By Jim McDaniel
(revised April, 2002)
On February 1, 1999, I traveled with Fr. Richard Martin, pastor of Nativity Church, and several parishioners, to the Republic of Haiti. The trip was arranged by Food for the Poor, Inc., a Florida based charity. Food for the Poor is well known for its work in the Caribbean and Latin America and for its ability to do this work with a very low administrative cost – less than 7 percent.
On a daily basis, we were immersed in Haitian life. We experienced first hand the abject poverty under which 75 percent of the population lives. We looked closely at health, housing, food and education problems and saw the results of church and charity efforts to assist the poor in these areas.
As a result of this powerful experience, my faith has been strengthened and I have found a new resolve to do what I can, and to leverage my efforts with others, to help those in need. I believe that each of my fellow travelers has returned with similar inspiration.
Monday, February 1, 1999
It was dark and chilly as I drove to the Nativity Church parking lot, where we were meeting for the ride to Reagan National Airport. The mood in the van was apprehensive, as it would continue to be until we arrived at our final destination a little more than 24 hours later.
Our US Airways flight was on time and uneventful. My seatmates were an older couple. In conversation with them, I contrasted my impending journey with theirs. They were meeting their daughter in Miami, then boarding a Celebrity Cruise ship for a vacation cruise to the Panama Canal. The luxury they will enjoy is in sharp contrast to the poverty I will experience.
In steamy Ft. Lauderdale, we rode to the Deerfield Beach headquarters of Food for the Poor, Inc., where we were greeted by the staff and served sandwiches and drinks. During lunch we met Fr. Paul, a Haitian priest who is trying to get support for a medical van to provide basic health services to those who cannot walk to the clinics in Port-au-Prince. We also met Rod Taylor and Barbara Fazekas, who would accompany us to Haiti.
Following a brief orientation and tour of the facilities, we met with Ferdinand Mahfood, the founder of Food for the Poor. Mr. Mahfood challenged us to keep our hearts and minds open to what God would tell us. And he said he believed we would see God in the eyes of the poor. He explained that God is not “up there” in heaven, but right here in our hearts. As we left his office, I noted that nearly all the photos lining the walls of the corridors were of people – close up – with eyes that burned with hope. I would have expected to see pictures of projects too, but it was only the eyes of the poor that followed us throughout the building. And I thought to myself that these photos are a constant reminder to the people who work there that the fruit of their labor satisfies a desperate human need.
Tuesday, February 2, 1999
The lengthy period of anticipation is finally coming to an end. At the airport departure gate, we knew we were headed someplace different when we looked at the faces of our fellow passengers and saw that we were a very small minority. It was most unusual to see so much toilet paper and groceries being brought on board as carry-on baggage.
From the air, the area around Port au Prince looks like any Caribbean landscape – green, lush and inviting. But from the moment we stepped off the plane, I knew we were in the third world. We were assaulted by the tropical heat, the disorganization of the arrival process, the aggressive crowd trying to get hold of our luggage, the strange language, the noise in the streets and the undercurrents of fear emanating from our own bodies. This is Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, where 80 percent of the population is unemployed, where 1 out of 2 children don’t make it through their first year of life, where schools and orphanages are guarded by armed sentries, where nothing seems to work.
We were met by Food for the Poor’s local staff, who scurried around us as we moved through immigration, trying to keep us together and safe from the crowds of hustlers. There wasn’t room for the luggage on the bus, so a small truck was hired to transport the luggage directly to the hotel. We would be going from the airport directly to Maison D’Amour Girls Home.
The streets of Port au Prince are very hard to describe to one who has not experienced them. Most were paved at one time, as in any city, but they now appear not to have had any maintenance in 10 or 15 years. Potholes and craters force cars from one side to the other, often in the face of oncoming traffic. Piles of dirt, broken cement blocks and rusting, derelict vehicles are scattered helter-skelter along the travel lanes. Curbs and gutters have crumbled. People are everywhere, moving like ants in a human scale colony, carrying impossible loads on their heads, and pushing jury-rigged car frames with wobbly tires loaded with charcoal and wood. The bright colors and constant movement, the din of honking horns, the clouds of dust, and the smells of diesel fuel and rotting biota all combine to choke our sensory perception.
We are somewhat shell-shocked by our introduction to Haiti as we arrive at Maison D’Amour, about 40 minutes east of Port au Prince. Sounds like a romantic restaurant, doesn’t it? But all romance dissipated as a 14 year-old boy carrying a rifle stood guard while our bus passed through the thick steel gates into the courtyard. As we stepped off the bus, a line of beautiful little girls, from age 2 on up greeted us with a welcome song in French, then in English. They were impeccably outfitted with denim blue uniform dresses trimmed in bright red. Looking into their faces, we couldn’t help but break out in smiles, the first easing of facial tension since we landed at the airport.
