The following is a blog post contributed by Chuck Allworth (Midwest Regional Director at Friends) where he shares about his recent trip to Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs (NPFS) Haiti.
Today is Saturday and I've been here since Wednesday. I guess my biggest impression so far is that Haiti is a place with many stark contrasts.
Yesterday, for example, I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass in the little chapel on the grounds of our pediatric hospital (St. Damien). Lying on the floor in the middle of the chapel was a toddler child who had died in the hospital overnight. Jean Paul was wrapped in a pillow case that people in the Chicago area turn into funeral palls with beautiful decorations and send them here by the thousands. No caskets -- too costly. No family or parents in attendance at the funeral Mass, just Fr. Rick presiding and a couple of dozen foreigners who volunteer at the hospital and one or two Haitians. On the one hand, it was very sad to think of this dead child wrapped in linen lying inches away from us on the floor. On the other hand, it was a truly beautiful funeral. We did our best to send little Jean Paul off to heaven as best we could.
Another contrast happened two days ago when I went with Fr. Rick to the city morgue to observe him and other members of our organization picking 70 or so unclaimed corpses, zipping them into body bags, loading them on a flatbed truck and taking them out to the countryside for a decent burial. Fr. Rick and the Haitians were the ones doing the dirty work. We visitors would simply place crosses or rosaries and funeral palls on top of the bodies prior to them being zipped up. The conditions in the morgue were beyond gruesome. Bodies stacked like logs in disgusting positions. Lots of children. Way too many children. Babies in their diapers lying on top of elderly people. Hundreds of corpses in varying states of decomposition. Half-clothed (or unclothed) adults lying grotesquely on top of children dressed in their Sunday best. Bodies stained by the blood and fluids of those piled all around them. A permeating stench that defies description. Unbelievably, though, the Haitians with us were singing and clapping and dancing the entire time we were in the morgue -- about 90 minutes. Non-stop joyful, not sorrowful, singing at the top of their lungs. They were happy because they were taking bodies out of such deplorable conditions and giving them a proper Christian burial. Such joy in the face of such horror.
Last contrast: When we went out to the country to bury the bodies, the cemetery doubled as a cow pasture (although with very little grass). Row after row of simple graves dug about 4 feet into the earth. Most of the graves were marked with crucifixes...with cowpies all over many of them.
I spent the better part of the past two days unloading medical supplies from containers and organizing a warehouse full of those supplies. It was sweaty and hard and real dirty work, but nobody complained because of the poverty we have seen that the people here endure on a daily basis.
It's amazing what they do with shipping containers here. I've seen them used as hospital wards, offices, classrooms, storage units, and orphanage dorms. A cheap and easy re-use of something the rest of the world would have but one use for.
I'm back in Port-au-Prince after spending two wonderful days at the NPFS St. Helene home in Kenscoff. This home is about 5,500 feet up in the mountains to the southeast of Port-au-Prince. My room overlooked the most beautiful vista of green mountains dotted with small villages and terraced farmland. In much of Haiti, the countryside has been denuded of trees because people use the wood for building materials and to make charcoal. This is not the case in the area around our home. The setting is breathtakingly beautiful. Imagine a boarding school campus with gorgeous trees all around. Huge pine trees over a hundred feet tall. The air is clear and the high temps are in the low 60s. Hardly what you expect of a Caribbean climate. Evenings and early mornings are downright chilly. The entire campus is just very serene, green, peaceful and pleasant.
It was yet another stark contrast to Port-au-Prince with its oppressive heat, noise, filth and poverty. There are about 450 kids who call St. Helene their permanent home. And, again, in another contrast to what I had seen up to that point, the kids in our home are well dressed, well fed, well educated and very well cared for in general -- as I knew they would be.
These orphaned and abandoned children are the lucky ones. There are millions of other children here in Haiti who have it far, far worse. 20% of children in Haiti die before they reach the age of five.
Back to the orphanage. Every other Sunday, Fr. Rick, the Passionist priest who runs the entire NPFS organization here in Haiti, comes up to our home from our pediatric hospital to lead Mass for the children, but yesterday was not one of those Sundays. So, all 400+ kids got dressed up in their school uniforms and walked to the closest church. As the crow flies, it was probably no more than half a mile. Too bad we didn't have wings. Since we were in the mountains, it was probably closer to a mile and a half of steep, treacherous paths and winding, rutted roads that would put the worst of Chicago's pot-holed roads to shame. My guess is that the church is located about 1,500 feet of elevation BELOW the home. It took us about 30 minutes to walk down and a little over an hour to walk back, but it was well worth every minute to be with them and to witness and listen to them pray and sing during Mass. It was loud and joyful. I made a few new friends during that journey.
St. Helene is actually about 20 separate small dorms, plus a dozen or so other buildings (school, chapel, clinic, etc.) scattered over about 60 acres on the side of a mountain. On our way up to the orphanage on Saturday, we stopped and bought enough candy to give each of the kids a few pieces. After we got back from Mass yesterday, we took the candy around to all of the dorms and gave it away to the kids who were happy and grateful to receive the sweet treats.
During our time in Haiti, we were fortunate to have the part-time guide services of Antoine, a former pequeño from the St. Helene home. Antoine works in the Father Wasson Angels of Light program and also in our new orphanage home in Port-au-Prince that is made entirely out of refurbished shipping containers. On our last full day in Haiti, Antoine took us to an after school program for about 50 children that he began in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood where he lived before the earthquake. While we were there, we handed out bags of rice and beans to the children to bring home to their families. We also distributed protein bars and cooking oil. Here, we have a former pequeño who not only works for NPH, but also has begun his own small charitable organization to serve the children from his old neighborhood.
I will leave you with a story about James, a Haitian I met while we were doing some road repair work on a gravel road that runs within our hospital campus near the triage clinic. I took a break and sat down in the shade near where James was standing. He came over to me and began to make small talk in halting English. It turns out that he and his wife brought their nine month old son, Moses, to the hospital because it was obvious to them that Moses was experiencing abdominal pain. James was telling me about his life post-earthquake of trying to find a job but having no luck. He said his boss was killed in the quake. He told me to pray for Haiti at least a dozen times. James’ wife called him over to look after Moses while she went for a break of her own. We said our goodbyes and James left to be with his son, while I went back to my road repair. About an hour later, as we were loading up from our vehicle for the trip up to St. Helene, I noticed that James and his family were walking out toward the exit of the hospital campus. I stopped them and enquired about Moses. It was the first time I saw Moses. He was an albino child with obviously African facial features and hair, though blonde. James said that Moses didn’t need to be admitted and that they were given some medicine that should hopefully do the trick. Again, he told me to pray for Haiti. He didn’t ask me for prayers for him or even for Moses. Pray for Haiti, he said. After tracing the sign of the cross on Moses’ forehead, I said that I would.
Please pray for Haiti.