Friday, February 12, 2010
by Lisa R. Cohen
There is blood on the hands of Laura Silsby. Whether she intended it or not, when she led a band of Americans from Haiti toward the Dominican Republic border in a bus filled with Haitian "orphans," she set off a series of unintended consequences that left other children dead.
Silsby may have had the best of intentions. She may have been following the voice of God. Or she may have been a religious zealot who told desperate Haitian parents one thing, then pulled a fast one by taking their kids away to have them adopted by "good Christian families." Will we ever know for sure?
Here's what we do know: Following the earthquake's devastation, Laura Silsby headed up a contingent of 10 adults, most affiliated with one of two Baptist churches, who traveled from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Haiti. According to a mission statement on Silsby's church's website, the group was part of the New Life Children's Refuge (NLCR), a "non-profit Christian ministry dedicated to rescuing, loving and caring for orphaned, abandoned and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children, demonstrating God's love and helping each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ."
Late on Friday night, January 29th, Silsby and her team were arrested at the Dominican border with 33 youngsters, ranging in age from two months to 12 years, their names handwritten on pink tape stuck to their shirts, reportedly on their way to a temporary orphanage.
The Americans claimed to be rescuing abandoned orphans, but the Haitian government didn't see it that way, and they remain in a Haitian jail, accused of kidnapping the children. The ten were seemingly unfazed in the first moments of their arrest, sure that this would all be cleared up soon, and they'd be found to be innocent angels of mercy, intent on saving lives, if not souls. Confidence gave way to shock as the hardscrabble mission turned into an international incident, touching a very raw nerve about the centuries-old exploitation of Haiti's youngest resources.
There has been absolutely no hint that these children were destined to be sexually exploited, as has been historically the case in this impoverished country. In fact, that's just the fate Silsby and her followers are claiming they were trying to keep the children safe from. But the idea that they would be taken from their homeland, wrenched from their identities, to be raised by religious (white) Christians who would save them from their otherwise heathen fates, raises eyebrows. And then, of course, there is the small matter that many of the children rounded up for the "Orphan Rescue Mission" ... weren't orphans after all.
The children, it was learned, came mostly from the town of Calabasse, where some of them were put aboard the bus by their parents or other relatives themselves. Some of the kids later reported they weren't told they were leaving their homes; just going on a vacation, or away to a school.
At the time, the adults were told they could eventually visit their loved ones in the Dominican Republic. Indeed, Silsby told reporters after the arrest that the plan all along was to raise these children in the DR. The group had just signed a lease on a former seaside resort there where they planned to house their charges temporarily, while finessing the long term plan. But critics point to a particular sentence in their mission statement which belies the impression the children would stay close to home:
"We will strive to also equip each child with a solid education and vocational skills as well as opportunities for adoption into a loving Christian family."
What's that about? Maybe Silsby was only planning to apply that last part to the true orphans. But it doesn't really sound like it -- there's that troubling phrase "each child."Tweet
Then there's the fuzzy excuse that the paperwork was all but done; that the bus was held up at the border because of one missing document. Not so, claims the DR's Consul General in Port-au Prince, according to a Wall Street Journal interview. He says he met with Silsby before she set out and warned her not only that she didn't have the proper documentation, but that if she tried to go anyway she might be arrested.
In times like this there's always chaos. One person says one thing, another contradicts. But there's a real travesty, besides the fact that this case is distracting attention from the bigger, truly horrific problems facing Haiti a month after the earthquake: the actions of this misguided group have interfered with the work of real rescuers trying to get seriously injured children to much-needed medical help.
According to a New York Times article this week, before the 10 Americans were arrested, private flights out of Haiti airlifting critically ill children to hospitals in the States were running 15 per day. After the arrest, no more than three left in a period of several days. The risk was suddenly too great that these good Samaritans would be arrested too. These weren't children rounded up and enticed onto a bus. These were urgent medical cases. In fact, as of February 8th, when the article appeared, at least 10 children had become worse, or even died awaiting evacuation.
There's no lack of will, or resources -- the planes are there, the pilots are eager to go, and there are hospitals waiting to receive the sick kids. But now, seeing the American missionaries trotted from their makeshift jail cells in and out of court, everyone's understandably gun shy. The detained Americans, one pediatrician at the Haitian airport field hospital told the Times, had moved beyond just a distraction. "For these kids ... it's become the difference between life and death."
There's been talk in recent hours of finally releasing at least some of the detained Americans, although it's unclear if that will mean they're free to return stateside. The children they were transporting have been taken to an Austrian-based orphanage, where apparently efforts are underway to reunite them with their families.
But there's no giving back life to the innocent victims who couldn't get the help they needed, and died waiting for it.
God is watching, Laura Silsby.