Haitian Orphans Adjust To Life After Earthquake

A massive January earthquake orphaned tens of thousands of children and wreaked unspeakable devastation in Haiti. CNN's Soledad O'Brien offers their stories in the new documentary, "Rescued," which premiers this weekend on the cable network. O'Brien talks with host Michel Martin about the film, and the journey of Haiti's displaced children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program we'll tell you about plans to hold a referendum on Puerto Rico's status. Now it sounds like a dry technical issue, we'll tell you why it's actually a bare knuckles political fight. We'll have that conversation a little later in the program.

But, first, to Haiti. January's devastating earthquake focused international attention on the plight of Haitian children, specifically the orphans who are now even more numerous than they were before. But even before the earthquake, thousands of Haitian children were living on the margins of that fragile society. They're called orphans, although the meaning of that term is broad in Haiti.

Many of these children's parents are still alive but unable to care for them. Some live on the streets, others are sent away to live as servants in other people's homes, a condition that for many amounts to slavery. A new documentary explores the lives of Haitian orphans and the people who care for them both before and after the quake. It's called Rescued and it's hosted and reported by CNN correspondent and anchor Soledad O'Brien. And she's with us now, welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (CNN Correspondent): Hey, thank you, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, CNN, as of course you know, has been much recognized for its commitment to covering the Haiti story. They were one of the first teams of journalists to make it in. And you, of course, went in and reported that story. And I just wondered, how prepared were you for what you found there, especially with the conditions that many of the children were living in.

Ms. O'BRIEN: I had no idea. I had never been to Haiti before the earthquake and a lot of my experience in Haiti was constantly seeing things and then they sort of have to process in your head. Wed see trucks go by that were stacked full of bodies and you literally would say, wow, that looks like a truck full of and then you'd realize as you were sort of processing, oh my gosh, that's what it is.

And the same thing with the children. You'd go to these slums and they'd be massive and sprawling literally on a garbage heap, literally with sewage running through. There is no sewage treatment facility in Haiti. And you'd see, you know, animals and children and garbage and people cooking all sort of mixed in together. So, and just the sprawl was incredible. See, it was very clear that the problems existed among Haiti's children, orphan children and street children long before the earthquake and that the earthquake had only exacerbated the problems.

MARTIN: How was it decided, or how did you decide that you would focus specifically on children, particularly the children in the most precarious circumstances?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I guess as a reporter doing the live coverage when the news broke, we all tried to get into Haiti as best as we could and finally I was able to hitch a ride on the chopper that belonged to the president of the Dominican Republic. So, we flew into the DR and then they gave us a lift in. And so, we would cover a number of stories, but by the second day I was already sort of covering the orphanage beat and there are so many.

And their stories, the plight of those kids was terrible. Many of them had no food. And the stories just seemed so sickening and so sad. So I knew that those and they were resonating with a lot of the people back in the United States. So we decided that this was a story that could really be fleshed out into an amazing documentary to take a look at the plight of Haiti's orphan children after the earthquake.

MARTIN: To that point, you follow this missionary family called the Manasseros who run the Lighthouse Orphanage. And I just want to play a short clip of Susette Manassero talking about the work in Haiti. And the fact that a lot of these kids have some skepticism about whether these folks were here, really, to help. Let me just play it. Here it is.

Ms. SUSETTE MANASSERO (Lighthouse Orphanage): I remember early on when we first came here, the original boys that we had, one of them said, when things get tough, you guys are going to leave us. And I'm like, no, we're not. We're not going to just take off just because we can.

MARTIN: What was driving this family?

Ms. O'BRIEN: For the Manasseros, their daughter, Ariana, had just fallen in love with a kid that she wanted to sponsor in Haiti. She, you know, one of those, I'm going to give $10 a month to pay for a child's education, a boy named Don. And she, as an eight year old, talked her parents into taking her to Haiti. They were very active in their church. And so it was something that was easy for them to do through the church.

And when they got there, they realized that their mission could be working in Haiti. So, sort of through their daughter's eyes, because of, really, her connection, they decided and then they also ran into a lot of orphans who desperately needed them. And they felt like, wow, we're being called. Our daughter, the child shall lead the way - to quote the Bible. And then also the desperate need of the orphans around them who just lost their place in Haiti. So they needed an orphanage. And so they decided to stay.

MARTIN: You focus specifically on two children who were helped by the Lighthouse. One is a young girl named Cindy Jun(ph) who was abandoned by her parents. The other is a teenager named Mackinson Olessey(ph) and he was there's no way to put a fine point on it, he was in essence a child slave and he told you through an interpreter about the woman who bought him before he made his way to the orphanage. Let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of clip)

Mr. MACKINSON OLESSEY: (Through translator) I wasn't happy. When she would beat me, I would run so she wouldn't beat me. She would hold me and beat me. When she was finished, I would run away. She would beat me because I didn't bring any money to her.

Ms. O'BRIEN: He was nine years old. Nine years old.

MARTIN: Nine years old.

