July 2015

Marie Marthe Dorvil was a traumatised 13-year-old who had lost a leg in Haiti’s earthquake when Times journalist Martin Fletcher brought her to live in England. Five years on, she must go back home to one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in the world. By trying to help, did he do the wrong thing?

I am on a flight from Paris to Haiti. I am accustomed to feeling apprehensive on planes because so often they have taken me on reporting assignments to hazardous places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. But today the cause of my anxiety – anguish, even – is very different. It is the pretty young girl sitting next to me.

Her name is Marie Marthe Dorvil. She is 17, and a typical western teenager in appearance. She is wearing a denim jacket and jeans. She has long braided hair, freshly painted fingernails and newly plucked eyebrows. She has a pair of bright blue headphones on. Earlier, she was listening to DJ Snake and Lil Jon on her iPod. Now she is watching an in-flight movie – Kenneth Branagh’s new version ofCinderella, starring Lily James and Cate Blanchett.

I stare out of the window at the cotton-wool clouds and the shimmering blue Atlantic far below. I lament that in real life, unlike fairytales, stories do not always have happy endings. That dreams do not always come true. Certainly those that I had five years ago when I brought Marie to Britain – a painfully thin and traumatised 13-year-old who had lost a leg in Haiti’s earthquake – have not. What torments me is the fear that by trying to help, I have actually done her a great disservice.

Marie blossomed in Britain in many ways, but not academically. Without GCSEs, she could not extend her visa. Now thoroughly pampered and westernised, how can she possibly cope back in Haiti? It is the poorest and most hopeless country in the western hemisphere. It is corrupt, often violent and plagued by disease and malnourishment. Most of its people struggle simply to survive. It is a land of scavengers, hawkers and hustlers, and nothing that this innocent, sweet-natured girl learnt in Britain has prepared her for that.

I first encountered Marie in May 2010, five months after the earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless. I was writing an article for this magazine on children rescued from the rubble. I chose Marie because The Times had published a harrowing picture of her sitting on a hospital bed a few days after the quake, her right thigh a bandaged stump, a look of great sadness on her face.

I arranged to interview her at the St Damien children’s hospital on the edge of Port-au-Prince, where she had been treated. She arrived on crutches, with her father. Speaking in Creole, she told me through an interpreter how she had been trapped beneath a falling wall and taken to the general hospital, but such was the mayhem after the quake that she received no treatment for two days. By the time she reached St Damien, her leg was so infected that amputation was the only option.

“I want to become a doctor so I can help others like I was helped,” she said. But that, I wrote, would take a miracle. Her father was a penniless labourer. Her home had been destroyed. Haiti made no provision for the disabled – indeed, it stigmatised them. “Life in Haiti is endlessly cruel,” I concluded.

Normally, that would have been that. I had my story. I had used Marie to publicise the plight of the earthquake’s victims. She was a gutsy girl with a lovely smile, but I had to maintain an emotional distance. I returned to London, ready to fly off to the next conflict, revolution or natural disaster.

A few days after the story was published, however, my BlackBerry pinged. It was an email from the principal of the Cambridge International School, Harriet Sturdy. “I read with great sadness your recent article regarding Marie Marthe Dorvil,” she said. “We would be happy to offer her a full scholarship and in this way perhaps we can help in her wish to become a doctor.”

It was an astounding offer, but raised difficult questions. Would it be right to take Marie away from everything she knew? Could a girl from the humblest background, who spoke not a word of English, cope with such a transition? If she did, could she ever go home again? And, if I am honest, one more: would we be doing this for her, or to make ourselves feel good?

I visited the school. I was impressed by its happy atmosphere and by the sincerity of Sturdy, whose parents had adopted nine children of different nationalities. After much deliberation, I decided to pass the offer on, because I did not think I had the right to withhold it. I reckoned that Marie had no prospects whatsoever in Haiti. And I worked out the answer to one other nagging question: why help one girl when hundreds of thousands of Haitian children desperately needed help? It was because I could.

Needless to say, the offer was gratefully accepted. Marie’s aunt, Mimose, who had raised her since her mother died soon after her birth, called it a “gift from God”.

It took six months of relentless bureaucratic haggling to bring Marie to Britain, during which I learnt the truth of the Haitian proverb, “Deriyer morn gen morn” (“Beyond each summit lies another”). We had to get her a birth certificate, passport and visa, and myself permission to take a minor out of Haiti – all that in a country that lacked both a functioning government and British embassy. We succeeded only by pulling strings and greasing palms in the best Haitian tradition, and with the help of various officials who were touched by her story.

In early December 2010, I went to fetch Marie from the town of Arcahaie, two hours north of Port-au-Prince, where she had lived with Mimose and her extended family since the quake. I found her in a small shack with no running water or electricity. She came away with nothing except the T-shirt, skirt and flip-flops she was wearing. Mimose handed me a letter as we left. “I’m asking God to take care of you,” it said. “All our hope is in your hands.”

