One of the happiest moments for me at Have Faith Haiti is my arrival each month. That’s because the kids spill out of classrooms or the dorm or come running from the field just to give me hello hugs.
But over this past weekend, I had a different sensation. A different set of hugs. It was Thanksgiving, a break from college, and here came the “little kids” I remembered, exiting cars and making their way up the porch in the November cold.
Here came Djouna and Junie-Anna, who used to hug my knees, now in their first year at college, dressed in sweatpants, their hair braided beautifully.
Here came J.J. and Kiki and Edney, who used to chase each other all over our concrete yard with a half-inflated soccer ball, now muscular and sporting whiskers, bounding up the steps.
Here came Manno, who used to study under the light of a single bulb, swatting mosquitos with a dull pencil, now wiping his feet and carrying his computer, which contained his work as a medical school student.
All told, eight young men and four young women — all of whom I used to refer to as “kids” at the orphanage — were walking through the doors of my home in Michigan, ready for a Thanksgiving meal.
Coming home for the holidays
For our four newest students, the weekend was an overwhelming experience. Their first Thanksgiving. We do it pretty large in our family, hosting all my relatives and my wife Janine’s relatives, plus friends from all over the country. This year, counting our Haitian guests, the count reached 81.
So, amidst the noise of that many people, we had to do some explaining about what stuffing was, why the sweet potatoes were mashed up, and why we called a certain dessert of chocolate chip cookies and whipped cream “Motown Mash.”
We had to introduce them to this uncle, this cousin, that longtime friend. We had to explain to Nahoum and Widley, two freshmen, that helping themselves to seconds — or thirds — was perfectly fine.
The first year we had any of our kids up for Thanksgiving, I worried about the abundance of it all. From a nation where hunger is a daily issue, where clean water is luxury, and where the violence and gang warfare make every day about survival, a feast like Thanksgiving, for the average Haitian, might seem incongruous.
But the idea behind the day is gratitude, and that is something our kids understand very well. So when Janine and I stood before our guests and talked about the countless things we have to be grateful for, and how much we miss the loved ones who no longer fill seats at the table, I saw the kids nodding slightly in recognition.
And when, on Friday, we took everybody bowling, and I watched the kids shriek as they knocked down the pins, I knew they were having fun.
And when we sat around watching a movie Saturday night, the kids flopped over the couch, the pillows, or the floor, I knew they felt at home.
And when we gathered for breakfast Sunday morning, and they helped me make two dozen eggs, and they asked if they could have them “Haitian style,” which is code for very dry and overcooked, I knew they brought Haiti with them, as they do wherever they go.
And when we sat around the table afterwards, all 12 of them, and they spoke about their challenges at college, the good, the difficult, the people who have embraced them and those few who have made them feel uncomfortable, it was honest and real. And in its way, was no different than the countless talks we had at the orphanage after nightly devotions, or on Saturday afternoons, or just sitting on a balcony in the humid Haitian evenings.
At one point we took an old photo from nearly 10 years ago and recreated it, subbing in our friends Jim and Jane McElya with Janine and myself. When I looked at how much the kids had changed, I felt a lump in my throat.
Going back home for good, to do good
My father used to sing a song called “Sunrise, Sunset.” I’ve mentioned this before. He sang this song at family events (he had a great voice, operatic, really, and was always being asked to perform) and I used to watch my older relatives cry at the lyrics, which I have mentioned in this space:
Is this the little boy I carried Is this the little child at play? I don’t remember growing older When did they?
I’m beginning to know why it made them tear up. I had that same sensation watching our kids make the eggs at Thanksgiving, or cracking jokes in Creole while eating around the table, or playfully shoving each other the way brothers and sisters do when they are happy.
All of these young men and women are heading back to Haiti when college is over. All of them will work at the orphanage for two years, as a way of giving back to the place that gave them wings.
And all of them look forward to it. Which may be the truest sign that they are growing up.
It is a privilege to watch. A joy to behold. I remember telling Nahoum, when he was six years old, that one day he could come with me to America, but only after he finished high school.
That night, I found him under the covers with a flashlight, reading the Bible. I asked what he was doing and he said “I want to finish high school by Wednesday, so I can go home with you.”
Well, it took longer than Wednesday. But he finished. He’s here. More importantly, he has a future.
He has a future, because, thanks to all of you, he is getting educated. He is part of the one percent of Haitians who ever go to college, and even less than half of one percent who get to do it in America, and come home for Thanksgiving break.
When we said finally goodbye Sunday afternoon, it was snowing outside. We were about as far from Haiti as you can get. But it many ways, we were all still there, exchanging hugs, grateful for the day, and filled with hope.