Monday with Mitch: Civil war refugee offers hope in Haiti
This is a story Nedal Tamer tells. When he was a kid in war-torn Lebanon, his neighbor had a kidney problem. The only medical attention was in Beirut. So the man and his brother had to travel two hours by taxi. On the way, the taxi was stopped. A...
This is a story Nedal Tamer tells. When he was a kid in war-torn Lebanon, his neighbor had a kidney problem. The only medical attention was in Beirut. So the man and his brother had to travel two hours by taxi. On the way, the taxi was stopped. A checkpoint. A guard. The guard saw a tattoo on one brother's arm, accused him of being a Communist and murdered them both. He cut their bodies into pieces. He put the pieces in bags and sent them back with the taxi driver.
"That was war," Tamer said, looking around the Haitian streets. "But even in war, we had something to eat. Here in Haiti, the older boys stop me and say, 'Help us. We have no food.' In Lebanon, it was bad. But it is bad here, too."
Nedal Tamer is 36 years old. He journeyed from the Middle East to Detroit to escape violence and uncertainty. Yet here he was in troubled Haiti, for the fourth time in six months, helping reconstruct an orphanage. He has laid pipes, installed toilets, fixed drains, even gone out into the street, pickaxed the concrete and fixed a water main leak.
Nedal Tamer was born the year civil war started in Lebanon, 1975. He had his first job at age 10, pulling nails from old wood so it could be re-used. He has been laboring ever since. When he finished high school, his parents urged him to leave the country, feeling he had seen enough death and destruction.
Tamer, only 17, left for the United Arab Emirates. He took a job in a steel company. This was labor, too. Labor to survive. He made $60 a week. He lived in a camp. He stayed there four years, until a friend told him about Detroit.
"He said you can make $5 an hour there. I said, 'Let's go.' "
Tamer, a compact, powerful man with short dark hair and an adventurous spirit, first came to Haiti earlier this year, as part of a group nicknamed the Detroit Muscle Crew. This is a collection of volunteers who has fortified our efforts to operate an orphanage/mission that was founded decades ago by a Detroit pastor named John Hearn Sr., watched over tenderly by a Detroit missionary named Florence Moffett, and was beset by hard times after the massive 2010 earthquake.
In the past two years, new bathrooms, new showers, a new kitchen, a new dining room and a three-room schoolhouse have been constructed, and numerous improvements have been made to the facility. Nearly two dozen new children have been admitted, most under 5 years old.
Yet even with all the heroic efforts by dozens of volunteers at this orphanage, Tamer, who now has his own company in Dearborn, Tamer Plumbing, carved a unique reputation. On his first trip, he replaced the insides of virtually every toilet, rerouted pipes so that water could be accessed more easily, and somehow rigged things up so that a washing machine could be operated, which, in this poor corner of this much-impoverished city, is like putting a rocket ship in a garage.
On his second trip, he went beyond that. Realizing we were without a city water flow, he went out into the street, checked up and down with neighbors, isolated the problem area, then grabbed a pick ax and began chopping apart the concrete.
"No one is coming to fix it, we must do it ourselves," he insisted. This is not unusual in Haiti, taking matters into your own hands. What's unusual is someone cares enough to do so.
Once the leak was discovered, Tamer realized he was missing a part he'd need to fix it. Somehow he found a person with a motorcycle, communicated what he needed, then jumped on the back without telling anyone and raced off to a store -- all without speaking a word of Creole. He returned with the part, made the fix and pulled on a clean white T-shirt just in time to dash off to the airport.
"You do what you have to do," he said.
Weren't you worried, hopping on a motorcycle in a foreign country, not speaking the language?
"No." He smiled. "What is going to happen to me? Anyhow, the kids needed water. We have to get it."
And here is a third kind of labor. Selflessness. Nedal Tamer is a Muslim, married with four children. This is a Christian mission. He could easily say, "Not my kind."
Instead he says this: "When I was a boy, a sheik at a mosque told me if I even shake hands with a Christian, I have to wash myself all over or God will not accept me. That's how they made us hate each other, neighbor striking neighbor. They tell us that other people are not human.
"But I look at these people in Haiti. They have the same eyes as me, the same hands as me, why don't I want to help them? I don't want to see the world only by religion, or people the same as me. This is why I left Lebanon. I want to serve God, but it doesn't matter to me if the people are Muslim, Christian; if the people need help, they need help. The people in Haiti need help. We don't just see it on TV. We see it here with our own eyes."
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.