CALEBASSE, Haiti (AP) – The American missionaries arrived in a beige bus in the days after the earthquake, promising a better life for the children of this village in the mountains above Haiti’s capital.
The Idaho-based Baptist volunteers said they wanted to rescue the boys and girls they believed were orphaned by the Jan. 12, 2010, quake. But their effort to spirit away 33 children to the neighboring Dominican Republic failed when they were stopped by police and then jailed on kidnapping charges. It later came out that all the children had parents.
Two years on, residents of Calebasse describe a tempered sense of hope for their returned children even as they struggle against hardship. A humanitarian group has provided the families modest aid, and UNICEF has helped the children by building new schools.
“We still have problems but the children are able to eat and go to school,” said Lelly Laurentus, 29, a computer repairman who’s been unable to find work except as an occasional cab driver.
Laurentus, whose two daughters boarded the beige bus late that morning in January 2010, thought he was sending them to a better life.
A U.S. missionary accompanied by a Haitian translator had circulated among the homes of Calebasse, offering to bus children across the border following the quake, which officials said killed 314,000 people and left more than a million homeless. In the Dominican Republic, the children would find shelter and a school, the missionary promised.
Laurentus couldn’t resist the offer. His home had just collapsed in the earthquake and he was forced to sleep outside. Many Haitians of humble origins believe in lougarou, mythical werewolves that prey on children, and Laurentus is among them. He was terrified that in the dark, the shape-shifting beasts would fly from the mountaintops and attack his children as they slept.
“We had to confront the devils of night,” Laurentus said, standing outside his concrete house Tuesday as he waited for his daughters to walk home from school.
Everybody wanted a seat on the bus, a ready-made escape from the desperation that followed the quake, he said.
“If all the kids didn’t leave, it was because there wasn’t enough room on the bus,” said Laurentus.
Nevertheless, Laurentus felt ashamed for sending away his daughters, Leila, now 6, and Soraya, 5. A man should be able to support his family, yet he was powerless in the aftermath of the quake.
But the children never made it to the Dominican Republic. Police took them into custody and handed them over to SOS Children’s Villages International, a global group that aims to keep families together by providing support.
The Haitian government and foreign relief groups reunited the children with their natural-born parents in March 2010, a month after the “orphan rescue” grabbed international headlines amid an outpouring of legitimate efforts to help quake survivors.
The 33 were among more than 2,770 children returned to their families after the quake. At the time, UNICEF and other groups feared that child traffickers were taking advantage of the chaos and smuggling children out of the country.
Charges against all but one of the missionaries were dropped and they returned to the United States. Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, was convicted of arranging illegal travel under a 32-year-old statute restricting movement out of Haiti, but was later released and returned to Idaho.
SOS housed the children for a month as the government sought to locate their parents.
When their daughters were returned to them, Laurentus and his wife, Manette Ricot, 29, were given money from the organization to pay this year’s school tuition along with food like spaghetti, rice, oil, milk and sardines.
The leg up amounts to about $1,400 total, said Karl Foster Candio, a Haiti spokesman for SOS.
“I know this doesn’t resolve their problems but it allows them to strengthen themselves so they can have better lives,” Candio said.
Ricot earns some money as a tailor when she can find the work, and her husband drives a cab part-time.
“Even though the tuition is paid for, life is still heavy for us,” she said. “After two years, we’re fighting to survive, because everything was destroyed. It’s like we’re starting over.”
Ricot and her husband use that extra money to feed the girls breakfast and buy school uniforms. But even now, they would still welcome the chance to send the girls abroad, legally, if the opportunity presented itself. They face a harsh reality in Haiti, a country where about 60 percent of the population is either unemployed or underemployed.
“I’m the one who should be working, to help them,” said Laurentus, who was forced to close his shed-housed cybercafe. He sold his three computers to pay for construction materials to rebuild his home.
Despite a multibillion dollar reconstruction effort, most Haitians remain hostage to the country’s relentless poverty. But the nation has made key advances in school reconstruction since the earthquake, which crippled an already fragile education system, damaging or destroying almost 4,000 schools, according to UNICEF.
Now more than 80,000 children in this country of 10 million people have been able to return to hundreds of repaired and newly built schools, the aid agency says.
Just before dusk, the girls stepped foot in the dusty courtyard. They wore royal blue uniforms and white ribbons in their pigtailed hair.
“Ca va?” Leila whispered in French, planting cheek kisses on her father, mother and their friends.
Laurentus rubbed Leila’s chin and she eased her way under his arm. Soraya held onto his leg.
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