Second of three-part series originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, December 15, 2008.
Welcome A New American
Story and photos by Andy Olsen
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – To bring a deaf and crippled boy through Haiti’s adoption bureaucracy, you need a friend on the inside. Mike and Rebecca Haake went looking for one and found a bulldog.
Their adoption agent, Barbara Walker, lost patience years ago with the country’s ineffectual politicians. The 64-year-old clears more than 50 Haitian adoptions a year for clients around the world. To her, loitering in Port-au-Prince offices and exchanging pleasantries means wasted minutes.
“You have to park the car and walk into the office and sit there and wait?” Walker said. “Barbara doesn’t wait.”
She does her business in the street, passing papers through car windows to men who appear and disappear on the backs of rickety motorcycles.
There are only a handful of adoption agents in Haiti, and if you want to get your child out quickly, it is said, Walker can do it. When the Haakes, a Nicholasville couple, heard about Walker, they did not even consider anyone else to handle their adoption of Kerwin, a 6-year-old boy from a special-needs orphanage.
Ask Walker about her credentials and she will plunge into stories about digging graves, driving school buses and working construction in upstate New York. Ask how she came to live in Haiti nearly two decades ago, and she will give a different answer each time.
She facilitates adoptions under the umbrella of Foyer de la Nouvelle Vie, an orphanage just south of Port-au-Prince licensed by the Haitian government. With a small staff of nationals, she sends her clients’ dossiers to the same places as anyone else’s; she just leans on a few friends to get hers there faster.
Rodon Bien-Aimé, a Haitian senator, is one such friend. As the story goes, he won his seat by 27 votes after she helped him campaign by handing out water purifiers in his district. When she asked him if he won the election, he said: “No, you did.” Now he helps her win battles by sliding adoption files around government hurdles.
Walker was slow to return the Haakes’ e-mails and phone calls, which always irritated them. But they clung to assurances that she could keep their adoption from dragging on for years.
“You need to work with her because she’s the best, and because she’ll get it done, but I guarantee you’ll be really frustrated in the process,” said Rebecca, a speech therapist. “You can feel really good about your experience, or you can get your kid a year sooner. You decide.”
So far, Walker was thrilled with the progress of the Haakes’ adoption. The day after their visit to the U.S. immigration office on July 5, 2007, they landed an adoption interview with the Haitian Ministry of Interior, or MOI.
It was a remarkable feat to get the interview so quickly. MOI had a reputation for sending American couples out the door without one because of some minor clerical error on a dog-eared paper.
Mike and Rebecca’s optimism withered a bit when they learned their papers had to be signed by five different offices within MOI. They waited for days – which stretched into weeks – for word on the progress of their papers. They killed time playing Crazy Eights, swimming, and chatting online with family when their hotel’s sporadic Internet worked.
Mike’s dad, Dennis, of Florence, flew down to visit for a few days, just long enough to meet his first grandchild and spoil him with Cokes and ice cream.
Boredom and frustration fed on each other, whispering to Mike and Rebecca that they were wasting their time. “Every day I’ll go, ‘Oh gosh, it’s never going to happen,’” Rebecca said.
The difficult wait was only part of the painful equation. Kerwin’s adoption was battering the Haakes’ finances. They had paid Walker $6,000 to be their agent. (It was no consolation that her fee was a relative bargain in the adoption industry.) Their room at the hotel was more than $60 a night, and food, incidentals and air fare piled on top of that.
Rebecca was not working, so they lived off Mike’s salary as a math teacher at Lexington Christian Academy and a credit card. When it was all over, their adoption expenses would total nearly $25,000.
But the price of Kerwin’s adoption is nothing unusual. More than 75 percent of international adoptions cost more than $20,000, according to a 2008 study by Adoptive Families magazine. By contrast, special-needs adoptions within Kentucky often cost next to nothing with the help of state and federal tax breaks, subsidies and fee waivers.
In the middle of July, the Haakes left the hotel and moved into a spare room in a compound run by Walker called Ruuska Village. The lodging was free, and they hoped to find something meaningful to do while they waited.
The village on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince consists of low concrete houses with tin roofs on a narrow gravel strip. There, a small community of women, most of whom would otherwise be homeless, care for dozens of orphans. Some are awaiting adoption, their cases handled by Walker; others are just surviving.
Moving there kept the Haakes busier at first, and Kerwin adjusted to the change in scenery as he did to almost everything, giggling and joking. As a family, they stuffed backpacks with donated school supplies to give to Haitian children. Rebecca and Mike herded roaming children at the village and did their best to keep them out of trouble.
Rebecca reasoned it was good for Kerwin, in a way. He had kids to play with, which he hadn’t had at the hotel. But he was playing with dirt and trash again, something she thought she had broken him of.
