Choosing the become adoptive or foster parents is an act that should be commended. Not only are the mom and dad to be embracing the special task of raising a child, but they’re going out of their way to give a child a second chance in life.
When Jaci and Stephan Ohayon traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2017 they met Jonas – a kid who grew up in the streets, shining tourists’ shoes to feed himself. Their meeting with Jonas would change Stephan and Jaci’s life forever. Now Jaci shares her story – a story that has touched thousands of people around the world.
“‘How did you get here?’ I ask him over a pile of mashed potatoes. It is storming outside and I am thrilled to be eating cold-weather food on the normally hot island I moved my family to a few months prior.
The boy I am talking to is holding his fork with all four fingers wrapped around the hilt and stabs at the soft mound on his plate. He has dark skin, round eyes, and a brilliant smile. His birth certificate says he is nearly 14, but I have my doubts.
‘I walked.’ He shrugs and scoops up some more potatoes onto his fork. For the millionth time, I notice how white and beautiful his teeth are, whiter than the mound currently making its way towards his mouth.
‘From Haiti?’ I gasp. ‘You walked from Haiti? With your mother?’ I ask incredulously.
‘No,’ he whispers. ‘I walked from Haiti by myself.’
‘But where did you sleep? What did you eat?’
‘You can sleep anywhere when you are tired enough.’
‘Were you scared?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says simply in the same sort of tone one would typically use to attest to the fact the sky is blue or the grass is green.
Then tears start cascading down his cheeks.
I didn’t birth him, but he is mine, this boy.
I know it because I feel him like I feel my hand or foot moving when I wiggle the extremities that exist there. I was drawn to him the first time I saw him, back before I even decided to move my family here. Back when I was on a mission, searching for purpose. He was frolicking in the waves. I was breaking my strict Paleo diet and eating pizza, the kind with thin crust and gooey cheese. It was a pizza worth breaking my diet for.
He was throwing his flip flops into the sea and then diving in to retrieve them. He was costumed in a pair of khaki-colored pants and a blue shirt. He dove into the waves with glee, clothes and all. I marveled at that. ‘What is he doing?’ my blonde son asked me. I watched the boy getting tumbled by the waves. ‘I don’t know. Maybe he is multitasking by exercising and doing laundry at the same time,’ I joked. We all laughed. It has been nine months since that day.
When he came back to shore, we offered him some of the pizza. He smiled at our offer, and I noticed his beautiful teeth. His eagerness to share our meal, coupled with his size, told me he was about 11. Maybe 12, albeit a small 12-year-old.
At the end of the meal, he told us that he had to go to catch his bus back home. ‘Where is home?’ we asked. ‘Far away,’ he replied, and then he enlightened us on his daily doings. Each day, he took a bus back and forth with his shoeshine box to clean shoes for 25 cents per pair. He was a boy with a job.
After that day, I began to look for him. Each trip into the village resulted in me searching for a small dark face and white teeth, hunched down cleaning shoes. Sometimes I saw him and sometimes I did not. Each time I did, it was a hug and a meal. ‘Eat with us,’ we would say. ‘I can’ or ‘I can’t,’ he would say. He pushed our kids on the swing at the park. We marveled at his much too short pants and much too big shoes. ‘How do we help him?’ we took turns asking each other. After all, we wore flip-flops, not very shoeshine friendly attire. We gave him money anyway, once for a shirt and pants. ‘How much do you need?’ we asked. ‘Four dollars,’ he replied. ‘Shirt and pants for 4 dollars?’ we wondered.
Then there was the night we drove him home. It was the same exact pizza spot, but this time, instead of taking glee in each savory tomatoey gooey bite, I was irritated. My husband was leaving soon, and my world was off. Then he walked by.
I could tell when he sat down that something was amiss. My Shoeshine Boy, normally all smiles, looked like he was about to cry. ‘What is wrong?’ we asked. ‘Nothing,’ he muttered. But I could tell there was something. I was a mama. I knew these things. ‘What is wrong?’ I persisted.
‘I missed my bus,’ he replied. ‘I cannot go home tonight.’
‘Where will you sleep,’ I asked?
‘I will sleep somewhere in the village. Probably on a bench at the park,’ he replied.
