Under Foreign Skies: Rob Padberg & Johan Smoorenburg

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Rob Padberg
Rob Padberg (©Eric Beauchemin)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.

Two Dutchman who settled in Haiti over a quarter of a century ago are still trying to help people in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. As one of them puts it: “This is a country: you love it or you hate it. And if you love it, that means the mosquito, the Haitian mosquito, bit you. You are sold for life.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: November 1, 2007


Radio Netherlands Worldwide presents “Under Foreign Skies: Portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable things abroad”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

Haiti: sometimes it’s very difficult to explain, but this country has something.
This is a country: you love it or you hate it. And if you love it, that means the mosquito, the Haitian mosquito bit you, you are sold for life.

Over a quarter of a century ago, Rob Padberg and Johan Smoorenburg went to Haiti. They came from very different backgrounds, but today, the two men are – each in their own way – helping people in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Rob Padberg studied business, and in 1969, he and his wife left for Surinam, where he worked for trading companies for nearly a decade. When his contract came to an end, he was offered a management position in Haiti. He was reluctant to go because of his aversion to French. Eventually though he became the Dutch honorary counsel in Haiti. When his contract came to an end, he planned to move elsewhere in the Caribbean. But then three missionaries – two from Holland and one from Belgium – approached him. They had a problem and they wanted Rob Padberg to solve it.

They said, we are all three having independently a food aid programme sponsored by the European Community. We want that to continue, but it’s too hard, too difficult and we are not trained for it. So please stay here, set up an NGO and take our projects and make something good out of it. EB: Was that something you had ever envisaged in your life? No, I came from a purely commercial activities and not expecting that I would come into a completely different field, what you would call development and development aid. I had some links because, when coming here in Haiti, I also became the honorary consul general of the Netherlands in Haiti, and I had to deal with interesting possibilities of projects to be financed by the Dutch government. So I had already something to do with development but that I would be a full-time development person, no I had never expected that. EB: Did you know anything about delivering food? No, absolutely not, and that was my first reaction and my first refusal to those missionaries and I repeated that story 9 or 10 times. I said, no, it’s not me whom you are looking for because I don’t know anything about food and food aid. I’m very poor in the kitchen. I can boil an egg, but that’s almost the maximum I can do. I do not know what the various problems related to food aid are. I do not know what the main work with NGOs is and the other target groups is concerned, so I wasn’t prepared really for that. But they told me, that’s not important. You don’t have to know what calories are because you can find people who can do it. So I said, well, that’s one of the things: my wife tells me if I drink too many beers, I get too many calories, but they convinced me that a large part of this type of activities is related to logistics, meaning import, storage and delivering of products. This was something I really had learned in my commercial life.

EB: So what did the project actually entail? I mean, you said, delivering food but delivering food to whom and to how many people? In the beginning, we covered 250,000 people who were getting a food ration or a meal per day. And there were three types of projects: social projects, which were geared towards the elderly, the handicapped people, orphans. Secondly to medical groups, sanitoria, recuperation centres, and finally school canteens. We started with all three all over Haiti. Haiti is a small country compared to Holland, but it’s a very difficult country, very few roads, and very mountainous. Then the European Union came up with the request to concentrate exclusively on school canteens. So we had to say farewell to our good partners and friends in the two other groups, which was a hard thing to do because we see on a daily basis the need those people have, but the donors’ wish is our order. We had to march along, and that’s why we ended up with about 142,000 children in 300 different schools, where we help them to get a daily meal. EB: Is it really that important for these children to be getting that meal? Yeah, because we are working mainly with very poor schools. Even the word school is an idea which doesn’t exist here. We have the poorest schools with a roof made out of thatched leaves, banana leaves, etc. And all kinds of slightly better constructions, but very poor where there is no running water, where there is no electricity, where there are no toilets and where there are in most cases no benches or tables and blackboards. The parents have a problem to pay the yearly school fees which run up to about 5 euros per child. Most of those children have to walk between 5 and 10 miles each to school. They, in most cases, do not get any meal before they go to school. They get, if they are lucky, one meal a day and they find maybe a banana or another fruit which they will eat on their way to school. But they really need some food assistance. That’s one of the reasons why we are convinced that school canteens are very important. The nutritional part is not the first reason but it’s one of the important reasons. That’s a huge number of children though: 142,000. Yeah. We have them here in Port-au-Prince and we have even about 25,000 children under normal circumstances in the very poor slums in Port-au-Prince, but we also have very poor schools in the interior of Port-au-Prince, where you can go 3 hours by car, sliding through the mud in the rainy season, waiting for the river to calm down so that you can pass. There are in most cases no bridges and then at a certain moment you leave your car and you get on a horse and you travel for another few hours. And then the last two hours you have to climb because the mule or the horse cannot do it and you have to walk. And that are circumstances in Haiti which make it very difficult and almost impossible, for instance, to reach the poorest of the poor. EB: It’s a huge logistical nightmare to get the food there, isn’t it? Yeah. That’s one of the advantages of my background in the commercial life, although it’s different. This is more complicated. But it’s something you learn by doing and sometimes also by making mistakes, but under normal circumstances, 98% of the food which leaves our warehouses arrive safely.

