Haiti quake: the original humanitarians

Sr Eileen Davey walks in her parish with some children from her nutrition and education programme. 'You may go out by yourself,' she says, 'but you never come home alone.' Photo: Conor O'Loughlin/Caritas

By Conor O’Loughlin, Communications Officer, Trócaire (Caritas Ireland) Port-au-Prince

In a small brick house under the shadow of the church of Louis Marie de Montfort church in Port-au-Prince live three nuns.

The house is by the airport and the constant thumping of helicopters overhead provides a disconcerting soundtrack to the searing heat.

The three nuns have lived here for a long time and devote their time to the poor people of the neighbourhood.

“People are very poor here,” says Sr Helen Ryder, a sister of the La Sainte Union order from Co. Offaly in Ireland. “There are poorer, but then in Haiti there is always someone poorer.”

Her colleague, Sr Maria Hawkes from Cork, spoke of the moment the earthquake struck: “I was in my room at about 4.45 in the evening. Just sitting by my bed reading a book. Suddenly I became aware of the wall shaking. I got up quickly. My bed was moving across the room. The cabinet above my  sink popped open.”

They knew immediately that this was a major disaster.

“It was very sad to see, like a pack of cards, all the houses flattened. We went over to an open space and we didn’t return until the next morning. We lay on the ground that night. When there was tremors you could feel them in your spine.”

Sr Helen spoke of the terrible conditions Haitians live in. “Improvement isn’t a word you hear around here. The four cyclones we had last year now seem small by comparison but they were huge too. That seemed to be the worst thing that could happen until this did. There is a tremendous amount of resilience. Food and water are what’s needed at the moment, simply to survive. After that you can start talking about reconstruction and getting schools open and getting life back to normal. But it’s food and water first.”

The three nuns work on a pre-school feeding programme for the poorest children in the area. Every day before the earthquake, 100 children would come to the centre where they would be given a nourishing meal and some pre-school education. Each child is then sponsored through primary school, which many Haitian parents can’t afford.

However since the earthquake they haven’t been able to re-open the centre because they spent all of their cash reserves on helping people in the community in the immediate aftermath. And while their building remains standing, rebuilding needs to be done to make the structures safe for the children to return.

The emergency director for Trócaire (Caritas Ireland), Maurice McQuillan, visited the nuns this week, to look at the damage and consider how the aid agency might help them get the centre back on their feet.

The third of the group, Sr Eileen Davey from New York, told Mr McQuillan: “For many of the children who come to us, these past two weeks since the earthquake mean that they simply haven’t eaten. They haven’t eaten for several days at this point probably. If they don’t have the food they’ll become weaker and become more susceptible to diseases. That’s always the concern.”

Mr McQuillan agreed to provide them with a grant from Trócaire’s Haiti emergency appeal funds to fix their building and keep them running for a period.

“Long before aid agencies had even been thought of, missionaries like these three women were devoting their lives to the poorest of the poor,” Mr McQuillan said. “They are the original humanitarians. Walking through the local community it’s easy to see how popular and valued these women are. Their vital work must be encouraged to continue wherever possible. Trócaire and Caritas are proud to help them in whatever small way we can.”

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Haiti, Haiti, Latin America

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