Ex British military officer Bob Craft felt compelled to help after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which killed at least 100,000 people, and the orphanage he helped create has flourished. But his next big goal could be his biggest challenge yet: helping the kids to succeed as they enter adulthood, says Mike Peake
As a former member of the UK’s leading special forces unit the SAS, Bob Craft, 59, is rather a good ally to have when the world is falling apart. Not only is he blessed with survival skills that can make the difference between life or death in a crisis, he’s as calm as the proverbial cucumber, and – crucially – he knows how to get things done.
For Haitian nurse Genevieve Jourbet, it was a stroke of good fortune when Craft walked over to the little corner of a football stadium in Port-au-Prince where she – like countless others – has set up a makeshift camp in the days after the 2010 disaster. Big-hearted Jourbet was surrounded by children, and Craft, who was there to help with disaster relief immediately sensed that this disheveled bunch were in an even more desperate situation than most.
‘It felt completely different to the rest of the stadium, because apart from Jourbet, there were no adults there,’ he recalls. ‘I asked what I could do, and she said, ‘Nothing – you’re just another white man who will take photos and then leave.’’
Unbeknownst to Jourbet at the time, Craft was in fact exactly the person she needed.
Within a matter of days Craft had scrounged camp beds and tents via contacts at the US Embassy, and with a roll of barbed wire he helped to secure her small corner of the stadium, which by now was teeming with orphaned children.
‘I felt a connection with her from that very first time I saw her,’ he says. ‘She’s such a strong woman and she had total commitment to these kids – you could see it in her eyes.’
As the country slowly tried to recover, Craft kept an eye on the orphans and a month after the earthquake found himself invited to a heart-wrenching Mother’s Day celebration they were holding. While there, he witnessed one young girl named Diana being dragged away by a man who claimed she was his daughter, but he quickly fled when Craft intervened. ‘He wasn’t her father at all,’ says Craft.
‘Genevieve told me men came to try and take the girls all the time, and that she chased them away with a stick. I told her we needed to move them all to somewhere more secure.’
Mango Tree Home for Orphans
Fast forward eight years, and the Mango Tree Home for orphans that Craft helped build (he went halves with a local builder) is flourishing. There are now 37 children who live there – still under the watchful and loving gaze of Jourbet. Fund-raising events have helped to keep the charity afloat, but it hasn’t been easy, and there’s barely a month goes by that Craft doesn’t find himself worrying about where the next cash injection may come from.
‘The funny thing is that we don’t need a lot,’ he says. ‘We need to keep the home small; under the radar. If it becomes big and flashy, people will start leaving their kids there for a few weeks hoping we’ll feed them. Worse than that, we’d become attractive to thieves, which would obviously be dangerous.’
All of which makes getting help somewhat difficult. Larger aid agencies, says Craft, tend to want to come and make assessments and fill in reports and then turn up with a truckload of gear. ‘But it’s too much – it could be deadly if people saw that we suddenly had loads of stuff.
‘For example, at the moment we need a couple of solar panels, an inverter and some car batteries for electricity, and it would cost around $1,200. But it’s hard to convince charities that we really don’t need a solar farm.’
Away from the day-to-day running and the constant demands of trying to find money to keep the Haiti home operational – even though the total cost per child is barely more than $1 per day, it quickly adds up – Craft and Jourbet have moved into what could be the Mango Tree Home’s most critical phase. ‘I’m almost 60, Genevieve is 50 – we can’t do this forever,’ Craft says. ‘The plan is to do everything we can to help the kids succeed in adult life, and when the last child has left we will turn the building into a school.’
To give the children the best possible chance, there are regular English lessons at the home, with Spanish coming soon. With languages, a multitude of employment opportunities open up, and Craft is also hopeful of starting vocational training to help the children get a head start.
‘We know plumbers, we know electricians,’ he says. ‘Some of the girls want to be nurses, so we’re hoping to get them a placement with Médecins Sans Frontières. We have a 16-year-old here named Mike Tyson – that’s his real name – and he wants to be a doctor, which is fantastic.’
Diana – the girl who was nearly abducted all those years ago – now wants to get into nursing. Or singing. Or jewellery making. Degrees are a distinct possibility for some of the children but with fees of around $1,200 per university student per year in Haiti, Craft knows he will have to double or treble his fundraising activities.
‘What would be great would be to help them become well-educated people who stay in Haiti,’ he explains. ‘Because there’s a brain drain at the moment, and it doesn’t give the country a lot of hope.’
As for the island, Craft admits that it has worked its charms on him. ‘They joke that I’ve been voodooed!’ he laughs. ‘The truth is that it isn’t the most pleasant country, and in the slums the crime rate is horrific, but much of Haiti is beautiful and the people are lovely. I definitely have a soft spot for it.’
He has a soft spot for Jourbet, too: an unpaid, full-time mother to 37 kids whose energy and commitment seems to know no bounds. ‘And she’s as happy as can be,’ says Craft. ‘I sit there watching her as the kids are playing and she’s grinning from ear to ear. She’s like me, I think: we just can’t stand to see kids suffer. They’re the future – and they’re the only thing that’s going to save Haiti.’
The former soldier admits that he’s surprised how his life has turned out, and explains that one of the things that pushed him into setting up the home was his wife, Nicola, who asked – when he first told her about the kids – if there was a way they could bring two or three of them back home to live with them.
‘But there was just no chance,’ says Craft. ‘I was too old, it would have been very stressful for everyone involved, and when I did the maths it made so much more sense to look after 37 kids in Haiti and help them develop into good citizens who could put that knowledge back into their own land.’
For more information visit www.mangotreehome.com