are traditionally chosen to be adopted.
Taking all children out of Haiti isn’t going to solve the problems of Haiti. However, for those children who are truly orphaned or abandoned to people or orphanages that adopt out I believe adoption is a wonderful option. Isn’t there something to be said for belonging to someone? If we say that Haiti shouldn’t allow adoptions, can’t we say that about all other countries that adopt out, including the United States? There are so many children in Haiti. Just because some people did it criminally, doesn’t mean the whole institution of adoption is wrong.
TOJ: As a medical worker, what have you encountered post-earthquake that has surprised you? How have health problems worsened as a result of the quake?
BJ: Assisting with amputations surprised me! Doing the kind of medical work right after the earthquake that I did was pretty surprising to me, especially given that we were able to do it in with my limited trauma experience and lack of a clean facility. Haitians deal with malaria, diarrhea, headaches, eye pain (from the sun and dust and no sunglasses), tuberculosis, and HIV. They also deal with a lot of aches and pains that could be treated, but they don’t have the means to buy drugs like Tylenol and Ibuprofen. Health problems are worse here because, especially now, it is difficult for people to access health care. clean water, food, basic first aid supplies, and even to pay for transportation to see a medical professional. They also have a lot of superstitions surrounding the causes of diseases and pains and how to treat them.
TOJ: I think that, of all the physical injuries, amputations carry the biggest shock for those of us who watched the earthquake happen. They are pretty gruesome and the fact that you had to perform them, without anesthesia, is mind-blowing to me. Were these difficult for you to do, besides feeling inexperienced in your training?
BJ: The whole week after the earthquake seemed unreal. It seemed crazy to be doing amputations in our boys’ orphanage and with minimal supplies and only medication to numb the area, not general anesthesia. I wasn’t grossed out; it just felt like something we had to do because this was a crazy time. Again, it seems unreal.
TOJ: Describe the experience of having CNN record the documentary Rescued and of being involved in this documentary. What effects do you hope this has for telling Haiti’s story?
BJ: The people filming for CNN were very kind. It was definitely awkward being filmed but they tried to be discreet. It was fun to see our kids get this attention and they had fun being on camera. I hope that CNN’s documentary on our ministry will bring Haiti to people’s minds again. I hope that it glorified God and people saw how Christians are helping a group of Haitians in need.
You can learn more about Child Hope at http://www.childhope.org/.