Judelin Meritus – Part 1

Judelin Meritus – Part 1

Judelin

August 2012

‘And what’s your name?’ I asked, turning to the next boy on the road. He was short and thin, wiry, with a beautifully dark complexion. A toque covered his head. An amused smile lifted one side of the boy’s mouth. ‘Judelin. Mwen rele Judelin,’ he responded. He stared steadily at me, clearly trying to figure out why this crazy white girl was sitting on the side of the street with him. He didn’t say another word to me but continued to stare, perplexed.

That night, I slept in the roundabout, and when I woke up at around 6 a.m., vendors were beginning to line the streets. I saw only a few of the boys. Others had wandered off in search of somewhere hidden to sleep. Judelin sat guard, along with Junior. I pulled myself off the concrete. The street boys looked at me in disbelief and talked among themselves. I wiped the dirt off my pants, and began to walk in the direction of the Safe House. The boys ran up to me, taking hold of my arms and insisting that I couldn’t walk home alone. ‘We won’t allow it,’ they told me. Judelin was silent but walked alongside the others.

Each night after that, I walked over to the street corner where I’d slept, and met with my new friends. Judelin was there almost every night. He stood beside Evenson, or Crizilov… he always seemed to be with someone else, like a wolf in a pack. Each night I saw Judelin, yet he rarely spoke to me. Sometimes he refused to acknowledge me. Misinterpreting his silence as hostility, I assumed he wasn’t interested in building a friendship yet. I focused on the other boys.
One evening I welcomed some of the boys into the Safe House: Evenson, Crizilov, Judelin and Junior. At this time I was living on my own in the house, with my friend Jamie. Even then, Judelin didn’t speak. He said a simple, ‘Mesi,’ if I gave them food. His stare persisted whenever I spoke, as though he was weighing each word. Now and again I brought mattresses onto the covered balcony and allowed the boys to sleep over.

A few nights, Judelin and Evenson showed up drunk. Judelin ignored my warnings about drinking and smoking. In fact, he would often smoke in front of me in an act of defiance. I felt him set up a guard between us, keeping his distance emotionally as I was white. He refused to believe I could truly relate to them. One moment Judelin seemed to let down his guard, visiting my home, walking like a bodyguard beside me, yet the next moment he remembered those assumptions about me. It was as though he snapped back from the temporary dream that this white girl could be a real friend, that he could trust her. Judelin would sit beside me as we chatted in the evenings, but would then put down other children for holding my hand or calling me mom. He told his younger brother not to cuddle me. ‘‘You’re cuddling her like she’s your mom. She’s white. She can’t be your mom. Stop it!’’

‘Go back to your country,’ Judelin said to me a few times, ‘You’re white. You’re not Haitian. This isn’t your home.’ His words stung. This was one of the most hurtful things I’d ever heard. This boy refused to believe that I was here to help; he refused to believe I could understand the suffering of his nation. ‘‘You can’t chew gum,’’ he said to me one night. ‘‘You’re not Haitian. I’m Haitian. Only I can chew gum.’’

Despite this hostility, Judelin continued to hang around each night. When the other boys came to the Safe House, so did he. We spoke on occasion and I learned he wanted to return to school. He’d been in school once, Judelin proudly told me. He wrote his name for me. His father had died and that’s when he stopped, as mother couldn’t put him through school so he left. He likes living on his own.

One night another boy was aggressive with me and I told him not to come to the Safe House again. I stopped visiting that boy. Judelin noticed this but I didn’t tell him or the others any details.

The next day, I visited the boys to find that Judelin was in jail. His friends told me about it. ‘‘Are you going to bring him food?’’ Evenson asked. They don’t give prisoners food or water. Police officers beat the street boys even when they’re not in prison, and often hold people based only on suspicion, sometimes for weeks, until a court case is held or someone decides to let them go. The street boys, often held in the barren concrete stalls, have no one to visit them. No one to plead their innocence. No one who’s notified if they are in trouble. No one to bring them food or water, unless the other kids in the streets have a successful day of begging and want to share. I had Evenson buy some pates and water, and we went to visit Judelin.

