I met Josie when she was 17 years old. She was usually quiet, the way pretty much all Haitian children are taught to be. We spent years together meeting in the support group, until the day she distinguished herself by sidling up to me in a quiet moment, and opening her mouth. "Michelle!" She bubbled forth, words tumbling out rapidly as she opened her wallet. I had no idea what was happening.
Eventually I caught her words, "Look, we took photos, my aunt took me and my cousin to have our photos taken!" with that she pulled out tiny wallet sized snapshots of herself with another girl close to her age, dolled up in front of the fake backgrounds used for Glamour Shots at Sears. There she was, in front of three different exotic backgrounds. She held the photos to me, beaming. "They're beautiful." I tell her, and she nods proudly, tucking them back away.
She's 21 now, and finished with her school exams. I came back on this trip to work with her as one of our teachers. I kissed her on the cheek today and asked how she was doing.
"My aunt put me outside." She spoke calmly, but her appearance was stressed. Literally to "put someone outside" is to kick them out, to render them homeless. "My aunt is telling everyone I'm sick so I'm going to die anyway, she doesn't want to keep taking care of me. She's having economic difficulties, she kicked out me and my cousin." Josie doesn't ask for anything, she just informs me of the situation. "Miss Flore is helping me, she gives me a little food when she can." Miss Flore is the nurse who took over my old job.
"Josie, where are you living?" I ask her. She's beautiful and I'm terrified of her being in this situation and not having a safe space. "I'm living in a neighbor's house. The house is under construction so they're not living there. They're still working on it, there's no door yet."
"Do you feel safe?"
"I'm safe, my cousin is there with me."
I think about the situation, then ask, "How much does it cost you for food each day?" She gives me the amount in Haitian dollars, and I work out that it comes to US$2, or $60 per month.
We keep talking, and Josie tells me she still has hope, she still believes she be anything if she just tries hard enough. She's keeping herself busy for the summer by going to a neighbor who keeps a library, taking novels and history books, and reading, looking up any words that she doesn't know.
She's strong and tough, but I am terrified about her situation right now and my own powerlessness.
After a while, I ask her if she wants to try the online English lessons. "Please." She nods firmly, then spends the next hour tapping away and taking notes. She tells me, "You have to put yourself into whatever you do."
"Same time tomorrow?" I ask her, and she agrees.