By Jean Francky Guerrier, SJ – Coordinator of Programs for Haiti
As a program coordinator for Haiti in the Jesuit advancement office of Canada, I travelled to Haiti for a five-day mission starting on May 19th. Scott McMaster, director of the Jesuits’ advancement for Canada, accompanied me. The purpose was to conduct a site visit of the Jesuit works related to the transformation mandate.
Our visit took place in the context of ongoing gang violence in the Haitian capital and other surrounding areas. We had to avoid Port-au-Prince and head directly for Ouanaminthe located in the North-East part of the country with an estimated population of ninety-five thousand people. It shares the border with Dajabón-Dominican Republic with a population of sixty-five thousand people. Trade is the main source of income for most people living in the area.
We were greeted with love and hospitality by the novitiate house in Ouanaminthe, their Superior Stanley Charles, SJ and Jean Pierre Paul Durand, SJ a regent. From 6:15 morning Mass throughout the complete days of our visit and evening community gathering we were treated as beloved friends and brothers. Scott was deeply touched by the warm welcome and said, “I had never met any of the community members, was welcomed completely and will never forget their generosity.”
As a native of Haiti, I can testify that life goes on much like it always had due to the perseverance and faith of the Haitian people.
A people of hope and faith
Contrary to general reports of gang violence in Haiti, the region is relatively safe. Overall, it is inaccurate to report that Haiti has come to a standstill. As a native of Haiti, I can testify that life goes on much like it always had due to the perseverance and faith of the Haitian people. Scott’s quote “amidst all of this hardship, chaos and poverty there is a hope and faith. As we were to education will be the key to empower the next generations to take the bold actions necessary to create change.”
We visited first the Centre Éducatif de Bedou run by the religious sisters Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame in collaboration with the Jesuits. We toured a beekeeping project initiated by Sister Carmen Rodriguez together with the Jesuit Emilio Travieso. In our interview with Sr. Carmen, she explains the importance of this project for the sustainable development of Haiti, as it contributes to the country’s production of honey. This is in line with the logic of integral formation promoted by the Jesuits. Those who come to the school not only acquire a conventional education but also develop skills and knowledge that would contribute to the growth and development of their talents. Sr Carmen highlighted the progress made in training the students. When they first joined, many were reluctant to embark on such a project, which they viewed as meant for uneducated people. In time, they came to appreciate its meaning and developed what Sr Carmen calls “a kind of respect and protection” for the bees.
On Monday, May 22nd, Scott, and I, together with the regional director of Foi et Joie Fr. Johnny Masseba, SJ, revisited the Bedou school, but this time to meet with the other students, the teachers and the principal, Sr. Marie Rose Kahongya. The joy we encountered there was contagious. The students welcomed us with the traditional Haitian dance and song “Tonton Bouki eya eya.” Besides this, the flag-raising, and the national hymn: “pour le drapeau pour la patrie marchons unis…” sung together with pride, and the morning prayer said with reverence and devotion, convinced me that Haiti will continue to rise because joy, harmony and faith are very present amid chaos and misery.
Scott was met at the school gate by his new friend “Dodo” a four-year-old boy who rushed up to him as we entered Centre Éducatif de Bedou. This little one grabbed his hand and in Creole said “come with me”. This innocent child amidst unbelievable poverty and chaos had seen him at Mass and wanted to show him around to the other 4–18-year children. Dodo’s grip was one of hope and pride in his school. We learned later that Dodo was being raised by his 21-year-old Mom who was the top female student when she became pregnant and brought this bundle of joy into the world. Through the support of the Jesuits and the Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame this little one had more hope and love in his little finger than most of us could ever imagine.