He sat, drained, leaning in the corner of a pee-stained concrete stall. A small window in the corner of the stall allowed mosquitos to harass him. Three other young men shared the stall with Judelin. Police officers watched TV outside the stall, glancing over as we handed him the food. ‘Mesi,’ was all he said, slowly reaching over. Judelin didn’t stand. He seemed exhausted as he slouched against the wall and guzzled down the water Evenson gave him. ‘What did you do?’ I asked. He’d cut another boy with a razor. ‘Why did you do that?’ Judelin stared at me and half-heartedly shrugged his shoulders. ‘He was fighting for you!’ Evenson joked, laughing. ‘No. Is that true?’ Judelin’s eyes seemed distant and he slowly nodded. I didn’t believe him.

Leaving the prison, I went to tend to the boy who’d been hurt. He was sitting on the side of the road with a small cut on his throat. It wasn’t serious but he had a slight fever so I brought the boy some medicine. The next day, this boy seemed back to normal. The victim just happened to be the boy who’d been aggressive with me. Another night, after Judelin had been released, he and several other boys walked me home. Berwens, Judelin, Izaac and Crizilov were on either side of me when we noticed a suspicious man on my tail. It was quite late. I was glad to have the boys at my side. “That man’s a thief,” the boys warned me. ‘‘He was just released from prison. Don’t let him know where your home is.” It awed and saddened me that these boys, some only 13 years old, were the ones protecting me…that I was the one who’s safety was a concern, when they were all to be sleeping in the streets where this criminal freely roamed. I didn’t walk straight home, but instead the boys left me at a secured hotel where I waited an hour before going home.

When I saw the boys the next day, they proudly told me they’d beaten up the man who’d stalked me! This was the method they’d learned for protecting each other. I tried to explain that while I appreciated that they were looking out for me, this was NOT the way to go about it. Again I was surprised that Judelin had felt compelled to do so, as he made sure to show no attachment to ‘the white girl’.

Silent and mysterious. That is how I would describe Judelin during the first few months of our interaction. Though he showed little emotion, it was easy to see that when he was angry, Judelin resorted to aggression. He put on an ‘emotionless-tough-guy’ act that was hard to break through. A lot of the other boys were scared of Judelin, which is why they walked alongside him. Crizilov began living in the Safe House, but this created issues as he was the only one of the street boys who was taken in at that time. Jealousy, understandably, spread among the others as soon as they found out. Judelin treated Crizilov like a traitor – and beat him each time he left the house.

“The streets are mine.” Judelin yelled one night. He was enraged as I stretched out on the roundabout where he so often slept. “You can’t stay here. The streets are not for you. We don’t have anything, but the streets are ours. Your house is for you. Go to your house.” Yet any opportunity he had, Judelin embraced the security of staying in our Safe House. If there was one night I was late visiting the street boys, Judelin and Evenson would look for me. It was encouraging. I didn’t go a day without Judelin using his spare change to buy phone minutes and call me. He may have given me the cold shoulder, yet would call me hours later to make sure I’d come visit.

On the rare occasion Judelin did express himself to me, I knew it meant a lot. Every bit of information, every opinion he shared with me was a step in him reaching out, a tiny release of trust.

I explained that education could help Judelin change his future. “Where do you want to be in 5 years? I don’t want you to be on the streets then,” I told him. He sat and had a serious conversation with me. He took in what I said, though still didn’t speak much. The other boys expressed interest in learning job-oriented skills: Ceramics. Mechanics. Driving. They all seemed to know what they wanted to do. Judelin, when asked what he wanted to learn, sat silently for a moment. He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he told me, “I’m just a kid. I want to play soccer and go to school. That’s all.”

