Those Ten Missionaries in Haiti: Heroes, Villains, or Idiots?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column which focused on the praise-worthy efforts of American rescue workers in Haiti. Each day in Haiti, American rescue workers, aid volunteers, and medical personnel have been working to restore some semblance of normalcy to the nation devastated by the January 12th earthquake. Bodies have been pulled out of the rubble, food has been distributed in massive quantities, and countless men, women, and children have received desperately-needed medical care thanks to these courageous efforts. However, some of the comments about my previous article rightly claimed that I was presenting only one part of the story, and hinted at the darker side of the aid process.

The authors of these comments were almost immediately vindicated. Early this month, media outlets buzzed with the story of 10 American citizens, associated with baptist churches in Meridian and Twin Falls, Idaho, who were arrested on charges of kidnapping 33 children and planning to take them across the border into the Dominican Republic. Under the leadership of Laura Silsby, this group—including at least two teenagers—claimed that they were merely rescuing orphans from collapsed orphanages in Port-au-Prince and escorting them to the group’s own facility in Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

In fact, at least 22 of the children still have parents, many of whom gave up their children in the hope that they would fare better under the group’s care. The group also failed to obtain the required paperwork to conduct a border-crossing operation, and knowingly proceeded without acquiring the required paperwork from the Haitian government. To their credit, they did have authorization from the government of the Dominican Republic. But the Dominican consul in Haiti, who met with Ms. Silsby, says he was “very specific” that without the correct Haitian paperwork, the group would be engaged in child trafficking.

Which leads to the question: what the hell were they thinking? It seems that any effort to categorize the group’s actions must conclude somewhere between wicked, at the one extreme, and woefully foolish on the other.

Plenty of evidence points to the group’s motives being as malevolent as they sound. Some of this turns on ad-hominem arguments about Ms. Silsby’s long history of legal troubles back at home in Idaho. The owner of an online shopping business named Personal Shopper, Silsby has received over a dozen legal complaints due to unpaid employee wages and faces eight civil lawsuits. Her home in Meridian, Idaho is in foreclosure. Pointing to such personal flaws might be petty. But at the very least, they demonstrate that Ms. Silsby was a curious choice to lead the rescue mission and ultimately head an orphanage of over 100 children.

But there are deeper concerns: an online document outlining the rescue mission (which is still retrievable with a Google search, for those who want to take a look), uses some interesting language, to say the least. The itinerary for Sunday, January 23rd, reads: “Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port au Prince, Haiti and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the DR.” Gather from the streets? I’m reminded of Mrs. Coulter, a character from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, who kidnaps children for use in experiments in much the same way. The idea that Haitian children, no doubt distressed and displaced in the wake of the earthquake, could be rounded up and trafficked out of the country in the name of “God’s love” has a disturbing, “White Man’s Burden” type of paternalism to it. Should we make too much of the fact that a Mrs. Charisa Coulter was a part of the group? You decide.

Still, we should give Ms. Silsby and her compatriots their fair due. It is conceivable that the group was genuinely committed to helping these (presumed) orphaned children, and simply went about their plan with utmost naiveté. For one thing, nine out of the ten members—that is, everyone except Ms. Silsby herself—seem to have committed no wrongdoing besides obeying a supposedly trustworthy group leader. They also had little idea of the technical details involved.

For another, it’s not like the group was trying to sneak across the Haitian border. According to their story, they were told at the border by Haitian officials that they needed additional paperwork to transport the children out of the country. The group complied, and planned to leave the children at the border until they received the necessary clearance. They were arrested before they had the chance. Lastly, though it is very easy for onlookers to sit back and inveigh against a shoddily-planned operation, it actually required a great deal of courage and sacrifice for these Americans to have made the trip in the first place. Maybe I would have done a much better job—but I never went.

The real shame is that, regardless of intentions, the group’s actions are having deep and unforeseen ramifications in Haiti. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an article which examined how the case has made it more difficult for American medical and rescue personnel to transport critically injured patients out of the country. These patients require care, in the form of equipment or procedures, that can only be provided in U.S. facilities. Many are destined to die, not because their injuries are untreatable, but because they lack the official paperwork required to leave the country. Before, paperwork could be completed after a patient was safe in a U.S. facility; now, many pilots are refusing to fly any undocumented injured, claiming that they will be fined $400,000, or lose their licenses. All said, the group of 10 from Idaho have made a horrible situation even worse.

As the saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.”

The Phoenix