Determined Haitians stand strong in the face of insurmountable obstacles

Girls outside tents at a camp on the grounds of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – While leaving the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince this morning we passed by a U.N. World Food Program food distribution site. Dozens of earthquake victims were hurrying back to their tattered shelters a few blocks away, large sacks of rice in their possession.

The eagerness of the Haitians to return to their families with this gift of life was evident on their faces. No one looked happy — just very concerned that they get back to feed hungry stomachs.

The sacks, emblazoned with the USAID logo, are meant to last two weeks. After that, the World Food Program plan calls for continued distributions of food across 16 zones around the capital. How long the distributions will continue is anyone’s guess.

The realization that this could go on for a very long time is sobering. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless in the country, most around Port-au-Prince. An estimated 400,000 of the area’s 3 million people have fled to the countryside, placing greater burdens on an already-stressed rural community where the agricultural capacity has been limited by recent hurricanes.

A crucifix remains standing amid the rubble of Sacred Heart Church in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

And here we — Catholic News Service photographer Bob Roller and myself — were ending our assignment after 10 days on the ground in the earthquake-ravaged city. We had the opportunity to leave. But these Haitians cannot. They will continue to encounter challenges that most Americans would find unimaginable.

Yet they stand strong as in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They are not giving up. Their example is one for the world.

Now it remains for the world to respond.

Charlie Jacques prays the rosary for comfort outside destroyed Port-au-Prince cathedral

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Just about every morning since the Jan. 12 earthquake Charlie Jacques visits what’s left of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and prays the rosary.

“It gives me comfort and gets me through the day,” the 33-year-old Jacques told Catholic News Service today, unwrapping a bright green rosary from his right hand to shake hands with a visitor.

Remains of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption are seen the day after the Jan. 12 earthquake. (CNS/Caritas)

He sits quietly on a splintered plastic chair tucked into a corner between a brick wall and the wrought iron fence that surrounds the cathedral. His gaze appears distant, thinking about the better times of the past.

For Jacques, it’s been the same routine for more than three weeks since the home he shared with his sister on Dalmas 2 was destroyed in the quake.  He said he lost his job as a laborer at a food depot the night of the disaster.

This morning, Jacques appeared fatigued in his dusty clothes. But he’s holding out hope that someone will help. First he wants food. He said he has eaten little since the earthquake. Second, he’d like a job so he can help support his sister and begin to save money for another home.

He wraps the rosary around his right hand again and returns to prayer.

Persevering Haitian barber rebuilds his shop amid signs of clean up

Chov Jean Jacques takes a break while workers rebuild his barber shop in Sarthe. (CNS/Bob Roller)

SARTHE, Haiti — Signs of clean up and rebuilding slowly are becoming more evident across some of the most seriously damaged neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince.

Barber Chov Jean Jacques is just one example.

We came across Jacques sitting in what was left of his tiny shop on the main street into and out of Sarthe, just north of the Port-au-Prince airport. He was watching two workers — masons Roudy Pierrilus and Louis St. Ilus — rebuild the front wall of his business on the side of the road at the foot of a heavily-trafficked, creaky bridge.

He said he expected to be back in business in a week or so.

The cost to rebuild is about US $1,500, Jacques estimated.  He borrowed money to pay the workers, and the construction-supply business extended credit for the concrete blocks and cement. Once he reopens he expects to repay the loans in due time.

The construction style is typical of many of the thousands of structures that came tumbling down in the earthquake: concrete walls with simple rebar supports. If another quake hits, it will tumble down again.

But people such as Jacques deserve credit and support for the desire to persevere and continue living.

When the earth quaked, Jacques was in the middle of a haircut for a customer. Three customers were waiting their turn. All escaped unharmed but the front of the shop and most of one side wall caved in. And with it most of his furniture and equipment.

“We just can’t say anything. It’s God’s will,” he said of the Jan. 12 quake, which Haitians call “The Event.”

As for where he will get chairs for his waiting customers and a barber chair, he told me, “If you get some, send some.”

