By Crystal Wells
If I remember but one face of Haiti, it will be that of four year-old Ornesto, with his big eyes and a nose that crinkles when he laughs. He is small and delicate, with a frame more like a child half his age, and a warm, rambunctious personality.
Beyond his energy and spunk, Ornesto is a survivor. Buried alive in a rockslide, Ornesto was rescued, but at the cost of his left arm. His head is scabbed and wrapped in bandages and he lives in one of the pediatrics tents at University Hospital, where International Medical Corps has worked since January 14.
I am not unique in my love for Ornesto. He’s easily stolen the hearts of a hundred women who have walked through the pediatrics tents, but I am bound to share his remarkable story in order to fulfill a promise I made to his father before I left the country.
It is a wrenching tale.
Before the earthquake, Ornesto lived with others of his family in the mountains above a town called Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince. They are part of Haiti’s rural poor. His father, 65, supported four children, including Ornesto, from the little money he made from farming and slaughtering livestock. He never learned to read or write–which I discovered only after asking him to spell his name. He replied that he could not, so for lack of proficiency in French or Creole, I will spell his name like it is pronounced to my ear, Kesisan Claude.
Claude and Ornesto are rarely seen without each other. Where Ornesto is playing outside the pediatrics tent, Claude watches calmly and proudly in the shade. He sleeps on the floor beside his son’s cot and makes sure the bandages are changed on time. “We have no tent or anywhere to go,” Claude said from beneath the rim of his straw hat. “The earth crushed where we lived.”
In the minutes before the earthquake, Ornesto and his cousin, 5, went down into a ravine near his house to use the toilet. They were in the ravine when the earthquake hit and were pinned by falling rocks. Claude thought his son was dead, but still dug for six hours with a dozen others before they found Ornesto with his dead cousin crushed on top of his left arm. His head was badly cut and his arm mangled, but he was alive.
Without a car to drive to the nearest hospital, Claude carried Ornesto to Carrefour on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, getting a ride when he could, before an American came and transferred them to the University Hospital.
There Ornesto’s left arm was amputated and there they have lived since January 23rd. They are the only two living in Port-au-Prince. “His mother died,” Claude said. “The other children have scattered and live in other houses with friends and family. We are the only ones here.”
Claude worries about where they will go when Ornesto is discharged. He does not know how he will support his son after losing everything he had in the earthquake.
In sharing his tale, Claude exacted a promised: If I retold the story I must include that Ornesto, with his beautiful face and larger-than-life spirit, is up for adoption. Claude says he wants Ornesto to live a healthy life filled with opportunity and this is something that he is afraid that he cannot provide. Because of this, Claude hopes that someone will consider adopting Ornesto, even if that means giving his son up.
Please do not misunderstand me and think that I am advocating for Ornesto’s adoption. I simply had to share his story to shed light on what parents all across Haiti are praying for and dreading at the same time.
If anything, I believe the plight of these parents underscores a need not for more adoptions, but for livelihoods programs that create new income-generating jobs so that Haitian parents such as Claude must never face such a heart-wrenching choice.
In all the promises I have broken and kept, this one had to be honored, even if I am one of a hundred women to do so.