This surprised me. Of all the street boys, Judelin was the last one I’d expect to show this vulnerability, this longing for childhood. He was the one insisting he was fine on his own, that he was ‘all grown up’ and didn’t need anything from anyone. Indeed he loved soccer, and was skilled at it. When the boys started attending practice at Lionceaux soccer league each Saturday, Judelin thrived. For that morning, he left his shielded independence behind and joined the team in his favourite game. He ran alongside the same boys he’d threatened and beaten up a day earlier. As he lead the team, Judelin look over and make sure I was watching. This was his chance to shine.

When Evenson, Crizilov, Wathson and most of the other boys, including Judelin’s little brother Erby, had either been reunited with their families or had started to live in the Safe House, Judelin was still in the streets. His aggressive behaviour had prevented him from joining the Safe House, and he insisted he didn’t want to anyway. Yet being one of the only boys left in the streets, Judelin became the one I visited each evening. He called more often. He opened up to me a bit more.

One day he told me that he had his birth certificate. I asked if I could photocopy it, in preparation for registering him in school. To my surprise he agreed.

When Judelin retrieved his birth certificate from his aunt’s house, we took a walk to have it photocopied. He said that he liked walking (as I did) and didn’t want to waste my money taking a motorcycle taxi. So we walked from copy shop to copy shop, finding that power was out or the machine wasn’t working. Taking an hour, we walked downtown until we had success and printed the certificate. We walked most of the way in silence, but Judelin began to warm up to me so I started asking him questions, making sure to share about myself too. Again he seemed to study me and my words. He’d been in the streets of Les Cayes for years and knew them well. He asked me a few questions. He found it amusing that I chose to walk when I could afford a taxi. Yet he seemed to understand. In the middle of our conversation, Judelin froze. Hesitating, he said, “I don’t like it when you make me talk too much.” I nodded and said I understood – I felt the same way at times.
Hot and cold. The pattern continued with Judelin: one night he’d completely ignore me as I went to visit him, and the next he’d be calling to ask why I wasn’t there. On occasion I’d treat other boys to dinner in a restaurant, but Judelin always refused to enter, embarrassed by his dirty clothing. I wasn’t sure if Judelin wanted to be friends or wanted my help, but I took what I could get. At times he was open. He didn’t speak often but in his eyes, one could see that Judelin was constantly thinking, analysing the words and actions of others. Or remembering. I was always grateful for a glimpse into Judelin’s train of thought. I soon realized that Judelin felt left out.
On nights when I visited Judelin in the streets only to have him walk away, I told him I didn’t understand. I was coming to visit him specifically, so did he want me to stop? Judelin would simply shake his head, “You’re lying. You’re not here to see me.” He didn’t say anything more. Yet if I left, Judelin would often call to ask where I was. One night, Judelin explained to me, “You’re not here to see me. You always talk to the others – you never talk to me.” Once again I was surprised. Judelin was right: I didn’t speak to him as much as the other street boys. But that was because I didn’t think he wanted to! After that night, we began speaking more. He seemed to believe that I really wanted to earn his trust. That I wanted to learn about him as an individual.
One night, as Judelin was still in the streets, his brother Erby had an accident. Erby had fallen while biking. I was returning from Port au Prince at the time, and was minutes away as Erby was rushed to the hospital. Stopping by the street corner, I found Judelin and told him his brother was hurt. Judelin hopped on a motorcycle with me and we rushed to the private hospital downtown Les Cayes. Four hours later, little Erby was put under anaesthetic and operated on. Judelin sat on the bench outside the hospital this entire time. Hospitalized for the week following surgery, Erby was lethargic and came out of the anaesthetic very slowly. Judelin visited him each day.
Judelin is 16. His birth certificate was written in beautiful, swirling calligraphy. When Judelin began living in the Safe House, he made clear efforts in holding back his aggression. He kept his room clean. He showered twice a day, washed his clothes every opportunity he had, and insisted he needed shampoo as well as soap – though his head was shaved. Judelin and some of the other boys advised me that we needed structure. He said that if anyone stole, or beat on other kids, we HAD to kick them out. I reminded Judelin that he was one of the most aggressive boys there. “Yes, even me,” he said, “If I fight, kick me out.” Once again he surprised me.
“If you give someone a gift, you have to give it to all of your children. You can’t give something to one person while the others don’t get anything. That’s not how it works.” These boys truly had good advice. They understood their own behaviors, and wanted things to work. They wanted to get along. I recalled one afternoon when I’d left a lunch meeting. I’d saved the meal for Crizilov, who I knew had been having a rough couple of days with his family mistreating and rejecting him. As I brought the boxed lunch over to Crizilov, who stood on a street corner, I saw Judelin beside him. Judelin hadn’t been talking to me, but I felt bad that I didn’t have anything for him. I assumed that Crizilov would share with him. I handed the meal to Crizilov. Talking to Judelin later that day, he was upset. “You brought Crizilov food,” he accused me. I was confused; Judelin didn’t seem to mind when he was the only one I brought food to. “I only had one meal,” I explained.
“But I was hungry too.” Judelin said. I felt as though he’d punched me in the stomach. He was right. “If you don’t have enough for everyone, don’t give it at all.” I’d seen this dilemma with aid on larger scales in Haiti. How do you hand out 10 water bottles to a community of 500 dehydrated, impoverished people? And won’t the 10 people who do receive the water be thirsty in a couple of hours? As complex as the situation is, these boys have something to teach us. We need to see the big picture – from their perspective. How do we give everyone a chance to clean water, a chance to eat? We teach them to obtain it on their own. We give them a fair chance.
Things had been going well in the Safe House. Judelin hadn’t been fighting or aggressive in weeks – he knew I wouldn’t tolerate it. Yet as I was in a meeting in Port au Prince, I received a call. I needed to return to the Safe House as soon as possible. Judelin had thrown a rock, upset by a visitor who’d beaten his friend in the past and had spoken offensively about the boys. The police became involved, and said they’d arrest any street boy they found. All the boys in the Safe House fled. It was a nightmare.
I didn’t know where my kids were, or what was happening to them. No one had been hurt, yet the police were on a search for any street child, just because one of them had thrown a rock. I knew Judelin wouldn’t be allowed back in the Safe House with the other kids, but was hurt and worried that all other street children were being judged as well. They are individuals. They are not a separate breed of mankind, and they are not a group with identical personalities, backgrounds or thoughts. Furthermore, they are children.
As I arrived back in Les Cayes, I met the street boys at a hidden location. One by one, they all showed up. Judelin was the first. He stood, hesitantly, not looking directly at me. My heart was breaking – during the 6 hour drive from Port au Prince, so many thoughts had raced through my head. I didn’t know what would happen to these boys. I was trying to figure out where they would sleep that night, as the Safe House would be checked by police. I was hoping they weren’t being beaten. I worried I wouldn’t see them – that they’d be hungry and cold and alone that night. The unknown is scary.
Relief overwhelmed me as I saw Judelin and his brother Erby. When you’ve felt such strong concern for someone; when you’ve frantically been unsure of their safety and longed to see them….actually seeing them is an overpoweringly emotional experience. To see Judelin avoiding eye contact hurt. “Judelin,” I breathed when he walked in. He glanced up, a pained look on his face. Remorse. “Come here!” I said, hugging him. Next Evenson came. Erby sat on my lap as we spoke to the boys. They slept outside that night, but were all together and fed.

