Confession #23: Growing Up Without Parents in Haiti
I’ve been reading a lot of blogs about adoption lately- the good, the bad, and the ugly. And although I agree that it is defiantly something we all need to be talking about, there is also another side to orphan care that we need to recognize and consider.
What about the orphans left behind? What happens to the orphans who don’t get adopted and who live their lives institutionalized? What about the orphans who never go home to their “forever family”? I’m putting the adoption debates aside for just a minute, because I know some orphans out there who would do anything just to have the chance for a family for their own. On behalf of these kids, I decided to repost one of my old posts from My Life at the Cap Haiten Children’s Home.
Repost from March 12, 2012 on My Life at the Cap Haitien Children’s Home
We all have them-memories we will never forget. Sometimes we are fortunate to have happy memories that we will gladly cherish in our minds forever. However occasionally we experience those times when we know that the momentary grief we are experiencing will be engrained in us for a lifetime.
Working and living in Haiti, I have accumulated both types of memories. Although my fortunate ones way surpass the depressing ones, it is the depressing ones I sometimes remember the most. And out of all my sad memories, the two that pain me the most have to do with the reality that my family consists of 50 orphaned children.
Memory # 1: It was December of 2008. Hunter and I had just gotten married and instead of splurging our wedding gift money on things for our new apartment we decided to buy plane tickets to Haiti instead. One night I found myself sitting outside the director’s house (now our house) with Evelyn and Manno. The two of them, both in their early teens, were like our brother and sister. For years we had grown to love them as our family and seeing them was one of our favorite parts about coming to Haiti. Anyway, as we sat there talking in very broken English, Evelyn leaned over and started whispering something in Manno’s ear. She wanted him to ask me a question. Hesitant at first he started drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick as to not make eye contact with me. As my curiosity built he finally asked me, “Will you and Hunter ever adopt from the orphanage?” Caught off guard I scrambled for my words. “Of course,” I said, “but…..” I then went on to explain what little I knew about the adoption laws and how Hunter and I were light years from meeting them. I told them we had to be married for 10 years and one of us had to be 35 years old. Knowing my age I saw them start to count the years until we were eligible on their fingers. And then, as if the conversation wasn’t tense enough, Manno asked me the question that completely plunged my heart. “So by the time you are old enough, we will be too old to adopt?” From this point on, my conversation with them is a blur. I don’t have a clue how I responded to his question. I do, however, remember going back to the dorms moments later and weeping because I knew that they knew they were orphans.
Memory # 2: Last fall after my parents came to visit us, Wenchy spent a lot of time in our house. He bonded a lot with the two of them and for a while after they left he was permanently glued to us. One day, after school let out, Wenchy sprinted to my front door and asked to come in and play. At the moment I was swamped trying to update our budget spreadsheets and having him inside would distract me from the work I desperately needed to get done. So I told him no and as he began walking away I heard a group of school boys start to laugh at him. “You thought she was going to be your mom didn’t you?” they said in Creole. I looked out the kitchen window and saw Wenchy crying and attempting to defend himself. “Not true. Not true.” He kept repeating himself, eventually gave up, and sobbed the whole way to his room. Just like Memory # 1, I wept because I knew that he knew he was an orphan.
These memories- they haunt me. And considering the fact that I am not leaving Haiti anywhere in the near (or even perhaps distant) future, I have prepared myself with the reality that I will have to face many more of these moments ahead-moments when the truth that these kids are orphans is verbalized through their small and desperate voices.
If you know me at all, you know I am pro-adoption. I am highly for keeping children with their biological families if at all possible, but under the correct circumstances when this is not an option, I am all about seeing Christian families step up and parent God’s children as their own.