I thought about the park he was referring to. It was not a park filled with secret spots and shade-providing trees. It was small and exposed, filled with girls in revealing clothing and men trying to sell cell phones. It was not a park where a boy could spend the night, unnoticed and unharmed. Even though I had no right, even though I was not his mother, I knew I could not allow this.
‘Would you like us to take you home?’ I asked. We had offered before. The answer was always, ‘No.’
‘Yes. Please,’ he pleaded. His quick response shocked me. In that moment, I wondered if he was actually younger than 11 or 12. Maybe he was a big ten-year-old.
My husband went to pay the bill as the kids and I headed for the car, but on the way, a man approached us. My Shoeshine Boy flinched. He was scared. The man pulled him aside and I saw money change hands. ‘Why did you do that?’ I asked. ‘For protection,’ he replied. His face crumpled, and I could tell that he was trying to hold back his tears. I puffed up. I willed myself to grow large and scary. ‘He is with me,’ I boomed in my best French accent to the man who took the money and now glared at us from across the street. ‘He is with us,’ my husband, in his perfect French accent, confirmed. He threw his arm around our shoeshine boy as if to publicly proclaim, in an act, what we just verbally said. ‘He is with us.’
We got into the car and started driving towards the direction he told us to go. ‘Are you sure we should do this?’ I asked my husband. We had been warned not to go in this direction, especially after dark. Twenty minutes later, we still had not arrived. Hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck. ‘What is this familiar sensation?’ I asked myself. Bubbles start popping in my belly. Anxiety, I realized. Something was amiss.
‘Something is amiss,’ my husband echoed my thoughts. ‘I don’t like this.’ By this point, we had passed any other areas where the people shared our skin color. We were pale in the darkness.
‘I don’t like this,’ my husband repeated.
Our charge, quiet in the back seat, said nothing. He had become a mouse. ‘Where do you live?’ we took turns asking. ‘Further,’ he replied. ‘Past the river.’
‘Mommy, where are we going?’ a small voice asked from the back seat. My born children, seven and nine, were growing restless. ‘How much longer? Where does he live?’ they took turns asking.
‘Should we turn around?’ my husband wondered aloud. I wondered that, too. Perhaps our shoeshine boy could just come home with us, sleep on our couch.
But we continued, singing hymns and holding onto faith we would be safe in the very area we had been warned not to go. Soon after, he told us to stop. I looked around. I saw nothing but a shack of a restaurant with a tool shed and some dilapidated houses. ‘Where do you live?’ I asked. He couldn’t hear me because he was already out of the car and running towards the dark tool-shed.
He banged on the door and a second later it opened. A tall woman stepped out. ‘Mama!’ he said. She saw him and pulled him to her. I got out of the car and made my way towards the shed. No light emitted from the interior.
When Mama saw me, she rushed towards me. I was balancing on crutches and almost fell. She caught me. Before I could even utter a salutation, she had my cheeks in her hands and covered my face in an array of wet kisses. ‘Thank you,’ she said over and over and over.
I tried not to stare at their ‘home’ as I headed back to the car. ‘He lives THERE?’ my children asked. ‘Yes,’ was all I could reply. I knew this was the time for another lecture about how blessed and fortunate we were, but I had said it over and over and over since we arrived in this country and was out of words. Besides, I couldn’t believe he lived there, either.
In early December, he showed up to help me at work. We hung ivy together. He sang loudly and off-key, joyously, innocently. There was no self-consciousness. Maybe he is a tall eight-year-old, I wondered. ‘What do you love most about Christmas?’ I asked him. ‘Presents!’ he said with sparkling eyes. I wondered what sort of presents he was looking forward to. Surely his Christmas list didn’t mimic my own children’s. I bet he didn’t even know what an Xbox was.
Halfway through our ivy hanging session, he yawned and then fell asleep, arm still outstretched with a plastic piece of ivy strung from his hand. I didn’t believe he was really sleeping. I told a joke, and he didn’t respond. I nudged his arm, he didn’t respond. He really was sleeping, I realized. I pulled the curtains down that I had just hung and made him a bed. ‘Sleep here,’ I roused him. He obeyed without question.