The next day, most of the children returned to the Safe House – with the exception of Judelin and Oblanco. The police were searching for these two boys. I soon found out that Oblanco, Judelin and Evenson were in jail. Police had found the boys, and while the others ran, Judelin stopped when the officers told him to. They picked Judelin up and threw him on the ground, smashing his face. An officer kicked him. One of them men abusing Judelin was not even a police official. Evenson hadn’t been involved in the rock incident, yet police decided to charge him because he was friends with Judelin. The staff at the Safe House cried. They were so concerned and hurt that these boys were being beaten and forced to sleep on the concrete in their own urine.
I stepped into the prison, taking deep breaths. As the boys saw me, they stood quickly and leaned against the bars. My heart stung as I saw their fallen shoulders, their weak stance, the pain and regret in their eyes. Evenson reached out to me through the bars, saying he was glad to see me. I asked the official why Evenson was being held, when he wasn’t involved in the offense. Smirking at me, the chief said that he “couldn’t discuss that with me.” Staying calm, I spoke to the boys some more. Judelin sat in the corner behind the others in the barren stall. I called him over. As he stood and slowly walked up to the bars, I nearly started crying.
Red and swollen, Judelin’s face was barely recognizable. He’d been beaten – badly. Leaving to go to a pharmacy, I soon returned with anti-inflammatories. The police officers told me I had to leave the medication with them. When I visited the next day, the officers hadn’t given Judelin the pills. Our staff visited the boys and we brought them meals 3 times per day. After a week, the boys were released, but we were told not to allow them back into the Safe House.