Ruuska Village is something of a retreat from the grime and danger of Port-au-Prince, but it is by no stretch a paradise. The cries of babies echo between the buildings day and night, and any child crawling along the ground might carry a tumor that needs to be removed, or a skin infection, or intestinal worms.
It is a tiring place, a land of limbo between the hell from which many of the orphans have been saved and the haven their adoptive parents are waiting to give them.
“It is getting harder and harder for us to be here,” Rebecca said in July 2007, a few days before her 27th birthday.
That day was like many others. They were dirty and sticky, bathing with buckets of water pumped by hand from a well. Their sheets smelled of Clorox, which Rebecca sprayed from a bottle at ants when they crawled into the bed.
Despite the chaos, most of it was remarkably dull. “I’ve never had so little to do and so much time,” Rebecca said.
On an afternoon toward the end of July, Mike and Rebecca reached their breaking point.
Rebecca had stepped out of their room to check on a girl who was wailing outside and found her with blood streaming down her face and back from a deep gash on her head.
Rebecca feebly cleaned it with gauze and applied a tube of antibiotic. Shortly after, she looked down and caught Kerwin shoving a piece of wood he had found into his mouth.
She nearly lost it.
“That was the last straw,” Rebecca wrote in her blog. “We have spent the last two months Americanizing this kid and I am beginning to feel like we are taking a step back.” They decided then and there to leave the village.
A few days later they checked back into the hotel and resumed their waiting. When the news from MOI finally arrived, it was bad. There was a problem with Kerwin’s birth certificate and it would have to be fixed, causing a delay of days or weeks. Walker and her staff were traveling to the states for a meeting.
There was no one to help.
Come back tomorrow
Kerwin’s papers seemed to make no progress.
All the Haakes could do was wait.
Other adoptive families came and went from the hotel. In early August, Mike had to fly back to Lexington to begin classes.
Rebecca began home schooling Kerwin, teaching him words in sign as quickly as she could learn them herself. They converted their hotel room into a makeshift school, taping drawings to the walls and decorating with paper chains and pipe-cleaner ornaments.
Family members began flying down regularly from Kentucky to break the boredom.
Rebecca’s sister, Rachel Hisel, was the first to visit. Her trip was almost perfect, until they got news that Hurricane Dean, the monster storm of the year, was rumbling toward them.
They spent a nervous night praying for safety as Dean pounded Haiti’s coast and caused flooding a few miles south. Rachel was stranded in Haiti for an extra week because of the storm.
After that, Dennis Haake returned. Then Rebecca’s mother, Nena Sweigard, took her turn. She and Kerwin bonded like glue.
Sitting at a table at the hotel one day, Kerwin was on Sweigard’s lap and she was humming. He waved at his ear, and Sweigard could swear he had heard her.
“Rebecca, he can hear me,” she said, excited.
Rebecca responded: “Sing his name to him.” But she wondered if he really could hear it.
By September, Rebecca was afraid that Kerwin was slipping behind in life with each passing day – behind in school, behind medically. If only she could get out of this country, there would be doctors who could help Kerwin hear and walk and talk.
Day after day they checked on the boy’s papers, and every day the answer was the same: “Come back tomorrow.”
Tomorrow finally comes
Rebecca was growing numb when word finally came at the end of September that Kerwin’s dossier had moved into the final – and fastest – stage of the process: immigration. In a matter of weeks, Kerwin would have a passport, a visa, a plane ticket home.
Rebecca was so elated that she and Kerwin went out into the pouring rain and jumped into the hotel’s pool.
“This process makes you crazy,” she said. Mike even made a last-minute visit over his fall break and celebrated with them.
Ten days later, they rushed out the doors of the U.S. Consulate in Port-au-Prince with Kerwin’s visa in hand and jumped on a late afternoon flight to Miami.
More than a year had passed since the process had begun. Like waking up after a fever breaks, everything that day seemed surreal and wonderful. Flight attendants brought Rebecca and Kerwin warm chocolate chip cookies from first class. Straight-faced immigration agents grinned and shouted, “We’ve got a new American here!”
They landed the next day at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, greeted by a sobbing crowd, flashing cameras, a family videographer, and “Welcome Home” balloons that Kerwin immediately began punching.
That first day home, Kerwin took giant leaps toward becoming an everyday American boy. He ate at restaurants, banged on some drums, tested the training wheels on his new bicycle, watched television and played football in the back yard.
He fell asleep that night in a bedroom cluttered with new toys, and Rebecca wrote a sort of prayer on the family blog: “It is official: Kerwin is our son,” she typed. “We are so thankful that God has a perfect plan for our family. We are so thankful that he has brought us together in this way and blessed us.”
She and Mike had even bigger plans for their son, plans to heal his body and, maybe, to help him hear. Their journey would shift from the vagaries of the Haitian government to the confusing tangle of the U.S. health care system.
But that was for later. On this night, a new family slept under one roof.