When he woke up two hours later, there were children in the courtyard making crafts. Each craft cost two dollars. He stared at my daughter and marveled at her creations. ‘Would you like to make something for your Mama?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have the money,’ he responded, looking at the floor. I held it out to him, the equivalent of cleaning 16 pairs of shoes. He grabbed it enthusiastically and ran to the craft table. Maybe he is nine, I thought.
One candle set and one Christmas tree made from a book later and he was all smiles. He proudly showed me his artwork. ‘For my Mama!’ he said. ‘She will be delighted,’ I replied. I really believed that she would be. She must be. Oh, please be delighted, I silently told her on the wind, one mother to another.
Then Mama showed up at my door. She looked different than the last time I saw her. Her clothes were still worn, but she was dressed nicely. She had on a skirt, a button-up shirt, and a pretty scarf. It looked like it was an important day in her world, and I wondered whether it was a Haitian Christmas holiday I wasn’t aware of.
‘Hello Mama,’ I said to her and kissed her on both cheeks. After she pulled back from me, she clasped my cheeks in her hands and stared into my eyes. I was puzzled but returned her gaze. I saw tears in her eyes. When she let me go, she thrust a plastic sack into my hands. It was a little garbage sack, the size of a bathroom wastebasket, and it felt like there were some clothes inside of it.
‘You can offer him a better life than I can. You can change his life,’ Mama said to me. I felt her words like a slap in the face when I realized what she was asking of me. She wanted me to take her boy, the one that we both loved, but she birthed. ‘Please. Take him,’ she begged.
I looked down to the ground as I held back my own tears. She was probably right. I probably could offer him a better life, at least materialistically. Even broke, like I have been so many times in my life, I probably had more than she ever dreamed of. I’ve been poor. I’ve been very very very poor, but I have never ever had nothing. I have never lived in a toolshed without electricity without indoor plumbing or furniture. We always had some sort of food. ‘Please. Take him,’ she begged me.
‘I can’t,’ I stammered back while my brain tried to figure out how I could. ‘I don’t know how long I will live here. He doesn’t have a passport. I cannot take him with me when I leave. I probably could never take him with me,’ I replied to her wet face. I can’t take him, I affirmed to myself. I probably will never be able to get him a visa. ‘How can I fall in love with a child and then leave him behind?’ I asked myself, aware it was already much too late for that.
‘I cannot take him,’ I repeated more harshly than I meant to, more to myself than to her.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘Even if it is only for a few months. Show him what you can. Teach him what you can. Show him how to change his life. Show him how to become a man with a future.’
I knew, even as I was shaking my head and telling her no, that I must. Mama, who I knew loved her boy, was willing to give him up to me. If she could sacrifice a few months in the hopes of a future, then surely, I could too. Could we both love this boy, with his megawatt smile, secondhand clothes, and shoes that were two sizes too big?
He lives with us now. He says he is 13 almost 14, but I am pretty sure he is more like 11, almost 12. He does the dishes, always, without me asking. He mops the floor, always without me asking. He waits to eat until everyone has had their fill and then won’t eat seconds at all if he thinks someone else might. He is the most nonintrusive person I have ever been around.
I love him. I love him as I love my own natural born babies. But with that love comes fear, because I don’t know how I can possibly keep him safe, long term. Focus on the now, I remind myself over and over. This was never supposed to be forever, so just focus on what you can teach him now. But what can I teach him?
‘It is dangerous here! Especially for Haitians!’ our cook says to me over the mashed potatoes. He looks at my Shoeshine Boy in disgust. ‘Stop crying!’ As if to prove his point, he lifts his shirt and shows me five stab wounds from the night, two years ago, when three men robbed him with machetes.
I hesitate before I respond, because how the hell am, I supposed to respond? My motto has always been that boys absolutely can cry. There is no shame in crying. But it is easy to teach my golden-haired son that because I am not preparing him for a life in the underworld, a life surviving the streets. Maybe shoeshine boys shouldn’t cry. Maybe crying boys who live on the streets get killed.
I hug my crying Shoeshine Boy and, for the trillionth time since he came into my life, I pray fervently over him. ‘Please God,’ I beg, ‘Please. Please help me help him. Please.’
I don’t know how this story ends. I don’t know how in the world it will have a happy ending, but I remind myself the world has nothing to do with it. God does. All I have to do is have faith and wait for the answer.
I didn’t birth him, but he is mine, my Shoeshine Boy.”