100213 Bathelmy and Sterlande
The name of the young man from Manresa is Bathelmy, or Bartholemew, and I commend him to you for your prayers and good thoughts. We found him at last, at the refugee camp this morning. His family name is Silencieux, he is eighteen years old, and he is left-handed. He used to be a construction worker. On January 12th, he was at work when the earthquake struck Haiti. The building he was in collapsed, partially burying him under cinderblocks and trapping his right hand under the corner of a heavy table. He was pulled from the rubble with his hand crushed, and learned that his mother was dead. The next few days were like a bad dream for him. His hand was bandaged by a Haitian doctor the next day, but the doctor had no medicines, no anesthetics, and no way to properly treat the injury. Bathelmy’s sister Sterlande took care of him, but they had very little water and less food. Bathelmy stayed at a place a short distance from the Manresa camp, but he came to the camp each day because Sterlande told him that the Catholic priests would send doctors to the camp as soon as anyone came to help. When our team arrived, he was the first patient we saw. Bathelmy remembered me, and Brother Jim, and Jake, and he remembered our efforts taking care of him and getting him to a hospital. The pain and swelling in his crushed hand eased soon after we treated him, but the surgeons were unable to operate on him for another two days because of the number of patients and the shortage of doctors. When they were finally able to operate on him, they amputated his hand. He survived the operation and the wound is healing appropriately. He no longer has pain in his arm and he will see a doctor again in five days. He was very, very grateful for everything Rubicon was able to do for him. “That [the first day Rubicon came to Manresa] was the first day I felt like I was alive again. I wish you would be here every day.”
Bathelmy’s sister, Sterlande, was at church when we arrived at the camp this morning. After we had talked to Bathelmy, he went with one of our interpreters to find her so that we could meet with both of them at the family’s shelter in the camp. While he was away, Brother Jim and I had a brief and very prayerful discussion of how we should proceed. We both wanted to help as best we could, but I was and am convinced that a simple gift of money would cause as many problems as it solved. Furthermore, both of us felt that Bathelmy still had not come to terms with the extent of his injury and its likely impact on his employment. So we developed a rapid and simple blueprint for a scholarship program. When we had asked him what he intended to do next, Bathelmy had said that he wanted to get more education, including foreign language schooling. Well, the most useful foreign languages in Haiti are English and Spanish. And, he clearly needed new job skills. The teachers at Brother Jim’s school make four US dollars a day, or $20 per week. So, it is possible to live a reasonable existence in Haiti with an income of $80 a month. Jim and I consulted together, prayed together, and settled on a proposal. If Bathelmy wanted to do it, I would provide him with eighty dollars a month as an educational stipend, so that he could continue to survive while finding an education. The curriculum would have to include English and Spanish language training, and a marketable trade or skill that didn’t require the use of two hands. Brother Jim would look in on Bathelmy occasionally, probably once a week. I would return in six weeks to review Bathelmy’s goals and discuss his progress in relation to those goals. I would contribute $240 (3 months’ educational stipend) and do a formal accountability review every 3 months plus additional visits as time permitted. If he made progress relative to an objective standard, I would continue to fund his education for another three months. If he failed to do so, we would at least have helped him survive through the rainy season.
Jim and I knelt together, prayed together, and got up, looked at each other, and shook hands. We were both agreed that this was a plan that could work, that was appropriate to the situation, and that could be scaled up or down appropriately as the situation developed. We then settled in to playing with the local kids, comparing foreign language training (speaking fluent cat, goat, rooster, and lizard with them) while Jim made tiny paper airplanes out of pages from his notebook, and showed the amazed kids how tiny sticks could dance on his fingertips. Frankly it was really cool. If you can’t get a magician for your six-year-old’s birthday party, call a Jesuit brother. Nobody will be disappointed.
