Report from a Tearful Land
Toward the end of May, 2004, heavy rains brought devastating floods and caused thousands of deaths among helpless and poor villagers in Haiti
and the Dominican Republic. Passionist Father Rick Frechette, a doctor at St Damien's hospital (in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince) was among those bringing aid to the flood victims by helicopter and truck. Here are excerpts of his reports from the disaster area:
June 18, 2004 During this past week we made two trips to the impoverished flood areas. On Tuesday we went to LeRoche with five truckloads of food, and today (Thursday) we went to Vaudreuil with a huge truckload of mats to serve as beds, and with sandals and rice. Today we were accompanied by the auxiliary bishop of Port-au-Prince, Bishop Dumas.
On Tuesday we enlisted the help of three of Mother Teresa's Sisters, and of street children of Petionville, to come and help us manage the distribution. This group of children are in a program I set up, run by three young men and three young women who grew up in our orphanage. They were a big help as literally hundreds of hungry people awaited our arrival and it is very trying to control these crowds. The truth is, all these towns and indeed most of Haiti would be considered a disaster even if there had not been a flood. They are terribly poor, and lack the most basic services including schools and clinics.
It is impossible not to be deeply struck by the depth of poverty and hunger in this country, once you stray away from Petionville where there is an illusion of development. Many of the people who come to these various towns hoping to get a little bag of beans and rice are not from the flood areas. Hunger drives them to seek help wherever they can.
As a doctor, it is easy to diagnose illnesses as you offer a little bag of food and talk for a few minutes to the people. Many are so very polite and want to show their gratitude and they stay close by to talk a little bit. I am thinking of a woman who has the bulging eyes and an enlarging neck from thyroid disease. I notice she has a chain tightly around her neck, surely the attempt of the local voodoo doctor to stop the growth of her thyroid gland. I see a very old thin man, groaning with bellyache, his legs discolored and ulcerated. I am sure he is diabetic.
And I see a very pathetic ten-year old albino boy. He is doing his best to keep up with all the other children, as curious as they are about us and what we are doing. He has his t-shirt pulled above his head to keep the sun off his pained eyes, since the sunlight hurts his tender retinae. His legs are red from sunburn, and dry and flakey. I can see he already has a patch of melanoma on the skin over his collar bone. How much could have been done for this boy in another setting: simple sunglasses, ultraviolet protective sun lotions, proper education and proper clothing regarding sun exposure. Instead of this, he is a small, fried boy with a deadly cancer--but he is all boy. I give him two bags of rice, he squeals with delight and runs off. This child haunts my sleep now.
I will go find him again and see if that melanoma can be removed and hope it hasn't spread. I will give him a big hat and sunglasses and ask the next person coming over from Miami to bring lots of 15 or higher sunblock. There is so much to do it is hard to know where to start.
The bishop has a good idea. Building a little chapel on high ground, and a little school next to the chapel, and a little clinic next to the school, and a little market next to the clinic will bring everyone to high ground. It sure is worth a try.
July 12, 2004 This is a little update that you might like to have: We have made a total of 12 trips to the flood areas so far. Three were reconnaissance and nine were to bring food and supplies. We have provided about 15 tons of food to the people of various ravaged villages, especially LeRoche and its environs.
Our last reconnaissance mission was Saturday. We went all the way up the canyon and riverbed on motorcycles, all the way to Thiote. It was a long hard day, but adventuresome and fun as well. There were nine of us, three motorcycles and a truck.
We are now moving into a new phase of relief. Since the roads are (barely) passable, market trucks from Port-au-Prince are arriving all the way to Thiote and probably to Mapou.
At this stage is would be better to try to help families regain their ability to sustain themselves (although even before the flood, this was at best subsistence level). So we are going to try to help about 25 families replant their gardens (elsewhere), build retaining walls, plant trees, replace their lost livestock and in some instances rebuild their simple house. Getting their little business going again seems more important than building little houses. The houses can be built in time, but participation in the admittedly scant economy is a more important first step.
To date we have about $75,000 for flood relief.
We have spent about $6,000 on food and supplies as direct assistance.
Flood victims in Haiti
We have contributed $10,000 toward rebuilding the school at Fond Verette, through the Catholic Church.So we have about $59,000 to help 25 or 30 families get going again.
The little albino boy I mentioned in a previous report is with us now in our hospital. His name is Ronald. His grandmother wanted to just give him to me--for life. It is amazing how often people offer you their children for keeps. We have Ronald outfitted now for the tropical sun--glasses and creams for UV protection, and a big floppy hat. He will be with us for a few weeks while being evaluated by a dermatologist for removal of cancerous and pre-cancerous skin lesions. He is a delight.
Jesula, who lost her leg in a big market accident a few weeks ago, is suffering a number of setbacks. She is often in tears now. Poor healing and recurrent falls when she tries to negotiate a walker have her very discouraged. To cheer her up, I offered her my own right leg, with the caveat that it might not look good on her since it is white, hairy, and defective (since my surgery last November)! She chuckled alright, and then accepted! She still has her sparkle. Prayers are appreciated for her! We will send her to the Dominican Republic for an artificial leg when healing is complete.
Unfortunately the gang violence has returned, as well as the kidnapping of children of wealthy people. The gangs are often in the slums where we work.
Not long ago when we were in Wharf Jeremy, we heard an unbelievably wild lament. Many children were crying inconsolably. You knew immediately it was not the cry of someone who was just punished or who had fallen down. It was a chorus of deep, soulful screaming and crying. We walked until we found the shack where it was coming from. In all my life I have never seen a more pitiful sight. Five little children whose father was shot dead, left alone by the mother who had gone to find the body on the street, were out of their minds with grief. They were rolling on the dirt floor, covering themselves with mud, ripping their clothes and wailing and screaming a sound that would shake your bones. One was clutching a dead kitten.
I did my best to console them, to hold them, to talk with them but there was nothing I could do to penetrate their frenzied grief. Finally we went out to find the father's body, and there it was--baking on the street in the tropical sun, with the wife wailing at its side.
We put the body in our truck and took the wife along with the body to the morgue, gave her some money to do the official paper work at the city morgue, to buy something for the children, and some money for the funeral.
You can imagine we go through money like water, facing these situations one after the next, and I dread the day when finances will not allow us to take an active role in helping with these problems. That day will be a huge challenge to faith, because we will be present but helpless--as helpless as the poor people themselves.
I didn't sleep all night. I could not get the pathetic scene out of my mind, or the pathetic lament out of my bones.
The next day, after mass at the orphanage, we went back to Wharf Jeremy with seven chicken dinners. We sat in the little sweltering shack and talked with the children as they and their mom feasted on chicken. I made it a point to learn their names.
This time they came to me, and sat with me, and we were able to express our sorrow to them and to try to give them an experience of goodness, of friendship, of love to counterbalance and offset the horror. It was deliberate on my part to offer a humane and spiritual medicine as close as possible to the moment of horrific suffering.
It must have worked. The mother offered all the children to me, and the children begged me to take them. But such solutions are far from ideal. Since then we have completely relocated the family out of Wharf Jeremy, and thanks to good friends in Scranton, Pennsylvania, they are in a safe and simple house with their mom, and we will get all the children in school.
St Paul says that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. Thank you for the prayers and help that make St Paul as right as anyone can be.
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