I was also touched by the dedication of the teachers to teach the children; despite their low salaries. In an interview with Sr. Marie Rose, she describes the school’s most pressing needs. They include increasing its intake capacity and improving the biology and chemistry laboratory and computer room. She said that around nine hundred students receive a quality education at the school, but over 1,000 more have to be turned away each year for lack of capacity. Entering the science lab and computer studies class, if you could call them that, the former had students learning chemistry using highly dangerous chemicals, the acid burns on the basic steel sink displayed that clearly. Yet the students who were there were diligent in their studies, the use of the two microscopes for the entire school and the rudimentary science equipment. Their joy for learning and the opportunity this knowledge will provide radiated from their voices, smiles and actions. It was truly inspirational to hear and watch. The computer studies class had 10 computers to be shared by average class size of 40 and the total school population of approximately 900 students. Sr. Marie Rose appealed for support from anyone and everyone to enable their teachers in their task of developing these young people.
Through the support of the Jesuits and the Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame this little one had more hope and love in his little finger than most of us could ever imagine.
The two other schools we visited, Centre Éducatif Bassin Grand Chemin and Centre Éducatif Welsh, are prime examples of how young children survive, despite their precarious situation. Besides the lack of basic structures in those two schools, such as ventilated classrooms, sports grounds, safe play areas, drinking water, and laboratories, children have to walk daily several kilometres over treacherous mountainous roads that our truck with heavy duty suspension could barely survive.
Empty space and great hope
I was deeply saddened to see the office of JMS (Jesuit Migrants Services)-Solidarite Fwontalye which had been vandalized and looted on September 16th, 2022. From 2015 to 2017, I served at the JMS national office in Port-au-Prince, and often visited the office in Ouanaminthe. All the wonderful structures that I had known and had taken many years to build were gone. I was standing amid an empty space of shattered and demolished structures. Scott’s words resonated “they ransacked everything, and the feeling of hope remains.” Father Edward Luc, SJ, national director, described the event with great sadness. However, I felt comforted when he himself said: “everything is not over. We continue to accompany migrants and offer other social services to the community. We serve approximately 30,000 displaced and migrants annually” JMS staff occupy part of Espessil’s office (Espessil has a 2-year teacher training program supported by the Jesuits. It is recognized by a University of Cap-Haitien that provides pedagogical training). We were impressed that JMS staff managed to continue their work of accompaniment even after their office had been looted.
The collaboration between Espessil and JMS is a truly encouraging. It bears witness to the collaboration between the varying Jesuit programs and works.
People who hope, pray, and stand firm
I was privileged to preside at the 8:00 am Mass on Sunday May 21st at the Jesuit parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in D’Osmond, a village near Ouanaminthe. I delivered a message of hope, peace, and reconciliation to hundreds of faithful, especially youth, devoted to journeying with Christ in a very complex and challenging Haiti. I encouraged them to work together with the Jesuits for the country’s sustainable development.
One among many: the face of poverty in Haiti
We concluded our series of visits and interviews by meeting a woman whom we will name “Jeanne”, a widowed mother of nine children, who spoke of her difficulties in meeting her family’s basic needs. With the support of the Jesuits and the sisters of Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame, she has been able to send her children to school, and the older ones are completing their high school education. There are many more parents who, like this woman, have sacrificed everything so that their children can attend school. They believe education is the only means of escaping the atrocious circle of poverty in a country that offers very few options.
A greater call: going to the frontiers
Our Jesuit brothers in Haiti are very committed to the promotion and defence of migrants’ rights & dignity, integral formation of the poorest, and spiritual accompaniment of the laity. Where there is agony and suffering, there we encounter the poor and humble Christ, who invites us all to experience the Kenos. Thus, it is said in the decree 2 of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus that “our service, especially among the poor, has deepened our life of faith, both individually and as a body: our faith has become more paschal, more compassionate, more tender, more evangelical in its simplicity.” (CG, 34).
We implore all those who wish to support the work of the Jesuits in Haiti to help destitute families who cannot afford to pay school fees. Your help and support would help us create a better Haiti where people will not have to face gangs and violence when trying to meet their basic needs. Education must be the foundation to the future of Haiti.
Scott and mine’s mission was a positive experience for the people of the region and ourselves.