CAP HAITIAN, HAITI — Ralph Lee Vieux is a long way away from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was born and raised. He is a long way away from Kingsborough Community College in Manhattan Beach where he graduated with a double major in tourism and criminal justice 15 years ago. And he is a long way away from his wife and three kids in Benson, N.C. But still, somehow, this place is a home of sorts.
Up until a year ago, Mr. Vieux had never visited Haiti. But with two Haitian parents, he knew the country through the rice, beans, and plantains his mother cooked for her seven kids; through the Creole his father spoke to them all; through the Kompa music always in the background.
Today, the narcotics detective is helping keep the peace in his ancestral home as chief of northern operations and planning for the UN police - a force of 1,781 men and women from 38 countries who are here helping to train and monitor their Haitian counterparts.
"It's just a job," he insists over and again, trying to sit tall in a rocking chair on a hot, buggy, late afternoon. "I know law enforcement and can help out ... and it's good for my résumé," he says, speaking in clipped tones. As one of 50 Americans on the ground here in Haiti with the UN, Vieux says "we are all here ... to serve our country - same as any American."
But, after much prodding, Vieux will also admit - with a nervous grin making a brief, rare appearance across his face - that there is something about this mission that is special to him. "I consulted a lot with my parents before I took it on," he says. They were worried, yes, and even told him not to go. But perhaps, he allows, "...they were a little proud, too."
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The government's revenues last year were $330 million, less than the budgets of many large US school districts. Close to 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and 42 percent of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Along with poverty come crime statistics. Ten kidnappings were reported every day last month, while the national police force makes do with 6,000 officers - for a population of 8 million. New York City, with roughly the same population, has close to 40,000. National police chief Mario Andresol freely admits that not only does he lack the needed manpower to fight crime; institutional credibility is also missing. "High-ranking police officers' involvement in illegal activities," he says, "...has become institutionalized."
With Haiti's illiteracy rate of 60 percent and much of its population poorly educated, UN northern district spokesman Christian Lindmeier says many of those the UN works with "don't speak or understand French, let alone English." That means Haitian-Americans on the UN force like Vieux often find themselves working double-time here, translating and mediating between the UN, the locals, and the national Haitian police.
While the UN cannot dictate who its member countries send, says Mr. Lindmeier, "we all know that having Creole speakers and international UN staff of Haitian descent is an asset, and we welcome those people."
And it's not just language," stresses Lindmeier. "It's an invaluable service ... these Haitian-Americans usually bring with them a knowledge of the culture and history here - and a sensitivity for the people we are dealing with," he says. "They are our best way to access and understand the community."
While Creole speakers like Vieux don't get preference for leadership positions, Lindmeier says they naturally rise up through the ranks as they are better able to communicate and understand the society. And in Haiti, where there is growing mistrust of the UN from all sides, that is invaluable.
"Everywhere I go I get tapped on the shoulder and asked questions," says Vieux, who first learned about the UN mission from a State Department ad in the local paper asking for Creole-speaking police to volunteer for service.
"Everyone wants to talk. To explain. To understand." It gets a little tiring, he says. It can take up a lot of time in his day, but, also, it can be, he says, "pretty nice," to be able to lend a hand. The boy who shines his boots in the mornings asked Vieux for school lunch money the other day. Vieux decided to sponsor his studies for the whole school year. "I felt good about that," says the cop. "I have family in this country," he mumbles. "It's good to help."
Vieux's wife, Rochelle - a fellow Haitian-American also born in Brooklyn - had never been to Haiti either before last year. Now, she has been twice to visit: Once the couple went to the beach together. Another time they took a road trip across the border to visit the Dominican Republic. The kids have not come, explains Vieux, in part because the political situation makes it too dangerous - but also because he does not want to "push" Haiti on them right now.
"We are Americans. I want to teach my children that before I confuse them with something different," he says. "But maybe, when they are a little older, they will get interested in their heritage, and ask me questions about where we came from."
After his time here, he says, he will be ready to answer. "I will tell them, it's not my country. But it is, too." He gets up from the rocking chair to head back to UN headquarters. "Haiti is complicated."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.