Innocence Loved and Lost, the Children of a Refugee Camp | Teen Ink

Innocence Loved and Lost, the Children of a Refugee Camp

March 18, 2014
By powellje BRONZE, River Vale, New Jersey
powellje BRONZE, River Vale, New Jersey
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

This is a letter for a little boy, Pazlov, whom I befriended while in a Haitian refugee camp in the Dominican Republic this past summer.

Dear Pazlov,

I know that everything you do, everything all of the children in Ascensión do, you do because you must. I know that you all know no alternative to the lying, begging, and manipulating that your lives and your families demand of you. But, Pazlov, I have to thank you. Through it all, you were my grip on innocence and true joy.

My first day in Ascensión, you picked me. Your eyes, like dark chocolate marble, were forever squinting against the sun, the sun that exploded from your intoxicating giggle. At just four years old, you were my rock. You must have been the only child who didn’t ask me for anything- no money, no promises. Because of this authenticity, we became friends, real friends. We played, sang, and laughed ourselves into hysterics all of the way through the first phase, before the market.

I wish we could see the market through each other’s eyes. I wish you could elevate my understanding; show me these shouting and wailing and grasping people on the days when the village is quiet, when they can smile or starve without stares on them. I wish I could show you the intimidation, the primal fear, the panic, and the wrenching heartache I see and feel through my eyes.

For me, as a volunteer from the United States, as a Gringa, Ascensión is a Haitian refugee camp in the Dominican Republic, four hours away from the Haitian border. The streets are stuffed with (sheet-metal and thin wood houses), that offer the only shade in the entire village. The sun scorches down on the dozens of children playing, on the sad working sites and on the lone horse with a flesh-eating disease. The sun beats on the two large pigs, the fat and dirt-clumped ropes that tether them to trees, and the palm leaves that shield the thirteen piglets from the heat. The sun sears hottest on the gruesome row of plastic tables, stools, and chairs, underneath the looming arch, painted a soft tangerine. This is the market. On selling days, the tables and chairs are blanketed with bracelets and small pieces of art. The market crashes to life at a volunteer’s first breath. Then and only then, it comes alive, with desperate shouts and clutching fingers with grips of steel. Adults, children, infants, weep, growl, and plead. “Please buy my bracelets, please you promised. You make promise. I have no food for my children.” The thin child hangs on my hand and lingers on my promise, whether you made it or not.

“My parents are dead, I have no food and I can not buy book so I can’t go to school. Please buy my bracelet.” A tall woman seizes my arm and yanks me to a plastic yellow chair. “Bracelet, please, you promised”. Everyone is screaming, wailing and snarling for me because they’re shouting for food and all they have to their name is this village with its rows of shack houses, its hungry children, one horse, two pigs, thirteen piglets, and hundreds of bracelets.

You children are lost like your innocence among this chaos, your young friends and family with hollow cheeks and calculating eyes brimming with motive. I can imagine the elation and the fervent whispers among you all as the volunteers saunter in, smiling serenely with swinging tools and ponytails. That first day, we saw your exhilarated smiles from miles away, ignited with hope. We cooed like doves as each of you nudged a bony hand into our palms and hearts and held on for dear life. We met your friends’ bungled English halfway, reaching with our broken Spanish. We didn’t realize that in Ascensión, each word exchanged is a premeditated promise. Just as I held you close, the younger children all found their way into walking embraces, as if they could be carried away from this life they can’t escape. You were all so endearing, your smiles so contagious that we were powerless to do anything but return your love with blind, euphoric enthusiasm. We didn’t realize that in Ascensión, the children grin because the hand clasped in theirs is a promise of pesos to come, of dinner tomorrow. When I think of all I didn’t know, I cringe and wish to be back, hugging you again and squeezing just a little tighter. I hate to think that you are at the mercy of the gringos and their pesos, forced through a succession of phases with each new group.

During my two visits I began to identify and to understand these phases. The first phase is friendship: the claim, the conquer, the trust. The second phase is ugly. The second phase is the market. The second phase is pleading, tugging, and story-weaving. Friendship vanishes, as children’s faces so clearly give way to motive and manipulation. I thank you, Pazlov, for never attempting to rope me into the market, although my memories are tinged with the panic I felt when I somehow lost you before entering the chaos.

I would say that what I saw there, in the market of Ascensión is unimaginable, but speaking to you, I’m all too aware that I don’t know the half of it. I saw children who would capture the gaze of a volunteer they’ve never met, and with stark solemnity and hunger, would speak with cracking lips of the promises that volunteer has made to them to buy a bracelet, to feed their family. Overwhelmed with primal fear and wrenching guilt, I spent 3444.00 Dominican pesos (80 US) on string bracelets. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I could have spent hundreds, thousands, millions. Somehow, I recovered you, and I held you close and clung to you for my sanity. Thank you for being there for me. After there were no more pesos to be spent, the market reluctantly groaned to a halt, and quieted, and Phase Three could begin.
In Phase three, children again take the hands of the now shaken volunteers, and while there may not be pure friendship, their grips are now scarce of motive. A soccer game erupts in the field and swarms of kids are again laughing and playing and loving. You and I escaped into Phase Three, and then shared a teary goodbye. The tears were mine, your smile unperturbed. Needless to say, I miss you.

So what happened to our second meeting? It was entirely different. You were using my camera, smiling and giggling your face into a wrinkled mess. Your sister approached me and pointed out your single sock. She begged me to buy a bracelet from her on the basis that her brother, you, doesn’t even have shoes. Before I could decide even what to think, an older boy took the camera from you, innocently enough. Your eyes deadened. From Your face completely smooth, you writhed and shoved to break free from my arms. You were hissing and spitting, cursing and punching. My churning, frittering nerves echoed the words of Viktor Taransky (introduce, or say “a quote I had heard”), his words resounding smugly and inevitably in the dank cave that is my conscience today: “Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it”. As the righteous volunteer, I once again scooped you, Single Sock, up, retrieved my camera and restored the peace. I quickly scrolled through my pictures from the last visit to see you grinning up at the camera, hands on your hips, a pair of shoes strapped snugly on your tiny feet. “Please, my brother, we can’t even buy him shoes,” your sister’s plea wheezing weakly in my heart, dying in the face of its deceitful reflection. In my journal, I wrote that day down as a “perfect day”. But instead of allowing myself to dwell on the deception, I focused on holding you close, my little lightweight refugee. I focused on your arms thin and your hands hot that looped around my neck. I gave you, clutching like a monkey, a bounce. I pretended to drop you. I did what I could to banish the adult from your eyes. A smile cracked across your face like fireworks, my heart purring at the sound of your hoarse, tinny giggles, and I hugged you so tightly, you little bag of bones, because I was trying to keep you with me. But I wouldn’t let my eyes linger on yours, because I didn’t want the day to see any lingering traces of anger or manipulation. I asked you to sing. Kids skipped ahead of us, circling, but not like sharks. All animosity was gone, and we were all throwing our heads back, screaming the words as each verse snowballed with volume into the next until we had an avalanche of screaming children, tall and short, American and Haitian, you pounding on my chest and back like drums as each step propelled us into insanity and happiness, the sun beating down on our bracelets.

I miss you and I love you.


The author's comments:
This is a letter for a little boy, Pazlov, whom I befriended while in a Haitian refugee camp in the Dominican Republic this past summer.

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