Life in Haiti is not only difficult for the poor. It’s also becoming increasingly hard and dangerous for wealthier Haitians and even foreigners. The Caribbean nation has a long history of coup d’états, armed revolts and natural catastrophes, such as hurricanes. Of late, gangs have been terrorising the capital and kidnapping an average of 30 people a day. I asked Rob Padberg why would anyone would choose to live in such a place?

We get a little bit used to it and we here in our office, daily shooting around us, and the first time we heard it, we panicked. But now it’s so much a matter of daily repetition. You have to be more careful and things like that. But it’s part of your life here and there are two ways: either you don’t accept and you leave or you try to live with it. But how do you live with the fear because something might happen to your wife or might happen to your children or might happen to you. Yes, but it’s not so much the fear. You have to be more realistic and realise that those things can happen. My wife was together with two other ladies in a hold-up. They stole the car. They took all their belongings – their jewelries, etc. – and short of kidnapping, that didn’t happen due to the very good activity and negotiating done by one of our Haitian employees. But you shouldn’t be afraid of that, really afraid of that, and start to dream about it because then you make your life miserable. You have to realise that those things can happen to you and you have to adjust your lifestyle to it, but not constantly living in a type of fear. It’s a serious situation here in the country. We hope that it will improve but I’m realistic enough that I don’t think this will happen very soon. Be careful, try not to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment. But who tells you where that wrong moment and that wrong place is. You’re no longer a young man. EB: Do you plan to retire here in Haiti or what does the future hold for you? Yes, I think we will retire here in Haiti. I hope to be working for another five or six years. But this is also the country where our children live and grandchildren live, and they feel at home in Haiti. They speak besides the Dutch language, the local French and Creole language. They feel absolutely at home here. And that’s one of the big problems with Haiti. This is a country: you love it or you hate it. And if you love it, that means the mosquito, the Haitian mosquito bit you, and you are sold for life. It’s like a voodoo type of thing. And you were bitten by the mosquito. And I’m bitten by the mosquito, yes.

You’re listening to “Under Foreign Skies” from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Johan Smoorenburg
Johan Smoorenburg (©Eric Beauchemin)

As a child, Johan Smoorenburg was quite religious. In fact, friends called him “the pastor”. As he grew older, his religious calling grew stronger and stronger, and at the age of 27, he became an Evangelical missionary. He was invited, together with his wife and two sons, to spread the gospel in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. For 10 years, he worked on the island, eventually setting up 16 evangelical churches. But by the early 1970’s, he felt that he was no longer needed in Martinique.