Haitian doctor with US ties committed to improving health care for poor neighborhood

Dr. Moise Arnaud Cely, director, Sarthe Neighborhood Medical Clinic. (CNS/Bob Roller)

SARTHE, Haiti — The second floor of his medical clinic is gone, thanks to the Jan. 12 earthquake, yet Dr. Moise Arnaud Cely continues to see patients in the only medical clinic in a forgotten corner of this community mired deep in poverty.

Assisted by two nurses, including his wife, Cely continues to see 75 patients a day in what remains of the Sarthe Neighborhood Medical Clinic. His equipment is limited: scale, blood pressure cup, stethoscope, microscope, bandages and dwindling medications.

Patients wait for treatment inside on well-worn chairs and outside on weathered benches

“We need a lot of medicine because here it is very difficult to find more became most of the buildings where you could buy medicine have been damaged,” Cely told Catholic News Service today.

Fewer of Cely’s patients from this walled neighborhood with rutted rocky roads are arriving these days with untreated broken bones and deep gashes now that its more than three weeks since the quake. Now he’s seeing people experiencing diarrhea and vomiting caused by water-born diseases exacerbated by hunger.

“They look very weak,” he said.

He expects the number of people with such symptoms to continue increasing until adequate food and water are available.

The clinic is supported by the Haitian Development Fund, whose president, Dr. Brent DeLand, is a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Springfield, Ill. The two doctors met in 2002 while delivering health care in Cite Soleil, an extremely poor neighborhood wracked by violence in nearby Port-au-Prince.

DeLand is due to arrive in Haiti, perhaps as early as the end of February, to assess what repairs are needed at the clinic before the rainy season begins in April.

When Cely is not seeing patients he cleans debris from the upper floor of the concrete-block building. Judging by how mangled the roof and wall supports are, he’s going to need a lot of help.

Tennessee medical volunteers find Haitians appreciate care being delivered

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After two weeks in this earthquake-ravaged capital, the “dynamic duo” of Tennessee medicine was looking forward to getting home tonight.

(CNS/Bob Roller)

Registered nurse Lynn Blair-Anton, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Franklin, Tenn., and Dr. Donald LaFont, a member of St. Mary Parish in Jackson, Tenn., have spent the last two weeks working in mobile medical clinic, treating Port-au-Prince’s seriously wounded.

They were in Haiti because their parishes are part of the Parish Twinning Programs of the Americas, based in Nashville. They were based at Matthew 25 House, the program’s home-away-from-home for volunteers working in Haiti.

Other volunteers from a variety of organizations christened them the dynamic duo because they could always be found working together.

LaFont, 72, has been volunteering his medical expertise in Haiti since 1992; Blair-Anton since 1997.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Blair-Anton told Catholic News Service this morning while waiting for a ride to the Port-au-Prince airport for a flight home on a commercial transport. “We have the talents. We have the resources.”

Both medical professionals said their faith motivates their actions.

“You can say God lets us do it,” LaFont said. “But we wanted to come. These people need it.”

There has been times during their stay when the mobile teams have almost run out of supplies, but not quite.

“Our supplies have been like loaves and fishes,” Blair-Anton said. “Just when we’re out we get more.”

“You wonder where this stuff comes from, but it shows up,” LaFont added.

The Tennesseans said the Haitians appreciate the help they are getting. At a couple of sites where the clinic set up, people sang songs of thanks for the workers and praise to God as they waited patiently for assistance.

“Instead of saying ‘Why me?’” Blair-Anton said, “they’re saying, ‘Thank you, God.’”

A walk through destroyed Sacred Heart Parish seems mighty eerie

A crucifix remains standing amid the rubble of Sacred Heart Church in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Sacred Heart Parish in the middle of Port-au-Prince is a must-see stop for Catholics visiting Haiti. Built in 1905, the historic church in the Turgeau neighborhood was a favorite for average Catholics and top church officials alike.