For the first couple of nights, I arranged for the three boys to stay in a house. Sitting with them the evening after they were released, I had a long, emotional talk. I’d spoken to Judelin on his own, asking if he wouldn’t finally return home. “I don’t want to live with my mother,” He told me. I watched him for a moment. “Judelin, did your mother beat you often?”
“Yes. One time, after my father died, she broke open my head. She hit me with a stick.” I asked if his mother had abused Erby, Judelin’s little brother, as well. “Yes, she beat him sometimes.” Finally I understood why Judelin prefers to be independent.

Sitting with the three boys, I was trying to think of a plan. Trying. The boys concluded that they’d simply return to the streets. “We’ve lived on the streets before,” Judelin said. “We can do it again.” His words terrorized me. All the progress I’d seen in the boys, all of the hope they’d started to have, the future that was in sight… could I really let them throw it away? Let them regress to the starting point, where they’d trusted no one and eaten whenever they could get spare change? Absolutely not.
“Thank you for what you did for us. I’ve never lived like that while in jail,” Judelin told me. I thought about it: the times he’d been trapped in that barred jail stall, for whatever reason the police chose, with no food or water or visitors, and no options. “You did a lot for us, but now we will go back in the streets.”
I shook my head. I told them this was only temporary. They’d be in the streets for the next week or so, but that was it. I’d figure out a plan for them. They still had a future aside from street life. As we sat in silence, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. “Don’t cry,” the boys said. “I don’t want you to cry.” All I could do was cry out, “I don’t want you to be in the streets.”
I got hold of my emotions and continued to sit between Judelin and Oblanco. “I don’t want you to be in the streets. You don’t have to live in the streets,” I told them. “That’s not your future.” Judelin had turned his back to me. He didn’t respond as I talked to him. “Judelin?” I tried turning him toward me but he resisted. His shoulders began to shake. Judelin hung his head and I realized he was crying.
Turning toward me, Judelin leaned on my shoulder and continued to sob.
After a few weeks, I had a plan. Evenson was able to join the Safe House. Oblanco went back to his mother’s house. Judelin couldn’t return to the Safe House, as he was the one who’d thrown that rock. Judelin could, however, live on his own in a house. I found the perfect home: in a discreet, calm part of town, a secure house that was close to local schools. The day before I was due to leave Haiti for a few months, I took Judelin to see the house and negotiated terms with the landlord. told Judelin I’d be leaving for Canada the next day. He laughed. “Yeah right,” the boy said, “You’re lying.” I recalled the times he used to tell me to leave. I didn’t laugh. As we got on the motorcycle, his smile faded. “You’re serious?” he asked. I nodded. Judelin was silent and continued to mount the moto.
We sped along the road. Thoughts turned through my mind as we continued; sadness about leaving; excitement that Judelin wouldn’t be in the streets anymore… Familiar stores and vendors and landmarks flashed by us. Suddenly Judelin wrapped his arms around me in a silent hug. I smiled.
Hurricaine Sandy hit Haiti hard. I thought of the street children I’ve come to love. I thought: What if this hurricane had happened 8 months ago – when these boys had been in the streets, with nowhere to go, as streets flooded and wind tore at people’s homes. I thought of the boys before they’d trusted in me, and before I’d trusted in them… How we’ve both grown!

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