A year and a half before moving to Haiti, I got a letter from somebody in Haiti: come over and help us. So I went to Haiti for the first time, just one week, and I came back sick. I was really sick. And I said well we have to do something for Haiti, but to live there never of my life. And a year later, we went over to Haiti with the whole family. EB: Why did you come to Haiti? What was the thing that changed? Sometimes it’s very difficult to explain, but this country has something. The people is very nice, but also the poverty and I was the first time that I came here, that was just for one travel, I was in an orphanage: 50 small children. Even in Holland, they don’t put their pigs in it, and they were laying on the ground, small children, and that really touched me. And so from that moment, I knew we had to do something for Haiti. But it was difficult, especially for my two boys. EB: Why? When they saw the first mothers laying on the ground with their babies, asking for money, begging for money and so on. They start crying and they said Papa we want to go back to Martinique. We don’t want to stay here. That was a very difficult time. EB: Did you at some point consider back to Martinique. Never, never. EB: Despite your sons’ desire to return. Thinking about it right now, I’m still not sure if I made a good choice for the boys. Even they became good boys, they had a good life here also, so they had to get a habit to certain things, but still sometimes I think did I have the right to disrupt their lives in Martinique and go to a country like Haiti? You feel that you have to do something so you can’t leave the boys behind. I never regret for myself but I have some regrets for them.

EB: You came here 25 years ago. What was Haiti like at the time? Compared with right now, it was heaven. It was Duvalier, Baby Doc, so you couldn’t talk politics or whatever it was, but it was safe. You could walk over the streets even at 12 o’clock in the night. The Tontons Macoutes were…the people were very afraid for them. The Tontons Macoutes were the secret police of the dictator. Yeah. Honestly, it may sound strange, but that was the best time we had in Haiti. And when you ask every Haitian, they will say the same thing. They wanted the time of Duvalier. For, of course, it was a dictator and he was not nice, of course, but when he was gone things became even worse. So when you arrived 25 years ago, you had to start from scratch. EB: What did you do? When we came here, we didn’t have anything at all. We didn’t have money. So then I got some money to buy the first piece of land. That’s where we are right now. The first piece was over there. And so then I contacted the EO Meterdaad that’s a television programme on the Evangelical broadcasting organization And they came and they made a film about Haiti and that brought in a lot of money and then we started building. So we started building. When the money was gone, so then we stopped and waiting for new money. But when you are looking around right now, then I still see for myself that it’s a miracle that we just started a project like this with nothing at all. Still for myself, I can’t believe it.

EB: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you arrived in Haiti? The only thing I knew is that we have to do something for children, and the second thing the Gospel was very poor, the knowledge of the people. Some pastors couldn’t even read or write, and so that were the two things that we said we wanted to do seminars for pastors and church-leading people, but especially we have to do something for children. But what we did not know at all. Those plans came here when we started. So we started to build a couple of classes for school for 80% in that time, I think now it may be 60 – 65% of the people couldn’t read or write. So we started the school and then we started the first apartments in the children that we picked up from the hospital, abandoned children, and the kitchen. That was all. The building you see behind me, there’s where we started with 24 children, and at a certain moment we had 200 children. And all these children came from the local hospital or where did they come from? There was a special room in the hospital where they put in the abandoned children, and one day believe it or not I walked out with 5 babies in my arms. I think that I had maybe 50 – 60 children in that time that were abandoned in that hospital. The other children have some family, a mother, mostly mothers are alone. The men here in Haiti are not really serious and they have mostly 5, 6, 7 women and lots of children but they don’t take care. And so it can be that the mother has 12, 13 children. It’s not an exception. And so you see the children are dying in their small huts and even on the streets. So we took those children also. EB: Was it difficult to choose the children because poverty levels are so great here that if you wanted to you could take 10,000 children. Yeah. There was a member of our board in the time here and I went with him to the hospital and that was another thing that I’m still don’t feel well about it, that at a certain moment, I had place for 12 children, and in the hospital there were 24 or even more. So I had to go around and say he can come, she can come and we picked up that we thought had the best chances for survival. But you know that board member said you are like a god going around and you are saved and you are going to die. Well, we don’t know if they died but that was another very difficult choice that you have to make sometimes. You had place for a couple of children and you couldn’t take them all, so you left others behind, not knowing what was going to happen to them.

Heart for Haiti
Heart for Haiti

The contrast between Port-au-Prince and Johan Smoorenburg’s centre, called “Heart for Haiti”, couldn’t be greater. Thanks to donations from the Netherlands and elsewhere, it has grown from a small school to a beautiful multi-purpose oasis in a teeming, crime-ridden city.

