Crizilov with a young friend
"So have you seen any progress?"
This is the question I'm most often asked when people learn I live in Haiti. Vague as it is, I feel this question can be answered in the story of a child named is Crizilov.
His dark eyes were filled with anger and pain as he stood on the street corner and watched the world walk past him in February 2012. He was 15 years old. He'd shine shoes to make enough money for the day. He'd spend nights on a piece of cardboard, laid out on the concrete ground under a bar's entrance.
But his outer, silent shell hid a vulnerability: he longed for stability and safety. One night, I saw the boy sitting on a divider in the middle of a busy Haitian street. I sat down beside him and saw his eyes were filled with tears and he was holding a small photo in his hand. He showed me the photo, it was a young woman.
"My mother," Crizilov grunted, "She died when I was 3. If she'd been here, I would have gone to school. She wouldn't have let me live in the streets."
The tough, street-hardened teenager fell into my lap and cried. I became Crizilov's legal guardian and he moved into our safe house.
The illiterate teenager was eager to go to school — so he did. But he was self-conscious and insecure; only once everyone else went to sleep was he willing to study and practice the alphabet. Yet after five months, Crizilov was writing in French and tackling 3-digit math problems.
Eventually, Crizilov decided to introduce me to his aunt. We pulled up to a dirt road just minutes from the street corner Crizilov had lived on. He stopped abruptly on the side of the road and pointed me in the direction of his aunt.
Later, showing me two dark scars on his forearm, Crizilov confided that he'd once lived with his aunt, but his uncle had forced him to stay at home and sell produce instead of going to school. Crizilov had been beaten and burned for helping himself to food, and was constantly on the receiving end of his uncle's aggression — leaving him and the entire family in a constant state of fear.
Crizilov and I began to visit his aunt regularly. Soon she shared stories about how her husband's abuse sent her children to the hospital, and how neighbours had to tear him off of her. Yet she stayed with him because she couldn't afford her own house. Little Footprints Big Steps supporters — consisting primarily of Yukoners — came through.
We rented a home for Crizilov's aunt and her children. One month later, Crizilov moved in with his family. He finally had his own home.
In April 2013, I sat beside Crizilov at his aunt's coffee table. She tutored him, urging the teenager to correct his math questions. Across the candle-lit table sat Crizilov's cousin, reciting her history homework out loud. Glancing up from his math notebook, Crizilov caught my eye. I felt overwhelmed with pride. A huge, open smile spread across Crizilov's face and I could see happiness in his eyes. He confidently took a piece of chalk and started writing on a small chalkboard his aunt had pasted onto their wall. After one semester of school, the former street boy had achieved above average marks and skipped up to second grade. Fourteen months after I'd found this boy sleeping on a street corner – 12 months after he'd sobbed in my lap – Crizilov had rediscovered himself, his confidence and his family.
That, I'd say, is progress.