JÉRÉMIE, Haiti — The food riots are in the news, the Vatican has sent out a plea for help and a newly elected prime minister hopes to turn the tide on a food crisis. It’s difficult to ignore — Haitians are starving.
But sometimes people turn a blind eye. Why help Haiti when there are poor in the United States? Sister Maryann Berard, OSF, has a simple yet thought-provoking answer.
“Mother Teresa left Calcutta to open a house in New York,” she said. “The poor deserve our help.”
But these are even more desperate days for Haiti.
“We’ve been here 20 years and its worse than ever,” Sister Maryann said. “Kids are starving.”
As administrator for the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF), Sister Maryann, of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, is familiar with what ails the country. She oversees all of HHF’s life-sustaining enterprises, including the Sant Lespwa Clinic, Creole for Clinic of the People of God, in urban Jérémie. The facility was built in 2001, with private donations. People were starving because of international embargoes placed on the country thanks to political turmoil. The clinic includes the Center of Hope Nutrition Pavilion.
Staff members coordinate with organizations such as Catholic Relief Services to bring in food. Cross International gave them a water truck because most areas have no wells or running water.
Starting with those most at risk, women and children, the HHF established the Center of Hope because so many high-risk pregnant women were dying as they were carried in chairs or by mule from nearby mountain villages.
The center is a place where they can live temporarily and receive food and prenatal care while they wait to deliver their babies. It has about 30 beds, several exam rooms, ultrasound, a laboratory and an eye clinic. Four nurses are slotted for days, one for afternoon and one for midnight.
The clinic received a $20,000 portable sonogram machine as a donation and it has already saved lives, Sister Maryann said. Also, thanks to Cross International, they have an emergency vehicle designated solely for pregnant women. If a woman is having problems with her delivery, the village health agent can call on a cell phone and arrange for her to be picked up and taken to the hospital.
The Kwashiorkor Treatment Facility helps babies who suffer from severe protein deficiency. With kwashiorkor, a child’s belly swells and his or her hair takes on a reddish color. The disease damages the cardiac system. As treatment, babies are given enriched milk if they can drink. If they have lost the ability to eat, they must be fed through tubes. Mothers stay to help feed their child and to learn about proper nutrition.
Enita Sant Fort, 28, brought her baby, Enjy, to the clinic the day U.S. Catholic journalists were visiting.
In Creole, Sant Fort told Bette Gebrian, HHF public health director, that her son was born in July 2007. This is her fourth child.
“Life is difficult,” she said through an interpreter. “I am not having any more children. Before the program I didn’t do very well, but since I started here I am better learning how to take better care. I never miss coming. I don’t have any food.”
At the feeding pavilion, Enjy will receive a warm, protein-rich meal like several hundred of his counterparts who are malnourished, but not sick enough to be admitted to the clinic. The mothers are given a ration for their child to take home.
“The whole family is probably getting the ration for the child,” Gebrian said.
Pregnant women living nearby or who can walk to the pavilion also are fed. While there they will get a check-up, as will any other infant or young child they have.
The Center of Hope itself is run by the diminutive Renate Schneider.
“Women are high risk in their first pregnancy,” she told the group of journalists. “She stays 22 days on average. They pay a symbolic 100 gourdes (approximately $2.60) and they clean and cook for themselves. The menu is set up to be nutritionally balanced.”
Deliveries are performed at the Jérémie hospital, not at the center.
“We want them to come back there though,” Schneider said. “We encourage four prenatal checkups. If they do, they can sign up for a follow-up program where they will receive vaccines, food donated by CRS and check-ups.”
Women can get HIV/AIDS tests at the Clinic of Hope. Haiti has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the Western Hemisphere and the clinic has a small HIV program where every woman is tested with her permission. Unmarried women are left to fend for themselves. Haitian men often have two families — marriage is delayed as a man must provide his wife with a house –– and if a woman tells her husband she is HIV positive, he may abandon her.
The dominant religion in Haiti is Catholicism, though much of the population also practices voodoo. Haitians have combined their African-rooted beliefs with the Christian faith.
The influx of protestant missionaries who provide aid and a conversion, or the non-Christian missionaries that only provide a conversion, have also increased the need for further Catholic evangelization.
Between the lack of healthcare and the need for truth, the focus now is on food distribution.
“The Center of Hope is not funded and has big needs,” Sister Maryann said. “We rely on outside funding for help. Nobody pays for food or the staff. The ambulance costs $138 each time it goes out. It’s only for maternity cases and goes out at least once a day. It went out 183 times in four months. We can only drive three hours out, that’s the farthest we can afford. The only reason we’re here is because of the patients, the poor ones. It’s what it is today because of our donors.”
Sister Maryann has been in Jérémie since 1989 and has seen riots, famine, birth and death.
“It’s more expensive here now and we have no regular electricity,” she said. “We never had a long-range plan. We didn’t plan what they have now. We’re asked all the time to replicate the clinic in other parts of Haiti. It’s just not simple in a country like this.”
Amidst the frustration of painfully slow progress, man-made obstacles and strains on faith when watching a child die, there is reason to keep on going.
“The people that come to us keep us motivated,” Sister Maryann said. “There is a lot of satisfaction in seeing them smiling when they leave and enabling children to go to school.”
For more information about the HHF, visit www.haitianhealthfoundation.org.
For information about Cross International, visit www.crosscatholic.org or call 800-391-8545.