Sr. Ruby, the administrator, is a wonderful Haitian with unlimited compassion and a talent for organization. There are 206 girls here. A staff of 12 dedicated workers takes care of the girls who will receive a good education in the new school being constructed on a nearby lot.
The girls are orphans. Many have been abandoned by parents who could not afford to raise them. Many had to beg on the streets just to be able to eat. One little 2-year-old was abandoned in a cardboard box with two dresses. She is very attached to Sr. Ruby. I can’t imagine the depths of desperation that would lead a mother to part with such a beautiful child.
The girls here are well cared for. Each girl sleeps in her own bed with a favorite stuffed animal. The bunks are crowded, but clean. Each girl has three good meals a day and clean uniforms to wear. Besides learning reading, writing and arithmetic, they learn about God’s love for them.
I left Maison D’Amour feeling better in the knowledge that at least 200 girls no longer have to beg, sleep in doorways and pick through garbage, knowing that their chances of avoiding a life of prostitution are much better now. But there are so many others.
On the drive to Croix-Des-Bouquets, our next stop, we crossed a bridge over a dirty languishing stream and saw dozens of people washing their clothes and themselves in the muddy, polluted water.
Croix-Des-Bouquets was purchased by Food for the Poor in 1996 at the urging of several religious orders in Port-au-Prince. They saw a great demand for a safe place where street boys could grow up with a proper education, discipline, love and spiritual guidance. There are currently 200 boys living in the home.
Many of the boys showed up on the grounds even before the dormitories were finished. They had heard about the home and walked all the way from the city to seek shelter from the harsh life and dangers of the streets.
There is a water tower on the property that provides clean water. There is a kitchen and cafeteria and several dormitories. A clinic and a garden to teach the boys agriculture are planned. Adjacent to the boys home is a new school that has a capacity for 1,000 students, with one session in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Behind the boys home is a small grouping of single room houses for the elderly. There is no plumbing or electricity, but the houses provide protection from the elements. They are clean and safe. The old folks gather in a central open pavilion, where they play dominoes, listen to music and talk. They had all just gotten battery radios and they took the radios out to show us. Once the music started the women began to dance and soon we were all stepping high, our spirits lifted by this interlude.
By now, we were showing the understandable fatigue from a day of anticipation, fear, and the emotional ups and downs from just a few hours of exposure to Haiti. So onto the bus we climbed and back through the urban jungle we trekked. Climbing the hills of Petionville, we saw a change from the slums below to the more moderate housing above. Even the expressions of the people in the streets were different. The higher we climbed the less despairing the faces and the brighter the eyes.
After bottoming out the bus on the steep curve of the driveway, Yvon, our driver, glided us into the entrance of the hotel. This place is an oasis, but you still can’t drink the water. And water was what I craved at that moment, so I went into the bar and got a liter bottle of cold spring water, popped the cover and took a long, quenching drink.
A hot shower felt real good, even though it’s hard to keep your mouth closed to avoid ingesting the water. We have only steaming hot water in the sink – no cold – but I’m not complaining.
We gathered in a meeting room for an informal service, then we each shared our individual thoughts about the day. There are strong reactions to the conditions in this country. There is anger and frustration with the government (or lack thereof). Several of us want to take on the whole problem. As the days pass, we will come to back away from the political causes and the economics and focus on what we can do, one person at a time, to improve the situation. We will realize that what we can do, and what Food for the Poor and the churches are doing, is only a drop in the bucket, but it means the world to those who are helped. Fr. Martin reminded us of his starfish story.
An old man is walking along the beach after a storm, picking up one starfish at a time, throwing them back into the sea. A young boy points out to him that there are thousands of starfish littering the beach, and as the sun gets higher, they will dry out and die. The boy says, “What does it matter, old man? You can’t save them all.” The old man picks up another starfish and says, “It matters to this one, my son.” and tosses it into the waves.
Wednesday, February 3, 1999
For some reason, I heard roosters crowing all night long. I thought they only crowed at dawn, but my roommate also heard them during the night. He also heard a child screaming several times. We were up at 6 a.m. in order to make breakfast by 6:30. The service is on slow island time and we were scheduled to leave at 7:30.