All the other nice apartments that you see behind you, 2 under one roof, then beside that, we have the office with a couple of classes like the computer classes, and up is a two-storey building also up there, we have a place for the older children, the girls, the older girls coming from the apartments are going there. Then further on we have a bakery. We have a banana plantation and then behind, all the way down, we have an old people’s house, very nice, and we have like a congress centre where we can have and where we hold, we are starting this week with another seminars for example for women, about AIDS, about everything. So that is what we built over those years. EB: So it means that people are also coming in from outside of the orphanage to receive training or to do other things here. Oh yeah, absolutely. I think we have some 200 people from outside, but of course in the centre that we have, that’s very important, for there the seminars are free. And people are coming from all over the place to so that we can teach them especially about AIDS. But we are doing a whole lot of things in those seminars. We are not doing that ourselves alone but we gave the building also to other organisations that need them, you know. I must say the centre is extremely big. I mean I’ve only seen part of it but it’s huge. You were telling me we could continue walking for another kilometre to reach the end of it. EB: How do you get all the money to keep this going? Well, that’s…you believe in what you are doing, and we believe in God. So I know that this is not a religious programme but I have to say we really believe that God is behind this programme. And so sometimes we got money from sites that we didn’t even know about. EB: For example? Well, an organisation that asked us if they could do something for us. And we never heard about that organisation. And that are the things that are really helping us also to see that … We had difficult times also financial. Even so far we are depending of donations, so there is no government involved or whatever it is. But they know us and we have over the years we build a very good name. I think the name Smoorenburg is very well known in the evangelical world.

Heart for Haiti
Young person at Heart for Haiti (©Eric Beauchemin)

EB: What happens to the children when they get older, when they reach the age of 16 or 18? Yeah, that’s a very good question. When they are small, my mother always told us everything that is small is nice but the problems start when they are bigger. Even we found a system for that. And the system was that at a certain moment, we place those children outside the village, in town, not in Port-au-Prince but Delmas and other areas, in a house together with somebody with them to teach them how to live outside the village. And of course, they are going to school. They are learning trades and so on, and I must say we don’t put children outside, we never did, at the age of 18 years. Somebody is 18, but in his mind still 12, so we are looking case by case what to do with the children. They are so well protected here and you can’t place them just right away in a society that is so violent and difficult. So we have a house where the boys from 14, 15, 16 years are growing up outside and so they are going to school, not here in our school, but they are going outside to teach them how to fit into Haitian life. It’s not always easy but it’s working well, honestly. EB: How many children have left the centre? Oh over the years, we are still helping 70 young people that are already outside, some with family, others that don’t have any parents. We are renting a small house for them. They are together with 2, 3 or 4 and over the years, I think, well maybe already 200. We are still helping 17 or 18 young people with school. We gave them some money to eat and so on and so try to get them back on their feet in this country.

The Smoorenburgs have remained in Haiti throughout all the periods of trouble and anarchy that have regularly engulfed the Caribbean nation.

Well, 4 times we almost got killed. Like the time that I told you the story, the night of the military coup against Aristide in ’91, in that night we were in the car and then we ran into some barricades and they tried to kill us, you know, and somebody recognised me and said he’s not an American for everybody is American here in Haiti, but he’s helping us. So they let us go. And three other times, we run in, so we still, we survived. Sometimes we had difficulties to get out and get food and so on. But always, always believe or not, even in the most difficult times, we always could give food to the children 3 times a day, sometimes a little bit less. There was another thing: we always said ourselves if we can’t give food to the children, we will not eat also. So we always did everything together. But, well I must say there was some help from above, I think, for otherwise it’s almost impossible to do a thing like that. Impossible. EB: The situation in Haiti is getting worse by the day. There are more and more people who are being kidnapped. There’s a lot of gang violence and violence between the gangs and the United Nations and the Haitian police. Have you ever considered leaving? No for it’s very difficult for us to leave. We can’t just leave the children. We have 65 people who are working for the organisation. So it’s difficult to leave. Somebody has to take responsibility. We are almost no more going out. Maybe myself once in 14 days, I go to the supermarket or have to do some things. Sometimes you have to go out. But my wife sometimes once in two months. She’s not going out. Only once in two months. So you know that when you go out that you take a big risk. EB: But basically it means that you are a prisoners in this centre. Sure, it’s, sure. Well, it’s a big prison. It’s 4 hectares you say of land, but still we are not going out, even no more to the beach for example. Only when you need to go out or myself, then I go out but always with some other Haitians in the car, never alone, never. It’s too dangerous. Wherever you go you are no more sure. When I’m going out, then I’m looking in the mirrors all the time. I’m looking for things that are strange, people that are following, a car that is stopping before me or is going behind me or is turning around and stay behind me. Always, for myself, always looking out for those people that are trying to get us for we were also on the list to be kidnapped, and other people from this project also. And that’s one of the reasons that the foreigners that were here, our people from Holland that worked here, they left the country.

