an SJA Event Report
by Jeanne Morales
A six member delegation from Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis, recently visited Port au Prince on a fact finding mission of Haiti's current struggles. They visited SOPUDEP and were able to provide us with these photos of Andre and an article. This report by member Jeanne Morales is Part Two of that trip. The whole SJA Event Report --with pictures--can be found on their own web site.
Our peace and justice delegation to Haiti experienced two deaths during our stay in Port-au-Prince. Although the deaths seem unrelated, they are tied together by the simple truth that they would not have happened if things were different in Haiti. Haiti presents a complicated story - coup attempts, dictatorships, democratic elections, voting irregularities, economic sanctions. To understand all the intricacies of Haitian politics seems impossible but to understand the ramifications of these politics is amazingly clear - this fledgling democracy and it's people are suffering. Malnutrition, lack of potable water, inaccessible medical care, a crumbling infrastructure and political violence are just a few outcomes from a society being squeezed under economic sanctions and other problems. There were probably many deaths in Haiti the week we visited. But the two deaths we experienced were close to us and they have stories I can share.
Andre Jean-Marie (photo: top right) was a member of a community group called SOPUDEP and founder of it's school which our delegation visited. The school provides education for 350 needy children whose parents can not afford tuition or can not find a place for them in the overcrowded public school system. The school does not turn children away and provides one hot meal - sometimes the only hot meal a child will receive.
The school occupies the former residence of a Tonton Macoutes member. Tonton Macoutes were the paramilitary wing of Duvalier dictatorship and were known for their swift and cruel repression. The ousting of Duvalier, the dismantling of the Tonton Macoutes and the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990, signified a fresh change for Haiti. SOPUDEP and its school is a small indication of what is possible under the new democratic government. According to documentary filmmaker Kevin Pina, the location of the school "takes a symbol of a horrible piece of Haiti's history and turns it into a symbol of hope."
The visit to the school was a highlight of the trip. We were introduced to each classroom and were treated to songs in both English and Creole. We met Andre and many other teachers and administrators and heard their stories. At recess we had the opportunity to play with the children, take their photos and practice our Creole. With the support of the St. Joan of Arc Justice fund and other fundraising, we were able to leave behind three suitcases of school supplies and $750 - enough to repair their second bathroom. The look of appreciation on their faces was heart-stopping and made us determined to forge an ongoing relationship with this wonderful school.
Two days after our visit to SOPUDEP, the rumblings of political dissent were in the air. Opposition groups, backed primarily by the elite, had taken to the street of Port-au-Prince to demand Aristide's resignation. In response, thousands of Aristide supporters also took to the streets, creating an explosive atmosphere in front of the palace.
Andre had been at the palace earlier that day for a literacy campaign meeting and returned to join the thousands of Aristide supporters. As he departed his car, he was struck and killed by bullets. The news of his death was shocking for our delegation and has rocked the school he founded. His death is tragic reminder of what can happen in an unstable political environment and when working for the poor can put one in danger. He leaves behind a wife and two children and dreams for a better Haiti.
The day before Andre was killed, we visited another group of children, this time at the Sister's of Charity Hospital. Many of the children were sick - AIDS, TB and other serious ailements. We arrived in time to help feed the children their evening meal. One baby I fed had arms the size of my middle finger. She was very sick - listless and hot with a runny nose. But I held her close and fed her a bowl of porridge I thought too big for an adult. She ate the whole bowl. I carried her around and sang all the songs from the Sound of Music I could remember until she had fallen asleep. After I placed her in her crib, I took a step back and took a really good look. I was overwhelmed by her beauty.
There were 20 babies in our room and at least three other rooms with babies. They all had big bowls or porridge or stew to eat and they were all clean and dressed comfortably. We took turns holding every baby in our room. Some had coughs we knew were TB but they responded lovingly to our touch and gave us wide smiles. As we were holding and singing to the children, we heard the news a baby died in the next room. She was in a crib right next to a baby a member of our delegation had fed. The news shocked us and we were deeply saddened by the fragility of life. The children in that hospital may be considered lucky because they finally have food and medical attention. So many Haitian children die because they lack the simple necessities we take for granted - clean water, food and access to medical care.
It was a sobering day in Haiti. We deeply felt the impact of those needless deaths. While the solutions to the problems of Haiti seem overwhelmingly complicated, one thing is glaringly clear - the economic sanctions must be lifted so the Haitian people can get access to basic necessities of life. The reasons for the sanctions have long been resolved and the humanitarian aid has been cleared for distribution. Interest and user fees on the aid are being paid, yet the U.S. continues to withhold the money. I smiled a lot that day in Haiti because I knew if I stopped for just a moment, I would cry.