Just outside the hotel property the streets are lined with vendors selling tin art, wooden crafts and paintings. Then further down the hill, as we entered the city, people spread fruits, vegetables, meat and cooked foods out on the sidewalk, sometimes on plywood, sometimes in large tin containers. All the food was covered with teeming masses of flies as it sat in the hot sun. Our breakfasts came back to our throats as we worked our way through the packed streets toward Isaie Jeanty Maternity Hospital.
Isaei Jeanty is located in the Chancerelles community of Port-au-Prince and is the major center in the entire country for prenatal, birthing and postnatal care. A large portion of the hospital burned to the ground a few years ago. This has caused terrible overcrowding. Women have to lie or sit on the floor in the hallway before being moved into the delivery room to give birth. There is no labor room. Women in recovery sleep two, sometimes three to a bed, with their babies. Women who have lost their babies are in the same bed with women who are nursing their newborns. The entire facility was primitive and unsanitary. Doctors wear the yellow rubber gloves that our janitors wear, and don’t change them between procedures.
The equipment throughout the hospital is old and in poor condition. It is not uncommon for mothers and babies to die during or after delivery due to the lack of proper equipment and supplies. There is no facility for babies born with complications. They can’t even do a Caesarian Section here. Two out of ten babies who are born here will die here. The morgue is adjacent to the hospital entrance. Incredibly, this is the best place for a woman to give birth. Elsewhere in Haiti, one out of every two babies born does not make it to age one.
In the delivery room, there were 18 beds side-by-side along the four walls. Most were occupied. Some of the women were screaming. Sheets covered none. There was no dignity or privacy. We stood in stunned silence.
Things brightened a little in the recovery room, where about 25 women, with their husbands, mothers and friends were fastening cloth diapers with safety pins, cleaning and feeding their babies. In spite of the conditions, the joy of childbirth was present here.
Food for the Poor is in the process of building a new wing at Isaei Jeanty to relieve the overcrowding. The two-story structure is complete and will shortly be fully equipped and stocked. This place has a long way to go, but the chances of a safe birth are better here than anywhere else in the country. It’s just so primitive and so many lives are lost. We don’t know how fortunate we are in the U.S.A. until we experience something like this.
We were scheduled to go to Cite de Soleil this morning, but this slum area had seen some violence during the night and the Food for the Poor staff felt it would be too dangerous for us. Two hundred houses had been burned last night in frustration over unkept promises of relief from the government. We will try again tomorrow if things are quieter.
Instead we headed for a Food for the Poor feeding station near the airport. This is part of Food for the Poor’s main warehouse and administrative complex. We toured the warehouse and office area and were impressed with the amount of food, medical, educational and housing supplies on hand. Again, the photos lining the walls here are of the people whose needs are the focus of this organization.
We all pitched in to help feed the 2,000 families who come every day for cooked rice, vegetables, and chicken necks. Children are sent with plastic pails, tin buckets, whatever will hold food. They are given portions according to the number of people in their families. They wait for hours in long lines. They are destitute, but their eyes are bright with appreciation. As I have at every stop, I saw God again in the eyes of the poor.
This program operates 5 days a week. There are 2,000 families who come directly to the feeding station, another 1,000 who come to a center in Cite de Soleil, and 250 students who are fed at the day care center in Little Haiti, another slum area. In addition, Food for the Poor feeds lunch to about 2,000 students in a seminary in downtown Port-au-Prince. In most cases, this is their only meal of the day.
From the feeding station, we went to a clinic operated by two Spanish nuns and 4 local helpers. There were several hundred women waiting in line with their babies for inoculations and examinations. This outpost is about 20 miles from Port-au-Prince and is the only medical facility in a large area to the north of the city. There is also a program here for the elderly. They pull apart fiber sacks and painstakingly weave the strands into rope, which they sell for about 13 cents for twelve-foot lengths. They also make straw hats that sell for one dollar apiece. We bought all the rope and hats they had.
Later in the afternoon, we headed north of the city along the Gulf of Gonaves to the small fishing village of Simonette. Here all the teenagers of the village led us in a parade down the main dirt road. They marched and sang in appreciation for the materials that they received to build a small fleet of fishing boats. After ten years of barely subsisting, they now have enough fish to eat and are selling the surplus. The elders of the village explained how their cooperative efforts, with the materials from Food for the Poor, have enabled the village to turn around and come back to life. They presented us with a large hand-made basket and we all ate fried fish.
This was an upbeat way to end the day, and the group was a little mellower on the long drive back to Port-au-Prince. The reflection meeting tonight brought out more positive thoughts about our experiences. At least there are some things going in the right direction.
Back to reality – there was no hot water in our room tonight. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a cold shower. The water’s cold and you can’t drink it, but it’s wet. The power went out briefly during dinner, but the hotel has a generator, so it came back on quickly.
