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'Rescued': A story that called to me

By Soledad O'Brien, CNN

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The journey home
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Haiti is poorest in Western Hemisphere, with 380,000 orphans
  • Lighthouse orphanage's goal is to support kids as they grow up in their own country
  • Some see little future for kids as unemployment rate hovers at 80 percent
  • "My long-term vision is to have a free hospital, free medial, free restaurants," orphan says

Editor's note: This story is drawn from "Rescued," a new documentary to be aired on CNN at 8 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday. CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O'Brien reports on Haiti's orphans and the challenges they face as a result of the devastating earthquake in January.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Most of the little ones outside the Quisqueya Church are in playpens beneath trees.

You can hear them whimpering like kittens, but you can't see them. Their caretakers have covered the orphans' playpens with mattresses to block the sun. The heat is trapped inside, and the children are withering.

It is a week after the devastating January 12 earthquake, and as I walk among the playpens, I push the mattresses aside. Flashes of hot air move in. Flies land on one boy's eyelid, and he is too weak to wave them away. A girl struggles to roll over. She is maybe 5. I stop beside boys who are about 2. I know boys this age. My boys were this age once.

Their eyes are missing something. There is no white, just red. Their eyelids droop, unable to withstand even the weight of their tiny lashes. Their lips are so dry, they are almost invisible. And despite the 90-degree heat, there is no moisture on their skin. They are too dehydrated to sweat.

I touch their heads, one by one. The tight little Afro on one boy traps dirt like a bird's nest. On the head of another, tiny blue veins trace his skull like a roadmap. I kneel down to meet him. He stands, tilting like a drunk. He can barely lift the weight of his dirty diaper.

I stroke his back, and he falls forward against the railing. His head tilts toward me. His mouth is half open. I look into his eyes and see nothing.

I stop. I begin to stand up, to walk away. He cries out. His tiny chest heaves, and his head wobbles unsteadily on his neck. I fall back down.

"Don't cry. Don't cry," I say.

He has no reaction.

Then suddenly I cry, too. Our foreheads touch. His is dry, mine moist. His body trembles. My spine collapses into a hunch.

Some of these children will die this week. Some will wither away regardless of whether word gets out that they need help. They were barely better off before the ground shook and took an estimated 250,000 lives, before a legion of rescue workers and journalists descended on their homeland for the umpteenth time in history to tell the story of Haiti's woes.

The agony of this boy overwhelms me. I can do nothing for him. Nothing right now. Nothing tomorrow. Nothing at all, except cry.

A story that called to me

It was a low point in my first reporting trip to Haiti. I had arrived there less than a week after the earthquake and spent several days focused on telling the stories of the country's orphans. But too often, I felt helpless.

The earthquake had laid bare to the eyes of the world the country's orphanage system, and the facts were wrenching.

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This island nation is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with 380,000 orphans and an additional 5,000 to 10,000 street kids in 2007, according to UNICEF. These were the children whose faces captured your heart in worldwide appeals for charity.

I knew that I had to return to Haiti, to tell more fully the story behind those faces. It is a complicated story, and the assignment would take me to an unusual place: an orphanage called the Lighthouse, where the goal is not to get children adopted abroad but to nurture and support them as they grow up in their own country.

There, I would come to know two orphans: Cendy Jeune and Marc Kenson Olibris, who are featured in the documentary "Rescued."

At 6, Cendy is a bright girl learning to read in a country where half the children never see a classroom. At 21, Marc Kenson is the orphan we rarely see: one who grew to adulthood in his own country.

In him, we found hope for Haiti's future.

The journey of a grown-up orphan

Marc Kenson Olibris didn't come running to meet me the day I arrived at the Lighthouse. Just a month after the earthquake, he was busy trying to help the institution that transformed his life, and where he now worked as a caretaker, hold things together in crisis.

All of the children had survived the quake. But the orphanage kept running out of food. It had no electricity and limited water. One wall of the girls' home had fallen, and there were cracks along the walls of the boys' home, the school and the clinic.

The children were sleeping outside because aftershocks made being indoors too scary. And that worried Marc Kenson (pronounced Mackenson) because it compromised the children's safety. Even the Lighthouse's limited resources were attractive to thieves.