It still is, but not because of its beauty or its tradition. Now people stop to see how badly the Jan. 12 earthquake shook the church to pieces.

Debris is stacked at least 15 feet high at the main entrance. Part of a steeple blocks the sidewalk and part of the street. A 20-foot tall crucifix in the corner of the church lot faces and remains largely undamaged, still announcing to all that this is the site of a once-beautiful church.

Behind the church, a wall has toppled backward  into what looks like a courtyard, exposing a triangle-shaped interior wall, which formed the backdrop to the main altar. Looking at the same wall from inside the destroyed structure, it still holds a modern crucifix. Below the image of the crucified Christ the tabernacle sits undamaged. A few feet away is the main altar, itself undamaged save for a fine coating of dust.

Walking inside what’s left of the church today seems eerie. A pile of bricks has forced open a set of side doors. Ceramic tiles and plaster ornaments cover the entryway and much of the aisles. The parish’s Nativity display had been toppled as well.

A pair of women's shoes on the floor inside Sacred Heart Church. (CNS/Bob Roller)

A thick layer of powdery white dust covered everything and made the floor slippery. The coat of dust reminds the visitor of the dust that coated desktops and fine china in the homes of people blocks away from the World Trade Center after the disaster of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pews were scattered about.  Three ladies’ purses, their contents scattered, rested on one of the pews in the middle of the church. A pair of ladies shoes remained on the floor near the front entrance. The stench of death emanated from the debris pile that blocked the main door. Surely the women who tried to flee as they prayed late in the afternoon remained there.

Surprisingly, not everything was destroyed. Several beautiful stained glass windows remained in place. A few Stations of the Cross still hung on the walls, needing only a good cleaning. The pews probably can be used in another church.

But Sacred Heart Church, as thousands of faithful Catholics knew it, is no more.

US-born soldier of Haitian descent finds his ancestors’ homeland hurting

PETIONVILLE, Haiti — Being in Haiti for the first time in his life, Army Pfc. Cameron Taylor of New York never imagined the country would be hurting as much as it is.

Pfc. Cameron Taylor, with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, stands guard at a food distribution station in Petionville. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Assigned to a security detail with members of the 82nd Airborne Division at the World Food Program food distribution for earthquake victims in Petionville yesterday, the 27-year-old soldier shared a few impressions about what he’s seen so far.

“I have family here that I haven’t had the chance to meet because of the situation,” he said.

He has also found devastation to be beyond belief.

While he has not been able to reach relatives in Haiti yet, he has heard from family in his native Harlem neighborhood in New York City that several likely perished in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Taylor expects that he will be able to reach his Haitian relatives at some point because he said he has been told his assignment will last for three to six months. That’s plenty of time to be of service not only to the U.S. but to injured and homeless Haitians as well.

US-supported orphanage seeks normalcy three weeks after quake

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The 63 girls who live at the House of Girls of God Orphanage on a mountainside in Port-au-Prince still sleep outside, nearly three weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Paula Thybulle, director and founder, House of Girls of God Orphanage. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Paula Thybulle, the orphanage’s director and founder, welcomed a Catholic News Service reporter and photographer to the orphanage today, saying it’s been a difficult job keeping the girls calm and getting them back into a regular routine.

“Until now they are traumatized,” Thybulle said.

The orphanage sustained enough damage during the magnitude 7 temblor to close several classrooms and the dormitories.

The orphanage is one of the several programs in Haiti supported by the Haitian Ministries of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn. Emily Smack, executive director, said the diocese provides $70,000 annually to the orphanage and the other programs.

Smack, Lyn Tolson, assistant director, and Dr. Tom Gorin, a pediatrician, are in Port-au-Prince for five days to visit the projects the Haitian Ministries program supports. They wanted to know what they could do in the U.S. to help the programs continue and return to regular operation.

Emily Smack, executive director of Haitian Ministries in the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., talks with children at the orphanage. (CNS/Bob Roller)

The orphanage in Port-au-Prince’s Village Lamothe  neighborhood is in a holding pattern. While it gets electric power from a generator and the staff has been able to cook meals for the girls, classes are suspended because the teachers have not returned from caring for their families in the aftermath of the disaster.

