It is often that I’m asked, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” At times, I find that I have to explain and get into conversations with strangers who seem so curious and persistent.
“I’m a New Yorker” never seems to satisfy those who ask. “No really, what are you?” And those “Where are you really from originally?” questions would not cede until I’d say something. Those questions somehow made me feel as an outsider, as if I don’t belong and they quickly make me feel defensive. “Well, I was born in Haiti,” I’d answer. “Ah!” they would say. Occasionally, I find myself explaining where Haiti is. It never bothers me because it gives me a chance to give a little lesson in history and geography. Yes, I was indeed born in Haiti, located on the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola. By now, everyone would have known where Haiti is.
Out of the blue, the entire world is focusing on a place that was a paradise for millions of tourists, but now where only a handful of tourists date to venture and those who dare go are missionaries, relief workers, diplomats, and Haitians who just have to go there. A place already fragile, a place unable to pick itself, a place where inequality reigns supreme, a place where modern-day slavery is still practiced openly, a place where there is a class system like no other, Calcutta’s poor twin and where illiteracy is rampant. As if those were not enough for one group of gentle folks, Haiti got a surprise shake from right under it. The horrible disaster of historical proportion left over a million in the streets under the hot sun as witnesses and leaving thousands dead to be buried in mass graves.
Seeing the church where I had my first communion slapped me right in the face. I remembered as a little girl, walking towards the altar to receive the “body of Christ” for the first time. Whatever little I remember about Haiti came crashing into my mind as I scrambled to remember, but little was recognizable through the rubbles. What had not disappeared: are the people, the languages, the culture, and the taste of the food, the sweet and the bitter memory that I have of Haiti. Now, I have this unimaginable disaster to add.
In Haiti, there had always been a dysfunctional mix for extreme poverty, political chaos, fear of an equal partnership of a marriage of hell and paradise. But when the scale tipped and hell took over, leaving thousands dead on the streets and buried under rubles, it broke my heart, not because of the accident of birth, but of a human kinship. I’m sure, millions will agree with me.
Following the earthquake, as millions of others did, I watched as bodies after bodies appear, men and women and children with broken bodies, families destroyed. It was the first time in my life that I felt helpless to the point of uselessness. Seeing the picture of two-year-old Haitian toddler, Radjeson Hauseen Claude, broke my heart. The pain in his eyes was clearly visible, his blood-stained clothes and bruised body spoke so loudly that a million words could not make it clearer that the child had suffered physically and had been traumatized.
What more can be told seeing the reaction of Radjeson when he sees the face of his mother? That smile! It obviously took whatever strength he had, but he managed to smile. As millions would agree, I just wish there were more of those consoling smiles to soothe those who are left behind.