When things settled down enough for him to sit down and talk, I was struck by how calm he was under pressure. Marc Kenson has one of those faces that look happy even when sad: large, bright eyes and an easy smile.

Bill and Susette Manassero, directors of the Lighthouse, are parent figures to Marc Kenson. He was among the first 12 boys to come to the orphanage when it opened in 2005.

The couple had visited Haiti in 2004 at the urging of their daughter Ariana, then 8. She had become captivated by the Haitian orphans she saw in photos. A year after that visit, the couple uprooted their family to fulfill her dream: to build an orphanage, school and church. Their goal: to raise the children in Haiti, to give them and their country a bright future.

At first, the gangly teenager was suspicious of these white Americans. He had heard from kids in other orphanages that they might treat him badly. But he got food, an education, a home. And faith.

His own parents, he told me, were Baptists who also practiced voodoo. He adopted the Christian fundamentalism of the Manasseros.

"I was lost, you understand. After I found the word and understood the word, it changed my life. It made me know what was good and what was bad."

We talked about his wretched childhood in Cap-Haitien, where his parents struggled to provide for him and his sister, Mona, before finally selling them for $12. He was 11; Mona was 9.

I asked if that made them both a Restavec, Creole for "stay with" -- the name given to Haiti's legal child slave trade. He mumbled yes and looked down.

It was hard to tell whether he was shamed by that fact or just sad that it is true. Was he angry? No, he said.

His humility and calm were unnerving. How could he not be angry, I thought. That's when Marc Kenson said something that stirred deep admiration.

Haiti, he explained, is a place where many people have nothing, where even the hardest-working young man can never seem to find a job. How could he be angry with his parents if they had nothing to give him and no way to feed him? Selling him and his sister meant they would get to Port-au-Prince and maybe find a better life. Selling their own children to a stranger was a way of giving them a future.

He had become an orphan, a word with many meanings in Haiti, where children who are not being raised by their parents are considered orphans even if their parents are alive.

I asked Marc Kenson to jump atop a jeep and go with me to visit the place where he had lived as a child slave. I wanted to understand how 50,000 children could live legally as slaves and how a young man who had suffered so much could be so resilient, so strong in the face of this latest indignity: an earthquake hitting an island already hit hard by poverty. We drove to La Saline, a ghetto by the edge of the sea.

The conditions there were so miserable, it was hard to tell what was earthquake damage. A flotilla of garbage topped the sewage that runs in canals along the homes. Large black sows poked through the trash, competing for food with naked and bone-thin children.

Marc Kenson led me through the narrow alleys that divided structures made of discarded tin and cardboard, wood scraps and boxes. We passed by unattended children, many crying and clearly ill. Some did as he used to: running into the streets to beg, facing a beating if he returned home with nothing.

His past flashed by him: child slave, street beggar. This life of desperation had ended when he approached a car driven by a volunteer from the Lighthouse. She took him to the Manasseros.

But here, now, the people who once lived beside Marc Kenson could not believe their eyes. Here he was, surrounded by photographers, arriving in a car, well-fed, well-groomed. Children crowded around him in awe.

We came upon a woman whose home Marc Kenson had occupied with his sister and the lady who kept the two of them as slaves. She let us see the hut where they lived. It was hot but neat, with buckets of food packets from a recent distribution of aid from World Food Programme. I was overcome by the smell, the heat, the intolerable conditions. He was sweating profusely but wearing a wide smile.

"What do you think when you come here?" I asked him.

"I thank God," he said. "I thank him."

And then he said something surprising. He thanked me for taking him to see where he'd come from. "I could have never come here on my own," he said.

"Why not?" I asked.

He smiled and looked around him. It was obvious. To come back with a film crew and a story worth telling was a triumph. Instead of feeling sad when he revisited his past, he returned to celebrate his good fortune.

Marc Kenson had been through so much in life that he did not see the earthquake as daunting. It was a reason to work harder.

To stay or leave: not always a choice

Marc Kenson had a dream for the future. And naturally, it included his sister, Mona. She is his only real family, the only relative who has been around his whole life and accompanied him on his journey. She, too, was taken off the streets by an orphanage. The place where she lived, His Home for Children, was not far from the Lighthouse, and Marc Kenson had been able to visit her often.

