At the top of the hill above the camp is the MASH unit style tent hospital. A wide dirt road runs in front of it, scored by the hundreds of vehicles that have passed this way over the two years since the earthquake bringing medical supplies, workers, volunteers and the sick and injured. There is not any other traffic on this road as it dead ends shortly after the hospital at what used to be the helicopter landing pad.
I met Elius and Thierry on this road (I have changed their names). We all do eventually, the volunteers. These boys are as familiar on that road as the doctors and nurses. They live in the tent city below the hospital and spend much of their free time hanging around that makeshift clinic above the camp.
Neither speaks fluent English, or much english at all really, yet both are extraordinarily comfortable around strangers and strike up conversations with more ease than seems possible given their life. It is clear that NGO workers have been a fixture in their life.
Elius appears to be the ring leader…maybe of everything. He pursues language with a thirst that I have never seen in a child his age. He speaks bits of five languages…the languages of the UN soldiers permanently stationed in the camp where he lives. When I first met him a woman in our group told him she was from Pakistan. His first question to her, in English – “What is the language in Pakistan?” and then “Do you have an Urdu dictionary you can give me?” He is as proud of his collection of foreign language books and dictionaries as he is of his new soccer ball, which he protects to the point of obsession. He is chatty and curious. I love the fact that every single interaction with him leaves me exhausted from the work I do answering questions.
“What are you writing now?
“Does your son eat plantains?”
“Do you have a car where you live?”
He always grabs my arm, conspiratorially, and leans in close as he asks me things. He is unlocking the secrets of the world. Every question brings him closer in a way I do not understand.
Thierry is quieter. His angelic face adds to the impression that he is some kind of spiritual puzzle to figure out. And, perhaps he is. But he is also mischievous and fearless…he boldly asks me for money to purchase books for school and academic contests. And I always give it to him. Always. I know I am not supposed to, but when he asks, I am a mom and he is a kid who clearly needs a new pair of shoes. Badly. I smile broadly the next day when he shows me his beautiful new Croc knock offs.
Thierry is completely captivated by my camera. He and I fell into a routine…he lets me take pictures of him and then I hand him my camera for him to take pictures himself. I always sit, far longer than I had intended, on benches made of solid sandbags stacked under a tarp, and I watch him and the boys that follow him around to see what he is doing with this giant monster of a camera. While he wanders around with it snapping mostly useless shots of motion blurred dogs and cars, I rest. And this is really the deal we have struck, even if it is only me who is aware of it. There is nothing I can do here at the camp without my camera and there are times when I need to just feel the body of the group here without a camera between us.
Over time, he improves and toward the end of my three months, I can usually count on three or four decent photos from the hundreds he shoots. He gets some interesting angles as he sits with friends and when I give him a task, like moving up through the crowds at church and get pictures of the little girls in the choir, he boldly moves in and gets those shots and more. I am able to sit with him, look through the shots and tell him the story I see in what he has taken. He beams.
It’s funny how little I anticipated their impact on me at the time. While living your life, you do not stop to think “These moments will define so much of my experience here.” But they do. And, as I remember them guiding me through the camp to the church or the market, I wonder what kind of options there are for them there. I worry about the fact that Elius is smart as a whip and a natural born leader. Most of the easy options for a child like that involve doing things that are not legal or safe. Thierry’s angelic looks are becoming a handicap as he slips easily into the hearts of the international aid worker community and the recipient of their easy money…because the problems in Haiti are too damn big for one person to solve, but $10 for textbooks is doable. And I am not the only one who starts to feel protective around these boys.
They were on my mind as I boarded the plane for home. I imagined bringing them here with me and wonder even today if coming to America would be better. The opportunity we have here comes at a cost, which I did not really understand until I lived somewhere else. But the point is moot, I cannot bring them home with me, even if I could discern if that would be better for them. But knowing that doesn’t stop the wondering.