Ms. O'BRIEN: And his sister was six. And his father sold the two of them to this woman, a stranger for $12 U.S., $12. (unintelligible) is a massive problem child slavery is this massive problem in Haiti. And I think what's been interesting for me in examining this issue is to see, as people focus on the rebuilding of Haiti, they're going to have to confront this problem. I mean, it's all based on poverty of a nation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with CNN anchor and correspondent Soledad O'Brien. She's telling us about her latest documentary "Rescued." And it focuses on the plight of orphans in Haiti, orphans broadly defined, its not just children whose parents are no longer alive, it's children whose parents couldn't care for them before the earthquake.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And she focuses on the children at a particular orphanage called The Lighthouse. Now, this is particularly timely because there's a real tension, it seems to me, that has emerged after the earthquake about whether it's best for the children to stay in Haiti or whether they should be free or people outside of the country should be free to adopt them. And...

Ms. O'BRIEN: I think that's such a specious argument in a way. You know, something like 300 adoptions were done last year. I mean, it's such a tiny number. It literally is a drop in the bucket. First of all, logistically, you cannot adopt out 400,000 children. It's just not going to happen, so there's sort of no point in even pursuing it as a question.

And then I do think there is sort of moral question about can you help a country long term by removing all of its children? And the answer anyone will tell you is no.

MARTIN: But it seems to me that there's a bias, though, on the part of many of the caregivers, both the NGOs within the United States and those operating within Haiti, that are biased against adoption regardless. In fact, you spoke to a Haitian man who runs an orphanage who just told us he thinks it's wrong for kids to be adopted out of the country.

But you also interviewed many of the children who have a different point of view about that. And I just wanted to play just a couple of clips with some of the young men that you spoke with. Here it is.

(Soundbite of clip)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) My dream is to fly over America so I (unintelligible) go to America and go to school.

Unidentified Child #1: It's really it's (unintelligible). There's nothing going to happen to us. We don't have future.

Unidentified Child #2: If we stay here, we're not going to anything in the world.

MARTIN: Well, you know, what about that, Soledad?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Absolutely. To me, it's what makes the story so compelling and interesting is the nuance in that. Opportunity is not in Haiti. You know, they're being very realistic. The unemployment rate in Haiti was 85 to 90 percent before the earthquake. That's pre-earthquake. Forty percent of the people had the most rudimentary health care.

So when these children say the only way to have an opportunity is to leave, they're probably very, very right. So when people look for the answer about what to do, how do you educate, how do you give the kids a chance? Which they both desperately want and deserve, the answer has to be an infrastructural answer to help all the kids, not just the 300 who are lucky enough to get attached to a family who can raise them and give them great opportunity in the United States.

MARTIN: The documentary takes a look both at the immediate crisis of the earthquake and, as you mention now, it asks some of the tough questions about what to do in the long term. But I don't want to let that immediate crisis go without talking about just how dire some of the circumstances were. And I just want to play a short clip of just the extreme hardship that some of these babies were facing in the immediate aftermath of the quake when you were there. And I just want to play a short clip from that.

(Soundbite of clip)

Ms. O'BRIEN: What have they been feeding the babies?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man: Wet rice.

Ms. O'BRIEN: For a newborn baby, it's eating a little rice mush?

(Soundbite of crying baby)

Ms. O'BRIEN: It gives the babies chronic diarrhea. They are desperate to get out. So the next day, these orphanage workers load 100 children into overheated buses and vans and head for the U.S. embassy.

MARTIN: You know, I don't want to give it all away, but this was very as you mentioned, you are a mother. I don't think you have to be a mother to have been challenged by those circumstances. But I do want to ask...

Ms. O'BRIEN: ...it's terrible.

MARTIN: ...how difficult was it for you to maintain your composure seeing these very young children suffering this way?

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, I think that the part in which sort of being a mother pops into play is that you look at these babies and you think, if this were my kid, we would be in the emergency room at NYU Medical Center yesterday, you know. I know the level of dehydration, illness that this child faces. Those kids are positioned to die. They were positioned to die. They were, you know, as we all know, babies who get diarrhea for long enough can dehydrate and that can kill them.

And youd see that not just at that orphanage, a lot of the orphanages. At one point were putting an IV in a one-year-old. And the doctor kept saying, well, I think she's got a couple hours left, meaning, till she dies. And we're trying to help her put an IV in. And I thought, oh my god, I'd never had to - you know, occasionally I had to put my kids in a hold to get them to take some Tylenol, but I've never had to, like, with a clock ticking, you know, insert an IV to save a kid's life. It was just crazy.

The circumstances are so dire. The poverty is so intense. And the parents give up their kids because they think there's a chance. There's a chance. I mean, people would offer me their kids. You know, are you going back to America, will you take my child?

MARTIN: You mean, they'd literally try to get you to take their child?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Four times. Four times. Hands out, please, take my child. And youd think, god, how much must you love your kid to jump at the opportunity to hand that child off to someone you think can raise them in another country? I mean, you know, it just it's, as a parent what you really feel is, like, wow, what would I do, you know, if there were some disaster and there was a way out, but it was a way out just for my kid and not me? Would I hand my daughter over? Would I hand my sons and my other daughter over and say, take her and give her a good life because who knows what's going to happen tomorrow here?

MARTIN: Soledad O'Brien is an anchor and correspondent for CNN. "Rescued" is her latest documentary. It's about the vulnerable children of Haiti, the most vulnerable children of Haiti, both before and after that devastating earthquake. It debuts this Saturday, May 8th. And she joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Soledad, once again, thank you so much.

Ms. O'BRIEN: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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