Rivette led me by the hand, pointing out the aspects that she felt are the most important to know. We’d only just met, but she had a sense of the importance of visitors to her home, and there was a formality to the proceedings I hadn’t expected. I stopped to stare at a red plastic table surrounded by tiny chairs, each a different color. She tugged at my hand, pulling with the entirety of her body weight, urging the tour on by force of will. I was obliged by good manners and the laws of physics to comply.
We ascended a set of concrete steps to the second floor of the building and entered a room filled with toys, all neatly placed in shelves and cabinets that ring the playroom. With my free hand, I picked up one doll before I was exhorted by the tiny tug to continue on. At last we reached the end of what I thought was a tour, but was really a journey with a destination in mind.
“This is my bed,” Rivette said proudly, beaming up at me with a smile that is missing a front tooth, “and this is my bunny, Francois.” She finally let loose my hand and held up a tan and white stuffed rabbit with cartoonishly large, floppy ears. Francois was worn with love, but clean and well-cared for, just like Rivette.
“It’s the best bed in the place.” I smiled back at her in the room of eight identical bunk beds.
Rivette is one of 60 children who live in an orphanage that we work with regularly. When children are abandoned in the hospital for one reason or another, Renmen is a place that cares for the children. Renmen means “love” in Creole, and there is abundant love for all the children who live there. Mama, the founder of Renmen, supplies that love and instills it in the staff that work with her. The young adults help care for the younger children both as a required chore to earn their keep and as a social exercise to strengthen the familial bonds between the children without living parents.
In every country I have worked in, I’ve heard horror stories of corrupt or mismanaged orphanages that siphon off funds donated for the care of the children and leave them with little more than rags to wear and gruel to eat — modern depictions of Oliver Twist. I have even seen orphanages that are not corrupt but which lack the resources to properly care for the kids, who are often covered in dirt and have parasites in their bellies.
Today, we work closely with Renmen, New Life and Eyes Wide Open, which are shining examples of people truly dedicated to the cause of raising abandoned children. The children are clean and well-fed, loved and educated in a communal setting. They go to school in the neighborhood where they live, integrating with the children of the suburbs of Port-au-Prince.
Some of the children are in the process of being adopted by well-meaning expatriates and will eventually be raised in the United States, but most of them will continue to live at Renmen until they can strike out on their own. To succeed, they need the support of the Port-au-Prince community, including local expatriates like me.
I am too young to play the role of father-figure to the 20-year-olds, so instead I opt to be their older brother. After my first visit, we take some of them to the beach for a day of lobster, swimming and one single beer. I take another pair to a concert, but am surprised to find it’s an old-fashioned Caribbean music with a full brass band, which bores them. I am tragically unhip, closer to father than brother.
One older girl is interested in pursuing medical school and I give her career advice (“Medicine is the best profession!”), as do the dozen other American doctors who surround her when she visits the hospital. I know that my influence and aid is fleeting, and the true strength of Renmen comes from Mama, the staff and the children themselves. Each of the older kids has an interest in a different subject area, although Mama’s career as a nurse is demonstrated through the predilection towards vocations in the sciences and health care.
On the day of my first visit, I snapped a picture of the red plastic table and Rivette fell in love with the miniature screen on my phone. She watched me snap one more, and then grabbed the phone from my hand to take a few dozen of her own. The 7-year-old figured out how to shoot videos and turned the camera on her friends.
The phone disappeared for a while as I walked the grounds meeting as many of the children as I could. We spoke mostly in Creole, but the older ones tried English, eager to practice their education. Not one of them had a belly filled with parasites or a fungal infection on their scalp. Several were doing their homework on a Sunday, and others were braiding hair. We played for the rest of the afternoon and I wanted to take each and every one of them home with me, but I can barely care for myself and will have to wait until I am less brother and more father, or perhaps more man than boy.
That night, I sifted through the dozens of pictures and videos that Rivette took, deleting the shots of the ground, the sky or her finger over the lens. What was clear even through the prism of a cheap phone camera was that the children are well-cared for and happy despite the situation that life has left them with. My heart breaks for each of their stories, but fills with joy at the love, or renmen, that they know every day.
Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Miami’s Department of Medicine and works part time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.