Johan’s biggest worry at the moment is who will take over the centre in a few years time.

Over the years we got people helping for some time but still they can’t take it, to be in this village, can’t go out, having nothing, no social life. You can’t even go to a cinema or something like that. Friends are very difficult, for you can’t visit them. I hope still to live for a couple of years, but of course we need people to go on. We have people that are doing the work, but for example for money matters and that kind of stuff, we need somebody not per se somebody from Holland but we need at least a foreigner to at least see how the money is going and so on. For it’s very difficult. You don’t find people that are coming and saying the rest of my life we want to be here. So we are looking in it with our foundation, what we have to do when I will maybe be 70 years old. EB: You spoke at the very beginning that you felt that you had a calling. Do you feel like you have fulfilled that calling? That’s a real good question. In a sense, yes. On the other hand, I have the feeling that we didn’t do enough. Like I told you already earlier, had it been possible to take more children, to change more lives. We do what we can and I think honestly that at a certain moment, you have to be satisfied… satisfied is maybe not even the word but you have to accept that that what you are doing is really what you can. We are not the only ones, but it’s a calling also that never stops. You always have to go on and that is always, the same thing, we always thinking what can we do more. Like now the food programme. We have 400 poorest families that we are giving food everything month, and they are really very, very glad. They are surviving by it. So we are always trying to do more. In this country we are so confronted always with needs: every day we have 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 people coming to the office asking for help and so on. The calling never stops. And when we are leaving, that will be terrible for them. They will feel that they are abandoned. Even…I’m not talking about the children only, but all the people, the workers and so on. So it never stops. It’s a work… You need three times or maybe even more to really fulfill. But we do what we can. Like we still have days 14 hours a day. So we are doing very best.

EB: Has this past quarter of a century here in Haiti changed you as a person? Well, you are really coming with special questions, I must say. When you are living always with the danger and the poverty and all those things, that is doing nothing more after some time. I saw how people got killed, how they were burned alive and so on. And you know, still so far at almost 63 now and almost 25 years of Haiti, when I see a poor person or when I go in town, when it was possible to go in town and you see that poverty, I must tell you honestly that I’m still sick of it. So at least it didn’t change me in the sense that I’m becoming too easy with it. It’s still touching me. The poverty is still touching me. I can’t get a habit to it. It’s absolutely for that, for I think that when you see those people, children, whatever it is, and it is doing nothing to you anymore, then I think it is time to go. But we still love them. Even we had some bad experiences, but you can have that in whatever country in the world. EB: But when I asked you about whether the experience of being here had changed you. Has it deepened your faith for instance or has it changed you as a person? Do you see life differently because you’ve spent the past quarter of a century here? Yeah. Well, as a person, yeah. As a person, believing in God and believing in the calling, sometimes you are some difficulties with faith honestly. I’m not superman. Sometimes I’m asking myself also why? See a people, a suffering like the Haitians and there are other countries of course in the world, but I’m here, is a terrible thing. But you can learn a lot of things from Haitians. They are a very religious people, and that’s very important for them. That’s maybe the reason why they survive and even when I’m in a bad mood or they are walking by and saying, well tomorrow is another day. So I learn a lot from them.

“Under Foreign Skies” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands Worldwide presentation.

If you have comments on this or any other Radio Netherlands’ programme, please write to us at English Language Service, Radio Netherlands, P.O. Box 222, 1200 JG Hilversum in Holland.

Series Navigation<< Under Foreign Skies: Lea Laarakker-DingjanUnder Foreign Skies: Billy Barnaart >>