PORT-AU-PRINCE, 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 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.
A dictionary will tell you "labor" is "work done using the strength of the body," but that is just one definition. Here is another.
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.
"It was always risky going out of the house," he recalled. "People hated each other because of different political parties. You had no choice but to be afraid all the time.
"You heard about people getting surrounded in a mosque and 11 of them being killed. Or people killing their neighbors because of this party or that. One night, 18 boys from our village left to go fight the Palestinians. They brought them back dead.
"My mother lost her brother. She wore black for six months. She never stopped crying. She got cancer and I think it was from that. She said to me, 'My brother died, my two uncles died, I want you leave here. Anywhere you want to live, just live someplace else.' "
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. The place is now called the Caring and Sharing/Have Faith Haiti Mission, and in the nearly two years since a charity I formed, A Hole In the Roof Foundation, took over operations, 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."
In his time so far in Haiti, Tamer has helped train some of the teenagers at the orphanage, so that they can do basic plumbing in his absence.
"I answer all their questions," he says. "I am patient with them. If they do something the first time wrong, I say, 'OK, let's do it again.'
"It would be nice to teach another plumber in another country. Sometimes, the kids in the streets here, they don't eat all day. You see a lady with four kids around here selling charcoal to survive. People taking water from sewers. There is no place in world I've seen like this.
"Every religion talks about helping orphans. The first time I came here, I said this is what I'm doing now. My religion says to pray five times a day. But for me, this is how I want to spend my time, make these kids feel that God sent somebody to them."
When they see this foreign-looking man coming through the gates, stripping down to a T-shirt, working hours in the hot sun to make sure water is clean, water flows, showers work, toilets flush -- how could they think otherwise?
"Work done through the strength of the body." That is labor defined by words. But when you listen to Nedal Tamer or countless other volunteers who give selflessly and tirelessly for people they don't even know, you realize labor comes in so many forms. And strength of the soul is behind the best of them.
Having escaped hell of civil war, he lends hands and hope to Haiti
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