Thursday, February 4, 1999
At 1:35 a.m. I was awakened by the telephone ringing, but there was no one on the line. A few minutes after the phone rang, I heard gunshots outside. With fears of the hotel being attacked, I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. All during the night, you can hear the restless sounds of the city below us. In many of the slum areas, there is not enough floor space for everyone to sleep at the same time, so they take turns on mats on the floor. Those who are up wander around, play cards, smoke and keep themselves occupied. In the morning the same mats used for sleeping are put out on the streets with piles of beans and rice for sale.
It was deemed safe enough this morning to attempt to go to Cite de Soleil. I had mixed feelings about this. I certainly didn’t want to be in any more danger than we had been, but I had also noticed that when I made eye contact or smiled at people on the streets, they smiled back. I didn’t sense the same animosity that I feel on city streets in the U.S. Their problems are not with us, but with their own government. And Food for the Poor people enjoy a street reputation commensurate with the help they provide. The poor of Haiti are people of faith as are we, and so I trusted in God that we would be safe with them.
As the bus worked its way deeper and deeper into the slum, the conditions kept deteriorating to the point where you would not think life could possibly exist. Naked children walked barefoot through excrement and filth. People squatted in garbage heaps to move their bowels, while goats and pigs picked through the trash beside them. 300,000 people barely exist here.
The front of the bus was like the bow of a boat, parting waves of people as we drifted further into hell. We were repeatedly warned not to take photographs, as the least provocation could put us at the mercy of an angry mob. We were pushing the goodwill that Food for the Poor had built with these people to its limits.
Then the bus stopped at a walled enclosure in the midst of this horror. As we got off the bus, I noticed Fr. Martin bring a handkerchief to his face. He later explained that he had splashed cologne on it that morning, but it didn’t matter – the stench was overpowering.
Within the enclosure is the Marguerite Naseau Kindergarten, run by Sr. Helene of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. This kindergarten is an oasis in the midst of one of the worst slums in the Western Hemisphere. This school for at-risk children has saved many lives since its doors opened four years ago. It is completely funded by Food for the Poor.
The 250 children, ages 2-6, who attend the kindergarten, are selected by health workers at a nearby clinic because of their poor nutritional status. Their distended stomachs and reddish tinged hair are signs of advanced malnutrition. Their mothers either cannot feed them or have simply abandoned them. Here, they receive food, clothing and instruction. The school also offers evening classes for the mothers in nutrition and basic parenting skills.
We moved on to another day care facility in Cite de Soleil. This one is run by Food for the Poor and serves about 220 boys and girls, ages 3-5. It is a safe place where preschool children can be fed and taught while their mothers look for work or take vocational training classes. The grinding poverty wears us down, and we are only exposed to it for a moment. I can only imagine what it does to those who face it day and night.
In the face of all this, I am inspired by the dedication of the nuns from a variety of orders, who are giving their lives to help the poor. They do it with such joy. It speaks highly of the power of prayer. I love watching the members of our group as they interact with the children. There is such a genuine feeling of warmth and connection among us all.
Leaving the slum behind for the lesser evil of the city around it, we headed south to the Food for the Poor Hospital in the Arcachon neighborhood. This part of the city had no medical care until Food for the Poor converted two abandoned buildings into a hospital and outpatient clinic that treats over 100 patients a day. Operating with donated medical equipment and supplies, Dr. Ulrick Kersaint and his staff of 5 full-time physicians concentrate on minor surgeries, such as hernia, appendicitis and removal of cysts. There is an on-site laboratory for blood tests and diagnostic procedures, a pharmacy, an X-ray facility, a treatment room and two operating rooms. To combat a severe shortage of gynecological and obstetrics services in Haiti, there is an emphasis on pre- and post-natal education and care. There is a pediatric wing and special care for the elderly, and there is an immunization program that vaccinates about 500 children a week.
Continuing east along the coast, we soon arrived at Cardinal Leger Leper Hospital in Sigueneau, on the outskirts of Leogane, about 40 miles from Port-au-Prince. Sr. Akiki Sudo, M.D, runs the hospital. It is a home for lepers who are shunned by everyone, including their own families. It provides both inpatient and outpatient care to lepers of all ages, with a good rate of success. And Food for the Poor has built several of the small one-room houses for the lepers to live in once they are able to leave the hospital.
There are two stages of leprosy, with the second or advanced stage the only contagious one. Once treatment has been initiated, it is no longer contagious. The men and women we visited were not pretty to look at, but they deserved dignity and respect. We held their deformed limbs and sat with them on their beds, talking and sharing our experiences. They had made crafts for sale – doilies, wooden boxes and carvings. We left with handmade crafts and renewed appreciation for the work of the nuns.