We were winding down the lizard-and-stick show when Bathelmy got back. He introduced us to his sister Sterlande, and we went to their family shelter to talk. The shelter was simply a section of ground shielded by a tarp, which was held up by string and a few boards. It was perhaps ten feet wide and twelve feet long; the family’s worldly possessions were collected under a small sheet of plastic, and there was a section of used carpet on the floor, probably six by four feet. Sterlande offered us the only two chairs she had, which would have been good-sized for a fourth grader, but we declined and sat with her and Bathelmy around the carpet. We explained to Bathelmy what we were proposing. He was very surprised, but had no hesitation. He wanted to study accounting, he said, and he would start to study English and Spanish immediately. I promised to return in six weeks to see how his studies were progressing, and I gave him $240 in US currency. I emphasized repeatedly that this was NOT a gift, but an investment in his future, and in Haiti’s future. Frankly, Bathelmy seemed puzzled by the whole thing. It was as though his capacity for being surprised by anything had been shaken away by the earthquake. A building had fallen on him. Okay. His mother was dead. Okay. His hand was gone. Okay. A bearded white guy was giving him money to study English and accounting. Okay. We shook hands (left-handed), and he was ready to get to work.
Where Bathelmy was quietly stoic, Sterlande was quietly amazed. (We had already given her some money as a gift, for her and her family, as she was coordinating care for the needs of everybody including Bathelmy, and had essentially kept her brother alive through the days immediately following the earthquake.) We asked her what she needed, and whether we could do anything for her before we left. She looked like she had been granted one wish by a sweat-stained genie, and couldn’t figure out what to wish for. Jim joked with her a little bit (“He’s got a house in his backpack. Should he set it up for you here, or would you like it somewhere else?”) I swear, I could almost see the little flash of inspiration when Sterlande realized what she wanted to “wish” for. “I would like the same contract he is doing,” she said, indicating Bathelmy. “I went to school but had to stop at the ninth grade to take care of my family. I would like to study English, and Spanish.” What skill do you want to study, I asked her. She didn’t pause for an instant. “I want to become a lawyer.” Right, I said. I found her a blank notebook in my backpack, gave her my last “Dermafill” pen, and reviewed the details of the agreement. This is an investment in her future, and in Haiti’s future. Her studies begin today, and the money she is given is to take care of her personal needs so that she can devote the majority of her attention to her education. I counted out another $240 US (which tapped me out completely; I couldn’t have planned this better if I’d done it on purpose), and shook hands on the deal. Sterlande was quiet and intense in her gratitude. We thanked her for her hospitality, said our goodbyes to her and Bathelmy, and departed.
As we walked down the road from the camp, I felt like a thousand-pound weight was finally off my shoulders. Ever since arriving in Haiti after the earthquake, I have been so frustrated by my inability to do anything more than repair damage. There is so much potential in this country, so much good in the people here, and I have been powerless to do more than put a bandage on their suffering. Today, I feel as though I have finally been able to do something that may prove to be truly constructive. I do not know what Bathelmy or Sterlande will do with this opportunity. I do know that this is the best $480 I have ever spent. I’m not rich, but I can set aside $80 (er, $160) a month, to provide a temporary boost so that two young Haitians can attempt to lay the foundations of a better life for themselves and their country. They may, or may not, continue with this program. If they don’t, that is their choice, but at least they will have had the opportunity. If they do, it has the potential to make a genuinely positive difference in their lives and their future. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, it’s time for me to go home, spend time with my own family, and get back to work in the emergency room. But now I feel that I can do so with a clear conscience. I’ll take a nap, say goodbye to my friends, and drive back across the border. Assuming that nothing goes awry, I will be in Santo Domingo by morning, catch the JetBlue flight at 5:30 AM, and be home by tomorrow night (the good Lord willing).
As I finish this visit, I no longer feel overwhelmed by the amount of support that has been brought to bear on this situation. I feel lifted up by it, as though a wave is rising up under my feet. I don’t know what the next weeks and months have in store for my brothers and sisters here. But today I feel as though I have been able to put my fingertips on a possible solution for many of the young Haitians who have been most affected by the earthquake. I will pray, and work, and see what I find when I come back.