One of the hardest skills I have had to learn to master this past year was when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to a kid moving into the orphanage. Countless family members have come to our gates since we moved here begging us to take a child in because they know we can provide for them in ways they cannot. And in some ways, they are right. We can offer a lot of amazing opportunities for children. We can feed them three meals a day and tuck them in at night to their very own bed. They will have free education and free medical care as needed. Children can have sponsors from people in America- sponsors who send monthly money, birthday presents, holiday gifts, and occasional cards and emails. Children here also grow up learning English and develop relationships with Americans who have come to visit. They have access to the internet, a TV, a library, a sewing room, a basketball court, a full-time nurse, and monthly teams full of suitcases with toys, clothes, and books. At first glance, to the average Haitien child, moving into a place like ours is a little like moving into Disney world. But no matter how nice we make this place there is one thing we can’t offer them- parents.
I have always wondered how our kids felt about being orphans. Even if they aren’t orphans by perfect definition all of our kids have been abandon and left behind one way or another. Growing up with very loving and dedicated parents myself I lack the complete ability to relate to them and their circumstances. I have been blessed with strong enough relationships with a few of them that I have been able to ask them questions about their past and their feeling surrounding them. But beyond those few kids, I have always been too scared and somewhat too ashamed to ask my kids what is like to be an orphan- a child with no parents.
This week, however, God had this topic lingering constantly in my mind. The more I thought about it the more I prayed about it. The more I prayed about it the more I wanted to write about it. And when I finally sat down to write I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to go to the source. I needed to talk to my kids.
So this weekend, I did just that. One by one I interviewed ten of my teenagers. I warned them upfront that my questions were hard and personal. I gave them the option to quit whenever they got uncomfortable. Besides a few tears on my part and theirs, we got through all my questions. Although none of their responses surprised me, hearing their words and seeing their emotions behind them made the reality of their lives and their pain so much more real. If you are willing to read further, I want to share with you what they said it is like to grow up as an orphan- a child with parents.
“I don’t know what it is like to have a mom and a dad,” he said as he blankly starred at the TV screen in front of him. Papouch, 17, has lived at the orphanage since he was seven. Both his parents passed away when he was a little kid, or at least that is what he has always been told by his family. Before coming to the orphanage Papouch doesn’t remember much about his life. “I remember that I didn’t always eat every day, I didn’t have a bed to sleep in, and I didn’t go to school. But when I moved to the orphanage things got better. I now can play with other kids, I go to school, and I have fun,” he said.
Willy, 18, agrees with Papouch about the initial excitement he had as a kid moving into the orphanage. After both his parents died when he was five Willy can still remember coming to the orphanage for the first time. “I was very happy when I came to the orphanage because I saw there were a lot of kids my age to play with, “he explained. “There was a basketball court and a soccer field and I was excited. Here, I knew I would have a good education, I could eat enough every day, have a good place to sleep, and have some people to love me and care for me.”
This excitement, however, was not shared among all our kids when moving here. Some had good parents, good lives, and good memories before moving here. Djooly, 18, is one of those kids. Djooly grew up as a child with his mom, brothers, and sisters. When his mom was six months pregnant with a younger sibling he remembers his dad dying. Shortly after, he was brought to the orphanage by a cousin because his mom no longer had the financial means to single handedly support all of her children.
“It was really hard when I had to leave my mom,” he admitted. “My mom always held me and loved me and it was hard to leave her. When I first got here to the orphanage I was sad a lot. It took me a few weeks to feel comfortable.”
Jetro, 16, had a similar experience. Until he was 11, Jetro and his sister Myriam had always lived with their mom. With watering eyes he told me how good his life was before he came to the orphanage. “My mom would always hold me,” he said shyly. After saying that, he quickly explained further as if he needed to clarify. “She didn’t hold me like a baby. She just held me because she loved me and because she was my mom.” After I explained to him that I completely understood he went on to tell me that when his mother died his sister Myriam went to live with their aunt and his uncle brought him to live at the orphanage. Although both Myriam and Jetro live with us now at the orphanage, Jetro still bears the pain of being separated from his sister for almost five years.
Jimmy, 13, also said that when he first got to the orphanage he felt good everyday but he continued to miss his mom. At age nine his grandmother brought him to the orphanage after both parents passed away. Even though he had fun playing with kids his age, Jimmy said that, “Every day I would think about not having a mom and dad and I would think about how I much I wanted a new mom and dad.”
