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ARCAHAIE, HAITI — Jean Stefen Youyoute had something profound to say to me.
Youyoute, 67, had come to an Iowa medical group’s clinic to have his gnarled limbs checked last month. He’s had leprosy for more than 40 years, and he faces constant danger from infections, especially in areas where the disease has stolen his ability to feel pain.
I watched as Jan Palmer, a 72-year-old nurse and volunteer from Minnesota, carefully peeled off dirty dressings and washed his feet. Palmer had befriended Youyoute during a previous trip here, and she’d remembered to bring him new socks on this visit. She’d encouraged Register photographer Mary Chind and me to meet him, not because he has such a rare disease but because he is such a remarkable man.
I told him through a Creole interpreter that we were from an American newspaper, and I asked if we could take his picture and write about him. He readily agreed, as most people do, but he seemed uninterested in discussing his tough life in this impoverished place. Instead, he wanted to spend our few minutes together talking about how he and his wife, Sultane, who also has leprosy, raised three children. He smiled as he noted that one of their kids had accomplished the rare feat of graduating from college.
Youyoute asked if I had a family. Yes, I said, I have a wife and two teenage children in Iowa. He was happy to hear that, and he said he would pray for protection of my family and of my country, and for my safe journey home. “May God keep you and bless you,” he said.
I’m often struck by how common such grace is. As a reporter, I’ve had the privilege of talking to innumerable people in Iowa and around the world. Many of them have been caught in terrible situations, but most are open to talking about their lives. They routinely invite me into their homes, including some that are heartbreakingly humble.
In Guatemala in 2008, Register photographer Arturo Fernandez and I met with people who’d recently returned to their mountain villages. After being arrested in a raid at an Iowa meatpacking plant several months earlier, they’d been imprisoned and then deported. They were destitute, and many faced likely eviction from their tiny plots of land because they couldn’t repay loans they’d taken out for their ill-fated journeys to the United States. But they welcomed us, fed us tortillas hot off the griddle, and shared their stories — without any prospect of personally gaining a thing.
Mary and I had similar experiences when we accompanied two Des Moines-based aid groups working in Africa. In Mali, a woman let us observe the birth of her daughter because she thought it would help Americans relate to life in her village. In Uganda, young women spoke matter-of-factly about the challenges they faced in rebuilding their lives after being kidnapped by a bizarre band of rebels and being forced to bear the children of the group’s commanders.
When I traveled to Afghanistan with photographer Rodney White to report on the Iowa National Guard’s service in 2011, one of the most disappointing things I saw was how little natural interaction we and the soldiers could have with everyday Afghans.
The situation was so dangerous that American troops almost never set foot off their bases unless they were part of a heavily armed patrol. I understood this practice, and I appreciated the protection of armored trucks and rifle-toting troops when we visited villages. But it’s next to impossible to have a real conversation with strangers when both sides fear shooting could break out at any moment.
These countries all have complicated, tragic histories. In each one, good-hearted foreigners have tried to help. And the truth is that many such efforts have failed to make much long-term difference. But there are plenty of examples around the world of places pulling themselves out of extreme poverty and strife, often with the assistance of others. Basic public health care, like that provided in Haiti by the Iowa-based Community Health Initiative, is a logical place to start. Such services won’t magically fix everything, but people can’t get ahead if they’re constantly sick or worried that their children are in peril.
Cynics say that some mission trips amount to little more than “poorism,” in which people from wealthy countries have their pictures taken with struggling villagers. My impression is that people who go on such trips do so with the best of intentions. The smart ones realize that their volunteer experience usually enriches their own lives at least as much as it helps others.
Organizers should think through their efforts to ensure they’re as effective as possible. It would be nice to see better coordination of small group efforts, so volunteer teams don’t waste time, effort and money fumbling around.
The key is to see the residents of these countries as more than pitiful charity cases or childlike innocents. Most of them are just regular folks, who happened to be born in troubled places and are doing the best they can to provide for their families. I wonder if I could be as patient and welcoming to strangers if I were in their shoes.