Back in the city, we stopped at the Catholic Cathedral to see the medical van Fr. Paul talked about when we met with him in Florida. It’s in good condition – it only needs supplies and staff. It was running once a week, but they have not had funds to keep it going so it is idle now. We can put it back in business 5 days a week for about $53,000 a year. We all agreed it would be a worthwhile project. With our financial help we can bring medical care to the people who live in the hills and are now beyond reach of any medical facilities.
On our last night, we still had no hot water. In the reflection meeting I noticed an acceptance that we can’t do more than scratch the surface here, but we can improve things for one person at a time. Everyone is deeply affected by what we have seen, but the total despair of the first day has eased. I now sense a commitment to do what we can, individually and together, to make things better here.
Friday, February 5, 1999
Another warm, steamy day in Port-au-Prince. An anxiousness to leave pervades the group. After breakfast, we pack the bus, take a group photo, say goodbye to the local Food for the Poor staff and head for the airport. I am thinking that my moment of greatest relief will be when the wheels go up on our American Airlines flight. For I know that even if there is a problem, the pilot will opt for Miami, rather than return to Port-au-Prince.
On the way to the airport we pass the United Nations outpost for the last time. The military units close to the airport, with their steel barricades, razor wire and machine gun towers, create a constant feeling of unease.
At the airport we deal patiently with the crowds, the lines and the inefficiency. Before we know it, we are aboard and airborne. Hooray!
In Miami, we have a 5-hour layover before our US Airways flight to Baltimore. We read, walk, shop, then join for dinner at the airport hotel.
During dinner, we agree that none of us really decided on our own to go on this pilgrimage – we all feel that we were led to it. We also agree that we got to know each other intimately in a very short time. And we commit ourselves to make something of this experience. We’re not entirely sure where this will lead. We’ll do some writing for the Parish Bulletin. Some of us will speak from the pulpit. We’ll help with the medical van project – Project Starfish we decided to name it. But there is a sense that something bigger, more lasting is going to come out of this. There needs to be some time, however, for it to sort itself out. I’m confident that there will be a sign for us – we will have only to follow it when it appears.
In Baltimore, the paved roads, streetlights, suburban houses and brightly-lit McDonalds restaurants seem surreal. Nowhere could we find a tap-tap, a burlap bag of charcoal, or a woman carrying an impossible load on her head. It was only a couple of hours of flying time, but it was a world apart.
The Weekend After.
I decided not to even try to explain to my family what I saw and how I felt about it right away. I had my 3 rolls of film developed on Saturday morning and sat alone with the pictures, reliving the ups and downs. That evening I finally worked up the courage to run through the pictures with my wife. I had to stop several times in mid sentence as my throat tightened with emotion. For several days I would find tears occasionally forming for no reason, especially when I was alone.
On Sunday morning at mass, my wife and I selected a pew without a look at who was beside us. When I looked up from my initial prayers, to my surprise, my Haiti roommate and his family were right next to us. Coincidence? I think not. Nor was it coincidental that the first reading today was from Isaiah 58:
“Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? .”
It has now been a little over three years since we were in Haiti. I have since returned with another pilgrimage and Fr. Martin and I have also been to Nicaragua, where a hurricane has devasted the land and the people. The eyes of the poor still burn in my mind and I sense that they always will. I have talked with literally hundreds of people about our experiences. Some listen for as long as I can talk. Others last just a few minutes before their eyes glaze over. This is understandable. Only those of us who have experienced first hand the horrors and the hope of poverty can really relate to it in the same way. But everyone should hear a little about this terrible reality.
Nativity Parish raised more than $110,000 in 1999 to fund the medical van project. More than 4,000 Haitians were treated in its first year of operation. Another organization continued to fund the medical service. In 2000, we rebuilt a burned orphanage for handicapped and retarded children just outside Port-au-Prince. We raised over $120,000 for this work. In 2001 Project Starfish built 25 one-room houses with shared toilets and showers outside Port-au-Prince. This year, 2002, we have raised enough funds to add 50 more houses to this project, called “Nativity Village.”
Project Starfish is now into its 5th year. A third pilgrimage will leave Nativity Church for Haiti on August 20, 2002. Some will return and immediately embark on a new life journey. Others will have the seeds of compassion planted deeply into their hearts, perhaps to bear fruit later in life. One thing is certain: the words of Matthew 25:40 have new meaning for everyone who personally experiences the plight of the poor.
“As often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”