I went on to ask the teenagers what they believe to be both the advantages and disadvantages between growing up in an orphanage versus a home. Some of them admitted that they didn’t know how to answer this question. Coming to the orphanage as little children and in some cases babies, living in a home is not a memory they have been able to keep. But despite the fact that they never grew up in a home with a mom and dad they can only imagine what they are missing.
Take for example Andy, 18, who came to the orphanage as a new born baby. After his mom delivered and then abandoned him in the city’s hospital, an American women visiting with a team brought him to the orphanage.
“It has been good to grow up living with a lot of kids and with administrators. Growing up here there is always someone to play with. But I really wish I knew my family. It is always better to grow up with parents because then like me you will never have to miss them,” he said as he starred straight at the ground.
Like Andy, Josie, age 17, has lived at the orphanage since she was baby. After she was born her mother became ill. By the time Josie was two months old her mother passed away and Josie was brought here by her father. When I asked Josie what she believed to be the greatest advantage in her life being raised in an orphanage her reply was typical of most of our kids. “If I grew up with my dad he couldn’t have paid for me to go to a good school. But living here I was able to go to school.”
Trying to probe Josie for a response regarding the emotional, developmental, and spiritual advantages of both an orphanage and a home she interrupted me and said, “My dad used to visit me a lot when I was little but then he stopped. I wish he could come more to see me. It makes me really sad when he doesn’t come often because then I have to wonder if he is ok, if something happened to him. So yes, it is better to grow up with a family because kids can receive more affection and not have to worry about their parents.”
I also asked Papouch how he felt about growing up in an orphanage rather than a home. After thinking it over for a minute he said, “Sometimes it is bad growing up in an orphanage because you grow up with staff instead of parents.”
Djooly agreed with Papouch. Although Djooly graciously realizes the opportunities this orphanage has provided him with- the ability to go to a new school, meet and develop relationships with Americans, and even the opportunity to go to a University someday- he admits that even still he desperately misses living in a house with a mom and being a part of his very own family.
Evelyn, 18, came to the orphanage when she was 8 years old. After both parents passed away she can remember some person she didn’t even know taking her and walking her to the orphanage gates. She didn’t know where she was going only that she was walking to her new and unknown home.
“When I came to the orphanage I was very lonely, but it didn’t take long to make friends,” she said.
I then asked Evelyn what she believed her life would have looked like if that one stranger never walked her to the orphanage.
“Well, right now I am 18 and most girls my age who live on the outside of the orphanage are pregnant right now. I believe God is protecting me from this inside of the orphanage.”
Although Evelyn went on to acknowledge that the people in the orphanage are now her family she admitted that she misses being a part of a real family. “I don’t always get the affection I need from adults here like I would have in my own home with my own parents,” she said.
When I asked Willy the same question regarding orphanage verse home he said something that completely caught me off guard. Growing up in the orphanage for most of his life Willy has witnessed many kids get kicked out of the only place they can call home. Some were made to leave due to bad behavior while others were forced to leave once they reached a certain age whether they were prepared or not.
“We are kids,” Willy said. “Sometimes we don’t respect each other or adults and sometimes
we fight. We mess up a lot. But all of us kids here have so much fear to make any mistakes. We are scared that if we mess up we will be kicked out. And I don’t know for sure, but you do…is that what a family does? Did you fear messing up in your house because you thought your parents would kick you out? No. That is not what a family does. I really hate that we do that here. When we do that we are not a family.”
Rodely, 22, recalled the same memories as Willy. “The orphanage has a past of throwing kids out when they do something bad or when they get too old,” he said. “But many of the kids here don’t have family to go home to. They leave this orphanage and are all by themselves. It’s not good.”
