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Sisters find hope, faith amid devastating conditions

December 14, 2010, Los Cacaos, Haití

To name Haiti is to name resilience…

We write from Los Cacaos in Haiti. We wish to share something of the life of this intercongregational and lay community here in this land.

As you know, the project was approved in the CODALC assembly and based on the commitment of the congregations present to respond with finances and with sisters or affiliated laity to the situation of the Haitian people in the wake of the January earthquake. Three congregations answered the call, sending sisters and one laywoman: Santa Catalina de Siena, de Monteils and Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Catherine of Siena.

For some months now, the community has been made up of Mercedes Moreno, Noemí Zambrano, María Marciano and Marleni Giraldo. Two of us are from Argentina, one from Brazil and one from Peru.

Our slogan from the gospel of John was: “I have come that you may have life and life in abundance,” and helped by the spirit of Montesino’s cry, we have been strengthened to be able to accompany the community of Los Cacaos.

At the beginning, we were getting to know the people of Los Cacaos, creating bonds among ourselves, joining forces with other organizations that are operating in the zone, and learning a bit of Creole. The information we got was that before the earthquake that happened in January, the population was made up of 1,034 farming families, and a total population of 8,272, distributed in seven sectors that cover the Los Cacaos community. Alter the tragedy, the number of inhabitants here rose to 32,752, as about 150 families per week migrated towards the frontier and especially to Los Cacaos.

The families belong to one of the poorest people in the republic of Haiti: the farmers. They live by cutting and burning agriculture, without means that would guarantee a socio-economic development to raise their standard of living. Once the survivors of the earthquake arrived, the overcrowding in their small and precarious housing was multiplied. One of the actions that helped to alleviate this situation was articulating with the ONG Mi Casa Tu Casa, which gave us a donation of tents that facilitated minimally the lives of these families.

The income of these families is very insecure, as it depends totally on farm produce, which is constantly in danger from various factors outside their control, such as lack of rain, impassable roads during the cyclone season, high cost of agricultural materials, intermediaries who are usurers, etc. To sum up, we found a people so impoverished that they cannot obtain the minimum conditions for living in dignity.

On top of all this, since October, cholera came to Haiti, brought from Nepal as has been scientifically verified. Once that happened, our priority became work in prevention, so as to create a sanitary barrier in the area. We studied, we worked with a Cuban doctor, prepared materials in Creole with the aid of a Haitian teacher, held meetings to transmit the information and to revise the conditions of the community in the event of a cholera outbreak. We found that 75 percent of the families had no toilet or bathroom, and of course the water they consumed and used for personal hygiene comes from the river Artibonito, which is where the cholera contamination began. We asked about the hospital in the area and found that it is five hours away on foot, on donkey or motor bike in the case of those families that are better off.

As we saw there was a place where an NGO held controls for pregnant women and gave out food to children up to 3 years, we went to see the place in case of an emergency. It had no water, window, electricity supply so no light, the roof was leaking and the toilets did not function. The dirt was awful and yet they called it a clinic.

We continued to work in prevention, praying that cholera would not reach the area as there weren´t the conditions for handling it. On top of this, the elections meant that people moved around, and with them came the cholera. So about 10 days ago, we suddenly found 20 people dead. Thanks be to God, some days before we had prepared and presented a project in preventive health to the health promoters of Acción Verapaz. This was approved, and the clinic began to attend the sick people who came, with the help of two Haitian nurses, a nurse from World Vision, and a Cuban doctor, Alexei Santana. Part of the resources of the project were used to buy medicines and serums that saved the lives of those affected, and we attended about 250 persons, children, adolescents and adults in one week.

We should mention here the help we got from Fundasep to provide drinking water for the families affected so they could continue treatment in their homes.

Some experiences have been stored in our hearts. One we can share is when four men, thin to the point of being rickety, all of them sweating, came running in the sun for kilometers, some half shod, others with no shoes, bringing on an improvised stretcher made of two branches and some cloths, their friend whose wife had died the day before.

We believe that for the first time in our lives we understood the text in John where friends bring a sick man to be cured by Jesus. When they took off the roof… they taught us without words the concept of friendship and neighbourly love. They could not allow the children of their neighbour to be left completely orphaned, so they made a makeshift stretcher and brought their dying friend to the clinic. They set him down on some benches on the steps and he was treated at once for dehydration and got medicine. He began to improve, and within a few hours, saw his wife’s coffin being brought by the same friends to the cemetery. At that moment, Pier Thomas (this is his name), in spite of his weakness, stood up and gave a great shout of grief. Part of the Haitian people’s ritual with their dead is to sing and dance as they accompany the dead on the way to the cemetery. Pier’s wife, like thousands of other Haitians, had none of this.

As we attended the people in subhuman conditions, we made efforts at the same time to get a water plant going and to install water in the clinic. After having to work for days among the vomit, diarrhea, without water or toilets, we had a visit from the Panamerican Health Organization, a French lady doctor and a male doctor from Guatemala, who inspected our poverty and began to give advice about how we should work.

A short sample to share about their advice. One morning a little girl arrived with chronic malnutrition, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. She was immediately treated for dehydration by serum, as her vomiting would not tolerate oral methods. She was medicated, and after a few hours, she was getting better. The comment made by this team was: Why did we give her serum that was so scarce in Haiti—we should have priorities about who to give and not to give from our resources. Enough said.

After our intervention in the clinic, it was cleaned up, water was installed, the toilets and rooms were put in order so there are no more patients on the street, and not one more person died, thank God. Unfortunately the dry season is over, and the rains are starting, so our roof is leaking. There will always be some progress and then some reversals, like in a dance.

We have set up committees with the authorities, organizations and the churches in order to spread word about prevention and the construction of septic tanks, so as to remove one of the sources of contamination. The state of the roads is one cause of isolation, and in fact, the very ill and the dead came from isolated places like Cerca Lasous, Carabonite, Les Lomas.

This is why we pushed long and hard for a machine to open up roads, and finally the blessed “bulldog” arrived and was set to work. As many as 200,000 persons will benefit from this, as they can travel to sell their produce more easily and get help more quickly when they are sick.

On Sunday last, we went to six Christian chapels and preached there on how to protect the lives of the communities. We used two texts: “I have come that you may have life and life in abundance” (Jn.10, 10) and the text used by the evangelical churches in Sunday’s liturgy (1Jn. 2,4): “Whoever says he loves God, whom he cannot see, and does not love his brother, whom he can see, is a liar.”

We preached, aware of the resilience of the Haitian people: to say resilience is to say Haiti. They praise God with chants and dances, they bless each other, raise each other’s hope in the midst of darkness. If ever a people had faith, the Haitians have it.

So we ask you to meditate on these texts and be encouraged to come and support this project with sisters, laity or with financial aid so as to be faithful to Life. We are certain that as Clare states: We are poor, few and small, but our generosity and service are great. And this will help us to respond to this proposal.

With lots of love and hoping for your generosity, we greet you,

Marleni, Mercedes, María and Noemí