Marie was 13 or thereabouts – nobody knew her exact date of birth. She had never been in a plane before, and was clearly afraid when we took off. She had never used a knife and fork. She saw snow for the first time when we landed in Paris after an overnight flight, and took fright at the sight of an airport escalator.

What she was thinking throughout that interminable journey I had no idea, because we could not communicate. By the time we finally reached cold, dark London, 4,500 miles from the tropical Caribbean, late that afternoon, she was exhausted. I took her home, where she had her first proper bath and then slept for 16 hours. The next day I delivered her to Cambridge, believing my job was done. It did not, of course, turn out like that. In a manner I had never anticipated, I had grown fond of this plucky, trusting Haitian waif, and found that I felt responsible for her.

Marie was an instant hit at the Cambridge International School. Days after her arrival, it held a Christmas talent show. Other students performed their set pieces on the clarinet or violin. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, Marie stood unprompted and made her way to the front of the hall on her crutches. She began to sing in her native Creole, swaying slightly. The audience listened in rapt silence, then erupted in cheers. “It was the most beautiful thing, completely mesmerising. The staff had tears falling down their cheeks,” Sturdy said.

Marie never looked back. She lived with Sturdy’s sister, Becka Atkins, whose family called Marie “our Haitian princess” and embraced her as one of their own. She was given a proper prosthetic leg by Addenbrooke’s Hospital and dispensed with her crutches. She acquired the glasses that nobody in Haiti realised she needed. If she was homesick, or traumatised by all she had gone through, she seldom showed it. She was fun and sweet-natured, apart from the occasional adolescent tantrum, and displayed not a shred of self-pity.

Marie hated being thought of as disabled, and went out of her way to show she was not. That first winter, she went tobogganing with the other pupils. She played football with the boys. During an outdoor activity course in Kent, she scaled a climbing wall that defeated some of her classmates. At the school’s summer sports day, she insisted on taking part in a relay race before hundreds of spectators. Everyone cheered her on. “It was a real heart-tugger,” said Sturdy’s husband, Russell Lord. More recently she took violin and street-dancing classes, appearing in two summer shows, and completed two long hikes with heavy backpacks for her Duke of Edinburgh bronze award.

Marie sometimes came to stay with my family during the holidays. Like most people who got to know her, my son and daughters loved her. They teased her and she teased them. Her first Christmas we took her to London Zoo and rented a wheelchair, but she ended up pushing me around in it, amid much hilarity. For her second Christmas, my wife, Katy, suggested buying her a bike. She would never be able to ride it, I retorted. Katy prevailed and, ten minutes after receiving it, Marie was pedalling around and shrieking with pleasure. “Thank you to let me still in your house. And it very nist to see you. And I have a very good times with you,” she wrote afterwards.

We took her to Suffolk, where she climbed trees, flew kites and hopped happily into the sea to swim after removing her prosthetic leg. At my son’s wedding last summer, she drank a little too much champagne and merrily danced the night away. Of everything she tried, only Rollerblades defeated her.

Academically, however, Marie always struggled. Early on she was moved from the main school to a unit for children requiring special support. She received one-to-one tuition. Katy, who is a school librarian, skyped her on Sundays to help her reading. But the challenge was too great. She had arrived in Britain at 13, illiterate and speaking not a word of English. She had had minimal education. There was no tradition of learning in her family. Nor, in truth, did she know the meaning of hard work.

As time passed, the problem became increasingly acute. Marie had learnt to speak English, and could read and write moderately well, but her progress was painfully slow. There was no way she could pass the GCSEs required to move on to further education and extend her visa. With medicine ruled out, the school began exploring alternatives – midwifery, nursing, childcare – but Marie qualified for none of them. We simply ran out of options. She had to go home.

Marie seldom spoke about her feelings, but she was clearly worried about the prospect. Becka Atkins and her family left Cambridge in 2014, and Marie moved to another host family, Nina and Harry Tteralli, who also treated her like a daughter. She told Nina she was scared of further earthquakes. She sent Atkins an email saying she desperately wanted to be a midwife and promising to “try my holders [hardest]” if she could remain. Without telling anybody, she responded to an advertisement on the internet from a London agency seeking aspiring models – thinking that might enable her to stay here.

In April, Marie wrote me an email in her own idiosyncratic style. “Dear Martin,” it began. “I am writing to you, not just to tell you how I feel about going back to Haiti but also what I am going back to. My life was a mess when I used to live in Haiti I never thought it was going to make me who I am today, love my family a family who care about me, when I was in Haiti I didn’t have that, and I have great friends I thought I would never have loved school and learnt how to read I never thought I could do that. My live was ruined … and then you came a long and took me away from it … Being with a family who love me is the best thing in my live. And you give it to me, and now you say you’re going to send me back to the beginning … Please help me, I know I shouldn’t ask you for help, you already down enough I am sorry.”

From Haiti, I received an equally disturbing message. An American friend who lives there told me: “If she comes back, she’ll be pregnant within three months.”

