A story based on real events. In 1980, Jean Tonico reached the shores of Miami with only the clothes on his back, A Haitian Boat Person, and refugee, he chronicles the haranguing journey and gives us a glimpse into myriad reasons why some risk their lives to leave their homeland in search for a better life. The journey of agony, fear, frustration and death is detailed in Life Beyond Borders.
Twenty-eight years later he reminds us that young Haitian children are still dying of hunger, disease, and hopelessness.
MY GRANDMOTHER was going to see God. It was the summer of 1967. At the time, I believed that when someone was leaving for New York, that person was going to see God because that is where He lived. According to my father, once you were there, your life would take a new path, have a different meaning and become filled with joy because you would be living next to God. The airport was the place where the journey began for anyone who wished to see God.
I was a six-year-old boy and going to the airport would be more fun than anything I had ever done. I had seen airplanes way up in the sky, but never one on the ground. But here I was, about to go on my very first trip to the François Duvalier airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
I remember waking up early that morning full of energy, wishing my grandma would hide me in her suitcase and take me along for the journey. But since that wasn’t the plan, I gave her lots of messages to deliver to God. Every time my parents gave us something their lesson was always the same, “Thank God first because He gave us what we gave you.” So I knew God was a good person. When He received my messages, I would be joining my grandmother, Grand Da, in New York.
The flight was to leave in the afternoon, but Grand Da had to be at the airport many hours before.
“Jacky,” my mom yelled, “you need to get ready.” With her help, I was dressed in my nicest clothes and my hair was neatly combed.
When it was time to leave the house, my father, Grand Da, two of my five brothers, a cousin, and I hopped into the Chevrolet that my dad drove as a cab driver. My father was not as happy as the rest of us. He kept saying over and over again that his mother was going someplace he could never drive to see her.
The trip to the airport was exciting. There were big and small cars, trucks, old and new colorful tap taps (mini-buses), bikes, and motorcycles cruising in the same or opposite direction at various speeds, on paved roads in some areas and dirt roads full of potholes in other places. Along the way, tall trees with long branches full of green leaves provided cover from the burning sun for people standing, sitting, or simply walking on both sides of the road. Street vendors were everywhere, with everything from mixed vegetables and live chickens to candies, fresh fruits and roasted peanuts. There were women carrying piles of food on their heads, calling out the fruits names for greater attention.
All in all, I kept thinking what a special treat it was to go to the airport and how lucky Grandma was to be going to New York.
The airport was huge. People were moving at different speeds, some with suitcases and others without. I wondered if there was anyone inside those suitcases because some were very big. Everyone was cheerful, but those leaving were the happiest. It was going to take God a long time to see all those people and read all their messages.
While inside, I heard voices right above my head. But when I looked up, there was not a soul in sight. It felt somewhat strange, even frightening, especially when the person kept talking without showing a face.
The check-in area was a long desk with several people standing alongside each other, asking many questions of those leaving. I stepped closer to hear what was being said. If this was a test one must pass to see God, I needed to know the answers. About five to ten minutes later I figured out, “May I see your passport and ticket?” was the main question. But what was a passport or a ticket? I stayed silent, hoping sooner or later someone would call out the answers.
But then I noticed something else. Most people didn’t even give an answer. What they did instead was hand over an envelope. What was the secret in the envelope? Unless I knew the answers or had an envelope to hand over, seeing God was not going to happen. But, if Grand Da passed the test, either she or my father must know the answers. Before long, one of them would have to share them with me.
About fifteen minutes later, my father, fighting back his tears, said softly, “Let’s say goodbye to Grand Da. It is time for her to leave.” She was in tears. My cousin Jean-René and my brother Ronald soon followed. I was crying too but nothing close to Jean-René. He was out of control. I mean, I could understand the crying, but not all that followed! One moment he was holding his head and the next rubbing his tummy or stomping his feet. Before you knew it, he was grabbing Grand Da’s hand, yelling and jumping at the same time. One of the vendors was so moved by his tears he ended up giving him a free candy. I started to yell even louder, looking directly into the vendor’s eyes, hoping for a free candy as well. Instead, he acted as if I scared him and walked away. I was angry.
We walked upstairs to see Grand Da get on the airplane. Since there was a crowd in front of us, I told my father I wanted to move closer so I could have a better look at the airplane. I asked everyone to excuse me while I pushed myself forward to get in front of the crowd. After a few dirty looks and a couple of pushes in return, I ended up exactly where I wanted to be.
I looked below and there it was.
I was shocked. If there had been any water on the ground, I would have said this was the biggest fish I had ever seen. But since it was dry and the airplane was standing still on the cleanest, longest paved road I had seen so far in Port-au-Prince, it looked more like a beautiful bird ready to flap its wings.
Why were the wings so wide? The tires? The tail? Why were they so big? What about the windows, why so many? How many people would have to push it to make it run? I had seen five, six and up to seven people pushing cars that wouldn’t start. I thought a plane in the air with so many people sitting inside wouldn’t get very far.
I lost track of everything else around me while looking at the airplane and all its parts until my father said, “Grand Da should be walking out soon.” He then pointed downstairs to the people going to the airplane and told us to keep looking until we saw her. “When you do,” he said, “call her name and wave goodbye.”
It was hard to tell who would get to see God first, but I knew it was not going to be Grand Da because there were way too many people ahead of her. To me, Grand Da never walked, but traced her steps. When she moved, even the slowest cat could compete. She was short, pretty, and had a smile bright enough to cheer up even the meanest soul. But boy, oh boy, was she slow.
Finally, she made her way out. We did exactly what Dad asked us to do. We screamed “Grand Da, Grand Da!” and waved goodbye at the same time. From time to time, she would look back, stop and wave goodbye as well. As soon as she reached the airplane’s stairs, she turned around and waved for the last time.
The entrance door was closed and the stairs moved away. I was about to watch what my eyes were ready to see, but my mind not yet ready to believe. The airplane started to move slowly. It took one turn, then a second; it started moving faster and became noisier. I kept wondering why no one opened a window to wave goodbye again.
Suddenly, the airplane stopped. I thought, “Oh no, maybe it’s coming back to let some people off.” I knew it! There were just too many people. I was nervous. I only hoped Grand Da was not one of them. But what happened next was really surprising. The airplane made a very big noise and started to run fast, very fast!
I screamed and yelled, “Faster airplane, faster!” About midway out, the head of the airplane left the ground. I was waiting for it to come back down, but in just a split second the whole airplane was off the ground, and yes, it was in the air all by itself.
“Incroyable!” shouted someone.
“Bravo, bravo,” said another while clapping. The crowd joined in by clapping with even more excitement. With the wings jiggling from side to side, the airplane looked like a bird dancing in the sky.
I kept saying, “Bye airplane, bye airplane,” but instead of saying bye back to me, it disappeared into the clouds with my grandmother in it.
On our way downstairs, I held my father’s hand tightly and asked, “What is a ticket and a passport?”
As always, his answer was brief, “They are documents needed to get on the airplane.” From the pain in his voice and the frown on his face, I knew I needed to be quiet. The sadness of never seeing Grand Da again began to sink in slowly.
As we were in the car heading back home, it seemed as if Dad was trying to catch the airplane. He sped like a mad man. I closed my eyes. My grandmother was gone and I would never get to see her again.