Thybulle, 70, said she worries about the orphanage’s future. She would like to find another location for the girls, but the disarray around the Haitian capital will make that a difficult task. Even if the right place is available, it will take money to rebuild what already exists.

Thybulle, who started the orphanage in 1987 after holding jobs in the Haitian government and in the United States, said the project is what’s driven her for more than 22 years. She said she’s not ready to retire because if she did “I would die.”

For now Thybulle is working as hard as she can to hold the orphanage together. But she seemed tired after nearly three weeks of nonstop work.

“I don’t want to turn my back on the girls,” she said. “I love them a lot.”

U.S. Army keeps order at the Petionville Club

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The U.S. Army definitely has taken over the Petionville Club, a golf course overlooking the ruins of the Haitian capital.

During a visit to the club to talk with some of the 50,000 people who now call the golf course home, CNS photographer Bob Roller, translator Junior Sinsmyr and I could hardly miss the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s presence.

Children walk among tents in a makeshift camp at a golf course in Port-au-Prince Jan. 24. (CNS/Marco Dormino, United Nations)

From the guards at the main gate to the trio of sentries keeping a constant watch from a hillside overlooking tent-covered fairways and putting greens, the soldiers’ presence said one thing: the U.S. is in charge and nothing’s going to get out of hand.

The soldiers were courteous and helpful in pointing us to where we needed to go. Once we entered the main area of the club — where the pool, a couple of bars and what looked like what might have been an equipment room was located — we thought we might as well have been in the recreation area on an Army base. Soldiers were relaxing, reading, playing games and talking over (non-alcoholic) drinks.

Americans were given wide access to the club grounds. And any mention of ties with Catholic Relief Services, which is overseeing services to the thousands of homeless Haitians there, got visitors an even greater respect.

The campers were located in the back of the club grounds far below the posted sentries. To get to and from the tent city, anyone on foot had to navigate one of several marked paths on a steep hill. At the bottom of each path, people had to sidestep through a wooden gate. It seemed like the layout was meant to keep the campers from scurrying up the hill in a disorderly way when aid arrived.

Given the circumstances, it’s understandable that the military would want to keep order, lest violence break out during the distribution of aid. Homeless Haitians greatly outnumbered soldiers and a group of medical workers at the club. In this day of a security-conscious American government,  the only way military planners see as the way to keep order, it seems, is to make it difficult for anyone to upset the normal flow of things.

In tent cities, residents live on will to survive

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The reality of the magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti grabbed hold today with the first visit into central Port-au-Prince. Not only was the destruction extensive – just about every building seemed to have significant damage – but the human toll was overwhelming.

At demolished buildings and in tent cities that occupy almost every open area in the capital people approached seeking assistance. Particularly at the tent camp just outside of the Port-au-Prince International Airport today, people crowded around us every time we stopped to talk. Some wanted money, some water, others a job.

Across the road, in an open field within a football field’s length of American and French military barracks on the airport grounds, people seemed to be the most desperate. Even though they, like the others at the more organized camp, were from the nearby Mais Gate neighborhood, they were latecomers to the area. After 18 days, they were just now able to start assembling – building doesn’t seem possible with the limited supplies they had — some sort of shelter. They missed getting a spacious tent courtesy of the U.S. government three days ago.

Many small square sites had been marked off with rope, plastic ribbon or other material on this field of ankle-deep grass. Some of the sites, probably no more than 8 feet by 8 feet in size, had long, thin tree branches or plastic bottles marking the dimensions. A few people were hanging plastic drop cloths, bed sheets, or flimsy curtains to give them a bit of privacy and protection from the elements.

It seems like the 150 or so people on this field were poor even by Haitian standards. They had little with them, possessing nothing but the will to survive.

What’s next? They’re not sure. For now, they’re taking life one day at a time.

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