I contacted everyone I knew in Haiti, asking them to look out for diplomatic families needing a western-educated au pair. I called NGOs to see if they could use an English-speaking girl. In desperation I emailed Father Rick Frechette, the American priest who runs St Damien hospital, to ask if he could suggest anything. He wrote back to say I should contact Jaebets Jean Gilles, who administers the hospital’s vocational school. He asked me to bring Marie to see him. Clutching at that slender straw, we prepared for her departure.

Marie was given another new prosthetic leg. She was inoculated against cholera, hepatitis and other diseases. She was offered a contraceptive implant but declined, insisting she would steer clear of Haitian boys – “No boys because the only thing they want to have sex,” she wrote on her laptop in what she called her “book”. There were last-minute shopping trips, and a party at the Tteralli house at which all those who had cared for Marie bade her an emotional farewell.

“My overriding feeling is one of sadness, because we’ve done half the job and can’t see it through,” Harriet Sturdy admitted. “I feel terribly, terribly worried that maybe it would have been better to have left her alone. I feel worried that in trying to do the right thing, I’ve contributed to doing the wrong thing.”

Marie was also concerned – that she had let Sturdy down. “Do you think Harriet is proud of me?” she asked anxiously, as Katy and I drove her back to London.

It is two days later when Marie and I land in the furnace heat of late afternoon Port-au-Prince. We drive up through the teeming, congested chaos of the city to a friend’s house high in the hills behind. Disconcertingly, the servants who regarded Marie as an equal five years ago now treat her with deference. Some rapid adjustment will be necessary.

The next morning I take her to see Jaebets Jean Gilles at a complex of rather spartan buildings on a dusty, sun-baked plain north of Port-au-Prince. He raises my spirits by offering to enrol Marie on a four-year nursing course, but swiftly dampens them by warning that the textbooks and exams are in French, not Creole. Marie’s French is rusty, to say the least.

I have grave doubts about her ability to cope with the course, but no plan B. Barbe, my translator, also happens to be a teacher, and he agrees to tutor and find her accommodation near the school before the course begins in November. But even Marie is dubious. “I’ll do my best, but I don’t know if I can,” she says.

The following day, I take her home. We drive north past shanty towns erected on bare hillsides by those who lost their homes in the earthquake, past the mass graves where the victims of the 2010 cholera epidemic were buried, through deforested scrubland whose precious topsoil long ago washed into the sea. In Arcahaie, we turn off the paved road and jolt two miles up a rutted track lined by breeze-block shacks and a voodoo temple decorated with macabre murals. It is well over 90 degrees.

When we can drive no further, we walk up a track through trees and banana palms to the simple huts where Marie’s extended family live. Barefooted ragamuffins run out to greet her. Her father, who was only an intermittent presence in her life before she went to Britain, is there and gives her a brief hug. Mimose embraces her warmly. Everyone is excited, Marie included. Mimose has no tea, coffee or bottled water to offer us, so she sends a boy shimmying up a palm tree to collect coconuts and hacks off their tops with a machete.

As we sit in the shade of the dusty yard, drinking the sweet water, I look around and the enormity of what we have done hits me with unexpected force. It is ferociously hot and airless. A few chickens peck in the dirt. A piglet is tied to a tree. The huts have small, glassless windows and corrugated-iron roofs. There is no sanitation, no comforts, nothing except the most basic of life’s necessities. With her smart clothes, jewellery and make-up, Marie is decked out like a creature from another world. She has more possessions in her two large cases than her entire family put together. She has electrical gadgets galore – a laptop, mobile phone, iPod, Kindle, camera – but nowhere to charge them. Her books are exotic artefacts from a foreign land. She no longer belongs here.

Although Mimose is pleased to see her, she too is worried. She had not expected Marie to return. She asks me if she will be able to go back to England. “Life in Haiti is so hard and poor. I don’t want her to come back to this misery,” she says in Creole. It is an awkward and uncomfortable conversation. I explain that Marie hopes to do a nursing course in Port-au-Prince, and that we will continue to support her, but I am full of foreboding as I give Marie a final hug. “I’d like a shower,” she says as I leave, wistfully acknowledging how dramatically her circumstances have changed.

Marie has had five happy years in Britain – that can never be taken away from her. She has learnt to read, write and speak English, which few other Haitians can. She has overcome the loss of her leg, which she might never have done otherwise. She has matured physically and emotionally, grown in stature and confidence, and broadened her horizons. She has shown resilience, and I pray she has acquired the gumption and drive to escape her wretched background. We will certainly continue to support her any way we can.

But right now, it seems that we should have taught her not English, good manners and the violin, but the guile, cunning and ruthlessness required to get ahead in Haiti. It seems as though we have expended all that energy, time and money in vain. It seems as though we have taken her to the ball, like Cinderella, but then returned her to destitution.

That night, back in Port-au-Prince, I open an envelope that Marie left for me and my family. “Read when I am gone,” she had written on it. Inside, a thank-you card bore this scrawled message: “I was every scard when I see you at fast and I had to come to England with you. You were a bit strange to me, but now you are my English family. I will always have happy memories of you especially Katy cakes and Martin bad jokes. This is not a goodbye it a see you son card. I’ll miss you all … lot of love from Marie Dorvil.”

My eyes water. It is painful to read.