Haitian orphan rescue receives local, national coverage | Slag Heap

Haitian orphan rescue receives local, national coverage

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Jamie and Ali McMutrie -- whose BRESMA orphanage received an outpouring of support online from Pittsburgh after last year's earthquake in Haiti -- appear in two different news stories this week. Both remind us of the disaster, and of the successful effort to airlift the orphans to the U.S.  But the two accounts tell the story through very different lenses.

Here at home, Pittsburgh magazine named the McMutrie sisters the Pittsburghers of the Year for 2010.  Writer Jonathan Wander depicts the horror of the earthquake:

During the hours it took to get back home, [the McMutries] lived through horror: bloodied people stumbling against their car, screaming pleas for help and the sight of crushed, mangled bodies.

And also the hope rescued from its aftermath:

Ali and the children got to Pittsburgh on Jan. 19, Ali's 22nd birthday. Home for the children became Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where the Rangos Conference Center was converted to an area for sleep and play -- complete with sleeping bags and a large screen for showing "Sesame Street" and Disney movies. Local volunteers from the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities accompanied each child, and outside the room were changing stations and stacks of donations from Giant Eagle, Target, Wal-Mart and other stores. Throughout the day, adoptive parents who flew in from around the country bonded with their children. At press time, 42 have been adopted, and 12 have been matched with new families.

Today's New York Times, meanwhile, offers a somewhat different perspective. Whereas Wander's story tells the BRESMA story largely through the lens of the women who took their young charges to America, the Times tells the story of the people still struggling in Haiti. Among those people, in fact, is the mother of one of the BRESMA orphans, Marie Claude Pierre.

Pierre's 11-year-old son, Fekens, we're told, was at the McMutrie's orphanage, and was airlifted out with help from Gov. Ed. Rendell. Lost in the drama at the time, however, was the fact that some of the orphans still had families. In Haiti, parents faced such hardship that sometimes their childrens' best hope was to be housed in orphanages -- at least temporarily. 

Pierre, for one, tells the Times she gave her children to the orphanage to protect them from fights she had with her husband. As the Times reports: "She was granted no say, she said, but she imagined that their stay at Bresma, which she visited monthly, would be temporary."

In fact, the paper goes on, while "[i]mages of the children's landing in Pittsburgh were broadcast worldwide ... Ms. Pierre did not know Fekens was gone until days after he left. By the time she made her way through the disaster zone to the Bresma orphanage ... it was empty."

It's important to be clear on this point: There's no allegation that anyone did anything wrong here. Four of Pierre's children had already been adopted prior to the earthquake, and Pierre later reportedly signed away her parental rights to Fekens as well, after he was in America. 

Still, it's hard not to be touched by Pierre's message for her son, which the Times reports as follows:

She requested that a message be given to Fekens: "Tell him bonjour, bonsoir. Tell him to behave and not to make problems. Send him kisses."

Asked if that were all, she hesitated. "I know he is not working," she said of her 11-year-old, "so I cannot ask him to wire me money."

I just find every word of that haunting.

The complicated family status of some BRESMA orphans has earned some local media attention, but it's easy to lose sight of it -- if only because the word "orphans" creates an impression of parentlessness. And Pittsburghers -- who have seen so much of the good news wrested from the heartache -- might be especially surprised to realize that in a place as tragic as Haiti, even good news can leave scars. (Wander's story, as far as I can see, makes no mention of the fact that some of the BRESMA children have parents.)

The McMutries deserve every bit of praise directed their way. But as this Times story reminds us, Haiti is haunted by ruins, cholera outbreaks, and political unrest. Maybe the best way to honor the McMutries' accomplishment is to dig down and help their orphanage, or other groups assisting the Haitians who weren't on that plane.

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