Sitting down with each one of my kids I could tell that I was touching some sensitive spots. With many of them, I was talking about their past and their feelings for the first time. Even still, I asked permission from each one of them to continue. I wanted to ask them something that I knew would stir all our emotions. With the option to quit the interview on the table I proceed to ask them how they felt about the fact they never got the one thing they all admitted to wanting- parents.
As children, every one of them admitted to praying daily for someone to adopt them. Jimmy had his prayer answered last year when he learned that he was being adopted. When I asked him how he felt about being adopted this is what he had to say:
“When I saw Duchaine and Samuel get adopted I wanted that too because I knew Haiti didn’t have anything for me. When I was asked to be a part of a family in the U.S I felt so good. Now, every day I feel good. If I was not going to be adopted my life would probably not be good. If was able to stay here, finish school, go to a University, and get a good job my life would be good, but if I stay here I am not guaranteed that those things will happen to me. If I wasn’t being adopted my life wouldn’t be good because I wouldn’t have a mother and a father. Now that I am being adopted I am excited about my future. I know I can go to a University one day and become and engineer. Growing up in a house will be better because I will feel good and a part of a family. I will feel special because I have my own family.”
Being older, they rest of the kids I interviewed all realize that adoption is no longer an option in their lives but the pain still remains.
Jenny, 16, was 7 when her aunt brought her to the orphanage shortly after her mother passed way.
According to her, every time a team would come to visit the orphanage she hoped that one of them would adopt her.
“I never understood why nobody ever adopted me,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders. “If I had been adopted when I was little I could have had a family- a father and a mother in the same house. I could have had a family to be a part of and to help. I would know that I going to University one day. I would know that all I had to do was work hard and I could have a good career.”
Just like Jenny, Josie also wished for parents as a child.
“When I was a little girl I wanted someone to adopt me. Like for example, to replace my parents, people to call mom and dad. If I had been adopted I would have had parents and security with their love,” she said.
Knowing the reality of Haiti’s statistics when it comes to education and employment, Evelyn, Willy, and Djooly all acknowledged how different their lives would look like had they been adopted as children.
“When I was little and teams would come visit us I would hope that one of them would want to adopt me. It made me feel sad that nobody wanted me. If I had been adopted I would have finished high school by now and I would be starting college. But growing up in Haiti in an orphanage I am 18 and only in the 8th grade,” Evelyn admitted and then continued. “It is good for kids to be adopted because in Haiti there is a lot of poverty and it is good for kids when they can leave the poverty and go to the U.S.”
Papouch says that he used to pray all the time to be adopted. When I, Jillian, first moved to Haiti over a year ago I remember Papouch sitting at my kitchen table. He had recently heard the news about Jimmy getting adopted and he looked at me and asked, “If one day my sponsor asks for me to be their son will you say ‘yes’?” Interviewing him the other day I reminded him of this moment. Smiling he looked at me and said, “Yeah, I would really like to have parents.” “I know,” I said and gave him a big hug.
Even Djooly thought a lot about adoption as a kid despite the fact that his biological mother is still living. He said, “When I was little I sometimes thought about being adopted and that it would be such a good thing. If I had been adopted I would be in college now, but instead I am only in the 10th grade. If I grew up with a mom and dad they would love me unconditionally.” He then looked at me grinning and said, “No offence, not that administrators don’t love you, but it is not the same as a mother’s love.” “No offence taken,” I said.
As a child, Willy remembers a time when the previous administrators told him a family wanted to adopt him.
“When I was a little boy I wanted someone to adopt me a lot. When I was younger there was a family who wanted to adopt me and I was told they were going to. But after the directors told me once, I never heard anything again and I felt so bad. But now I know that if I take my school seriously my future will be good. I want to keep learning English and French. I want to be a language teacher one day. But if I had been adopted my situation would have been different. It is different in my county verses the U.S. The schools here are different. I could have learned more in the U.S and gone to University in the U.S.”
And even though all their responses broke my heart, it was Jetro’s answer to my question concerning adoption that made me speechless. When I asked him if he ever wanted to be adopted he paused and his eyes got really red. I could tell he was on the verge of tears so I gave him some space to answer on his own time.
