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Finding Homes for Haiti's Orphans

By Lane Hartill

Enock Vilma's phone never stops ringing.

This time, it's the Haitian police, calling about a 14-year-old; she's pregnant and homeless.

Enock Vilma

Enock Vilma, Catholic Relief Services' coordinator for our family tracing and reunification project in Haiti, visits children at an orphanage outside of Gonaives. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Next time, it's a contact who tells him about a 10-year-old whose father disappeared. She's staying with a kind old woman in the northern Haiti town of Gros Morne.

The little girl was a restavek or a domestic servant. She was so young when she started working, she can't remember how long she'd been with the family.

Enock, Catholic Relief Services' coordinator for a family tracing and reunification project, closes his phone, sighs and explains that this is normal—that he's become the go-to guy for children in need in Gonaives, Haiti.

Nobody knows how many children were separated from family members during the January 12 earthquake. Many jumped on buses and headed to the hometowns of family members, hoping to find a relative. Others were abandoned at orphanages after the quake because their parents couldn't care for them.

Most orphanages in Haiti are full of kids who have living relatives who can't afford to care for them. CRS found that 61 percent of children living in the 77 orphanages it supports have at least one living parent.

That's why CRS is working with our partners to reunite children with family members.

"Our work has shown that children are better off in a family setting than in orphanages or residential care facilities, and we are doing all we can to get children back with their families, including providing support when needed. Children need to be with their parents, and Haitian families deserve to be able to raise their children with dignity," says Mary Lineberger, who manages CRS Haiti's programs for interim care of orphans and vulnerable children.

CRS has trained staff and volunteers to identify children in need. Based in 4 departments across Haiti, CRS field coordinators follow leads and search out family members.

Because poverty is the main reason most children are abandoned in the first place, once family members are found, mediation, if necessary, is provided. Family members can also be given help starting small businesses. CRS continues to follow up with children and families to make sure the reunification process is succeeding.

'Kids Trust Him'

That's where Enock comes in. This father of 3 has a way with kids. There's something in his mannerisms, in the way he leans into them and lowers his voice. Kids trust him. Maybe it's his tone, or how he talks with them, not at them. Whatever it is, Enock's love for children stems from what happened to him on the day of the quake.

When the shaking started, Enock was in bed. An earlier motorcycle accident had shattered his left heel and broken his upper arm, which was fitted with an external metal brace. He was recuperating with the help of his 3 kids.

Suddenly, everything went dark. Enock couldn't move. After about a minute—during which time all Enock could say was "Jesus! Jesus!"—cinder blocks from the walls of his house fell on his arm and broke it again. Debris covered his face and he couldn't talk. The pain was unbearable.

"I'm suffocating! I'm suffocating!" his son screamed. He was trapped too. His son told him he could feel his knee being shocked by an electrical wire that had fallen. "I'm going to be electrocuted!"

God didn't save me for what I'd done, but for what I will do for others.
~Enock Vilma

"Can you imagine what it was like?" Enock says. "A father hearing his children scream and not being able to do anything."

After a few minutes he was able to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter, asking her to remove the blocks that were covering his face.

"Daddy's going to die," she screamed, as she ripped the blocks away from his face.

He could breathe again, but could do nothing for his children. That, he says, was the toughest part.

"[The earthquake] motivated me," he says. "I said to myself about my kids who were with me in the rubble: What's going to happen to them after my death, if that had happened? They're going to find themselves on the street, because they don't know anyone."

'The More You Give, the More You Receive'

Helping kids is part of Enock's DNA. His mother, Mercilia, who had 9 children, was known in the neighborhood as the Mother of Children. Mercilia's credo: The more you give, the more you receive. Kids in the neighborhood knew they could always find food at Mercilia's house.

That devotion to kids seeped into Enock. Now, when he sees kids separated from their parents—for whatever reasons—he's transported back to that time under the rubble.

"I automatically see my kids," he says. "For me it's a mission. Because I always tell myself: God didn't save me for what I'd done, but for what I will do for others. It's because he wants to entrust me with a mission."

That mission crystallized one day in St. Marc, a city not far from Gonaives, where he ran into a boy whose story he won't soon forget.

"Both my parents are dead," he told Enock. He said he was too young to remember any relatives or friends. Except one.

"My father came from Cap [Cap-Haitien] and my father told me a mechanic used to come and fix Dad's car. His name is Papalou. He lives near Barrier Bouteille."

"That's all I know," he said.

Enock Vilma after visit to orphanage

CRS trained staff, like Enock Vilma, to identify children who were separated from their families during the January 12 earthquake. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

"My mother is dead. My father is dead," he said. "I can't give you any other information. I just know there was a mechanic that used to come when our car broke down."

That's all the information Enock had to go on. It's often all he gets. While Enock searches for their family members and relatives, he finds prescreened host families or centers for the children.

A Port in the Storm

Like the one run by Gerda, a stout, boisterous former lawyer who runs a center in St. Marc called the Women's Federation of Lower Artibonite, a home for sexually abused women and girls.

Enock accompanied Celine (not her real name), a petite 14-year-old with her hair pulled back and stone-sober expression, to Gerda's center. It's a bright, 2-story building that's decorated with plants and nice furniture, a far cry from what Celine was used to living in.

"My doll, have you had anything to eat yet?" Gerda asked her. "Don't worry honey, you're home now."

Celine lived in Port-au-Prince with her mother. The day of the earthquake, her mother, a street vendor, left the house and never came back. Celine doesn't know if she died, was injured or just never made it home. Celine found her way to one of Port-au-Prince's many camps for displaced people.

Alone, without the care of an adult, Celine was vulnerable. A man raped her.

She bounced around Haiti for a few months, and finally ended up in Gonaives. A policeman saw Celine and called Enock.

In the center's living room, Enock sunk into Gerda's soft brown couch next to Celine, who was perched on the edge.

Enock asked her if she needed anything.

"Money for sandals and clothes," she said shyly.

Enock dug into his pocket and produced a few bills.

"Gerda's a good person," he told Celine. "She's going to take care of you. I'm not going to leave you either. I'm going to visit."

Celine relaxed a little, and shook her head in agreement.

"Life goes on," Enock told her."We're not going to leave you until we find a solution."

Lane Hartill is CRS' regional information officer for western and central Africa. Lane traveled to Haiti for CRS following the earthquake.

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