But he'd been working so hard since the earthquake that he hadn't had a chance to see her for some time. Some orphanages had irreparable damage and a heavy loss of life. They were calling aid organizations, desperate for food and water or a way out of Haiti.

Knowing we would profile Marc Kenson, we asked Bill and Susette Manassero to check on his sister. They learned that a family in Texas had adopted Mona. The paperwork was expedited because of the earthquake, and her brother had never had a chance to say goodbye.

We were going to visit other orphanages, and asked Marc Kenson if he wanted to go with us to His Home for Children. He agreed. Knowing Mona was gone didn't soften the blow of walking through the iron gates of her orphanage and seeing the emptiness she'd left behind.

Marc Kenson's eyes scanned the premises, seemingly hoping to see her pop up at any moment. Several stuffed animals sat atop her bottom bunk bed. Jammed beneath it was an old suitcase. It was obvious how much he missed her.

Hal Nungester, director of the orphanage, showed us pictures of Mona on the computer. His mission is to support adoptions, and so a small amount of tension hung in the air.

Marc Kenson struggled with his emotions. "It was her choice, and I'm happy for her," he said of his sister. But he also lamented that she would be one less young person around to build a future Haiti.

I asked if he was sure he would stick around. He nodded affirmatively. "Even if I left for a while, I would return," he said. "My country needs me."

Nungester listened in, and his face grew red.

"I'm angry that there are factions that are saying we should turn these kids back in to their families, when Marc Kenson obviously can't even take care of himself, let alone his little sister," he said. "He's living in an orphanage, so he can't provide for himself."

"How did Mona come to you?" I asked.

"She was on the street," he said, "about 12 years old, little teeny tiny thing. She had scars all over her body where she'd been beat. It's just starting to come out now about some of the abuse that she suffered. While she was in Haiti, she was afraid to talk about it. But she's talking with her family about it now in the States."

Nungester said he sees no future in Haiti for kids like Marc Kenson and Mona, because the unemployment rate hovers at 80 percent.

"The people who are hungry now, who were hungry before the earthquake, they're getting fed somehow because the internet and international community has stepped in, and we do appreciate that. But what's going to happen when they step out? We're going to go right back to what we had before," he said.

Getting adopted out of Haiti has never been easy. Just 338 Haitian children were adopted by parents in the United States in 2009, according to the U.S. State Department. After the earthquake, the government waived the two- to three-year wait and cleared nearly 900 children for adoptions. But some child advocates feared mistakes, that some children might be separated from biological parents who wanted them or that children would be trafficked. Aid organizations like Save the Children and UNICEF called for the government to freeze adoptions, and they virtually have.

Mona was among the last wave of orphans to leave Haiti quickly for adoption -- before a group of missionaries was caught taking kids across the border to the Dominican Republic, allegedly without permission.

Nungester said Mona dreamed of going to the U.S. to live with a new family and getting an education. His orphanage taught her English to prepare her for adoption.

Though he believes Haiti's orphans are better off sent abroad, Nungester commended Marc Kenson for staying behind to help rebuild his country.

"I don't think he's naïve. I think he's the hope of Haiti. I really believe that if we had more young men like him, we could do something, rather than just wallowing in hopelessness," he said.

A few days later, back at the Lighthouse, it was hard to imagine a Haiti without Marc Kenson. Steady supplies had finally begun to arrive, and he helped sort and distribute them. With volunteers, he worked to fix the walls of the Lighthouse buildings and open the school where the children are now returning to their studies even as most Port-au-Prince schools remain closed.

One day, he will leave this place, but not Haiti. He will go home to help his people. That's his dream.

"My long-term vision is to have a free hospital, free medical, free restaurants," he explained. "Have a place where kids can come and eat, they don't have to pay, like Susette is doing. Have an orphanage and give vaccinations. Give the kids an opportunity to stay at home."

I felt so grateful for Marc Kenson. The future of Haiti will no doubt be enriched by his presence, as I was in getting to know him. I thought back about that boy I'd seen in the playpen a week after the quake. His vacant expression. His tears, and mine.

I would never know his story. But in Marc Kenson's, I saw hope.

CNN senior producer Rose Arce contributed to this account.

 
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