“I know that I don’t have any parents and so I now I need to protect myself and be good so people will love me. If I act bad then people will just blame it on my not having parents and they won’t love me. Because I don’t have parents I have to earn my love. I don’t have a mom to love me just because I am her son. I have to be good to have love. So yes, I wanted to be adopted because then I would have someone to love me no matter what, but that never happened.”
Hearing all their answers concerning their lives being raised in an orphanage and their somewhat lost dreams of adoption I was probed to ask one more question. If I was going to live in Haiti and serve as caretaker of these kids-orphaned kids- what do they need in order to have the best life possible? Unless adopted, I can’t make up for the fact that they don’t have parents. And with adoption not a primary goal of the CHCH my conscience has greatly questioned how best to serve and raise these kids. Is an institutionalized, dorm setting meeting their family needs? Is raising kids with multiple caretakers verses family units developmentally appropriate? By raising these kids in an orphanage setting am I denying them the ability to fully develop physically, emotionally, and spiritually or am I stunting their potential growth? Is raising these kids with administrators and not parents fostering kids to believe they are only worthy of love if it is earned? And lastly, how can I make this a family and not just a place? Just as a “house” is supposed to be your “home” how can I make the “orphanage” a “family”? And that got me thinking- families are not just families while the kids are 0-18. They are families for life. Families have life long bonds and obligations to one another. If we are really going to be a family we need to be prepared to help them in their future not just their present. We need to do more than take care of these kids’ current physical needs- we need to love them-love them with love that does not have to be earned but freely given as if they were our own children.
But instead of just continuing to ponder on all these questions alone I asked my kids what they thought.
What do kids growing up in an orphanage, aside from parents, need the most?
All my kids’ answers were similar. Although said in different ways, they all pretty much said the same things. Kids being raised in an orphanage need love, God, respect, trust, education, and people to believe in them and help them in their future.
Being teenagers, every one of them was quick to mention the need for kids to have a University education. Well aware that the current unemployment rate in Haiti is 60% they know that the odds are against them as soon as they step outside of the CHCH gates. A University education, however, would put them ahead of the average work population and help guarantee them a job. Rodley, who will be graduating from secondary school this summer, gave his opinion on the matter:
“Kids growing up here need to know they have a future. They need to know that if they work hard now it will be for something later,” Rodely.
By the time all my interviews were finished I was emotionally drained. Not that I am not already emotionally drained everyday as is, but hearing the words of my kids felt like a stab to the heart. Although they are all happy teenagers, they all bear scares of their past. They all still grieve their losses and wonder why God never granted their prayers as children to one day have parents of their own. Despite the fact that they have been loved and cared for since living at the CHCH, an orphanage can never amount to a home. And no matter how amazing the administration and staff are here, we can never replace a mom and a dad.
Knowing this, how in the world could I possibly help them? Do I choose to feel helpless in
that no matter what I do for them it will never be enough? Or do I choose to believe? Believe that above all, no matter if they are adopted or not, God is their ultimate Father
. I know as a loving and gracious Father He never desired for Jimmy, Evelyn, Willy, Djooly, Kencia, Papouch, Jenny, Andy, Jetro, Rodely, and all my other kids here at the CHCH to be orphans. I know He created them to be under the loving care of a mom and a dad. Sin and death however have created orphans out of them. God did bring Jimmy new parents but what about the rest? What am I going to believe on behalf of them?
I have to believe that God’s Kingdom will soon come and make all things right in their lives. I have to believe that my children will one day have the chance to be united with families and be orphaned no longer. And I have to believe that the church will be God’s hands and feet to my kids. I have to believe these things. I have to believe on behalf of my kids, who because of their circumstances, do not believe this themselves. I need to believe on behalf of my little ones who are still searching, struggling, and praying for parents every time a team of Americans step through our gates. I have to believe that my kids are going to be ok. And I have to believe that they will always be loved, even if they are always orphaned.