This will tell the story of the first year of the new Rehabilitation Dept. of the Episcopal University in Haiti, from the viewpoint of Donnel and Janet O'Flynn.
Hello! As always I have to apologize for long delay in posting. But happily I was invited by the parish of St. Thomas’s, Hamilton NY, (where we were when we started off on this adventure), to write to explain what’s going on. I hope they don’t mind if I use this same essay, with some personal messages removed?
“It’s hard to know where even to start. I think I could compare what has been going on with what happens in central NY (and Montana too) when the weather is full of hazards, alternating with clear plowed roads and sunshine, sometimes unpredictably!
Haiti is a wonderful place: a beautiful natural setting, and strong community bonds between people. Lots of spontaneous singing, especially hymns. Vibrant art and music. The students we are teaching are highly intelligent, motivated, idealistic, and besides that they make me laugh.
UNDERLYING CONDITIONS OF STRESS FOR HAITIAN CITIZENS
Haitians in general live under a lot of stress. About 15 % of people have jobs with a salary, but everyone, 100%, works hard. Most are vendors of goods, new or used, and vendors of services, such as shining shoes, pulling a cart, driving a moto-taxi. The amount of money a person fending for himself or herself can get in a day might be 240 to 480 Haitian gourdes. When Donnel and I went to Haiti in Aug. 2015, that was $4 to $8 US dollars. But today that is only $3 to $6 US dollars. Food is not cheap, because most food is imported (perhaps from the Dominican Republic). If you have children to feed, that will not buy three meals a day. Many people eat twice, or only once, a day. Some don’t eat every day. People generally don’t go to the doctor, because it is too expensive, even if you can find a good doctor, so illnesses and injuries add to the tremendous stress. Power goes out frequently, and water is not always available either. Haitian people value taking a shower, often two, every day, and being without water for washing is very stressful. It costs money to buy bottles of water to drink.
CURRENT FACTORS CAUSING AGITATION
The rapid inflation has made people angry. In addition, the talk radio shows are on all day long. Recently the talk has been about apparent theft by politicians of over a billion dollars in long-term loans from Venezuela, from over ten years ago when Venezuela had oil money. The loan deal was called PetroCaribe, and applied to other Caribbean countries as well, but evidently the promised improvements in roads, hospitals, and schools never happened, and now the loan is being called in: Haitians have been told they need to pay for the repayment in taxes, esp. a tax on gas – which will put the marginal profits of moto-taxis at risk.
THE DEMONSTRATIONS THEMSELVES
About a month ago there were announcements of demonstrations on certain days, protesting the PetroCaribe embezzlement and demanding that the president resign. The announcements showed the level of organization by the opposition parties: they had a name, (“Country Lock-Down”) and a schedule of marches. Roadblocks were set up across all roads that pass into Port-au-Prince, which did shut the country down because all travel between north and south has to pass through the capital. People were warned, on all sides, not to attempt to pass the roadblocks. So the faculty and students did what they have done before, just what New Yorkers do in blizzards: shelter in place. Classes were interrupted because professors couldn’t come, the book keeper missed for two weeks so salary checks were delayed, our students who were out on clinicals had to miss two weeks due to clinic closures, and at the same time they were stuck in their distant areas, unable to travel back to campus for impromptu classes.
LÉOGÂNE, A HAVEN OF PEACE (99% OF THE TIME ANYWAY!)
Leogane is almost always calm and quiet. Someone explained to me that Leogannaise (local residents) like a peaceable life, and anyway they are surrounded by villages and towns that like to protest so they don’t have to add to it. But finally after a couple weeks, one afternoon while Lafleur (our administrator) and I were at the desk on our office, we saw the heavy smoke from a burning tire, and we heard shouting and gunfire – the gunfire of the police shooting in the air, trying to restore order and disperse the crowd, outside the (guarded) locked gate of the compound. It was unnerving, but it happened only once.
DEPARTURE FROM HAITI A COUPLE WEEKS EARLIER THAN A PLANNED VACATION
The Dean of Nursing, Dean Alcindor, called me in and said she really wanted me to go home. I was planning to go anyway, but not for almost two weeks later, to be home for Donnel’s birthday (March 1!). But she asked me to change my reservation and clear out much sooner, if possible. I changed my ticket to the next weekend, and then we went on with classes as usual. The wait for the day of departure was an odd one: it seemed to me that if the roads were to open up to allow me to get to the airport, then that would mean that there was no need to leave the country!
The Nursing school van driver did not want to drive into the city, with all that going on. Then Dean Alcindor realized that the local Episcopal hospital had been transporting patients back and forth every day with the ambulance, and she asked the hospital if I could ride along, which I did!
And, right after I got home, the whole activity began to wind down. Now, people are just tired of being unable to come and go, and there is not much energy for the protests.
RETURN, POSSIBLY ALSO A LITTLE LATER THAN PLANNED
I have been asked to wait for the decision of the Mission program of the US Episcopal Church, to allow me to go back. There’s an issue of the US State Dept. Travel Alerts: when all this started, they raised it to a Level 4, “Do not travel”. From what I hear from other expats still in Haiti, that is more relevant to Embassy staff in the capital city than to US or Canadian people working outside the city in small towns like Léogâne. But as long as that Alert is high, it is hard for official organizations to imagine that actually life is returning to normal.
It seems that it really is though. Traffic is flowing, schools are open, vendors are open to sell food and water again. Donnel and I have been asked to wait until after Carnival, March 3,4,and 5, to see if the current calm holds, and then maybe I can return.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT ON STUDENT MORALE?
In the meanwhile, it’s not as if you can just turn off daily life at the university, just because the administrator has been pulled out. It’s not just me, an administrator, either: many US and Canadian professors have had to cancel their teaching for the coming semester due to the dire “Level 4”.
The students are anxious and unsettled, dreading that the program will have to close (as Haitian universities often do), hoping that they can finish their senior research projects and graduate, disappointed because several very good training opportunities in chronic wound care, and in making adaptive equipment, were cancelled due to roadblocks and due to necessary cancellations by US faculty members. They feel that they are seeing a risk to the possibility to complete their degree.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO PLAN TO MEET THE CHALLENGES?
Donnel and I have been meeting with HRF, the Haiti Rehabilitation Foundation, and brainstorming about how to assure the students of safe passage through this time of challenges, and safe arrival at the degrees they are working so hard for. The plans are emerging, with some surprises and some advantages: “crisis” and “opportunity”, they say, are two sides of the same coin! More updates to come.
A RENEWAL OF OUR THANKS!
In the meanwhile, speaking especially to those who have supported FSRL with their financial treasure, whether vast or a widow’s mite, I want to say that HRF is very aware of using good stewardship of your gifts. We will come through OK, all of us together.
LET US BE GRATEFUL, EVEN WITH THE “HEAVY LIFT’, AS IT LETS US SHARE THIS EXPERIENCE IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE GOOD CITIZENS OF HAITI!
I am grateful for this experience, privileged to have been able to accompany these students this far, and so happy to see the beginning of their work with patients with all sorts of disabilities, who would not have had any hope of getting back to their lives. This is so worth the “heavy lift”!