Solidarity Visit to Haiti: 16 December 2011

Tuesday, December 20 2011

Return to Port-au-Prince

foyerThe day began with another long and bumpy two-and-a-half hour ride back to Port-au-Prince. Then it took another hour to move through the chaotic city traffic to the Foyer Maurice Sixto. This is a centre for the “rest-avec” – young children whose families in the countryside, too poor to look after them, have sent to other families in the city. The agreement is that the “rest-avec” (“stay with”) children will be fed and educated, while helping the host family. However, in many cases they are exploited, abused physically and sexually, and treated as slaves. The host families are often only slightly less poor than the families in the countryside, and they themselves have little food and few possessions. An estimated 300,000 “rest avec” children live in Haiti’s cities and towns.

Foyer Maurice Sixto

miguelThe Foyer Maurice Sixto (FMS) was founded 22 years ago by Father Miguel Jean-Baptiste, a priest of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince who also serves as the parish priest of the surrounding slum area. Over the years, with the blessing and encouragement of the diocese, some 5,000 rest-avec children have found protection, food, basic education and skills training at the foyer. This arrangement is with the agreement of the host families, once they are convinced by Father Miguel and his team that the children deserve to be fed and educated, while continuing to assist the host family. This means the situation of the rest-avec children is dramatically altered. Not only do they receive free clothing, education and one full meal a day (often the only one), but new respect from the host family. To improve matters even more, the children from the host family are welcomed to “camps” run by the foyer. In this changed dynamic, they discover the “rest-avecs” as playmates and friends. Another revolution the foyer provides in the lives of the rest-avec children is birthday parties. Often for the first time in their lives, these children are feted and celebrated. As almost none of them know the dates of their real birthdays, they all celebrate together on a common day. It will be years before any of them might see their own families again. For many, it will only be to discover that one or both of their parents had died before they could see them once again.

Each child from seven to 15 years old learns an employable trade and receives FMS education and protection.  The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has contributed $292,000 over the past two years to the FMS. This is to assist in the construction of a professional training centre, as well as providing prizes in the arts and sports. The building that served until now as the main FMS facility was structurally damaged during the earthquake two years ago, but continues to be used for a number of activities.

Here, in the middle of a slum, its principal road a gravelled trail with a small gulley running through the middle of what might be called a street, the Canadian visitors were welcomed on 16 December with cold soft drinks and sandwiches. The Haitian sense of hospitality is more than a formality; it is an essential part of their lives. Already at the beginning of the visit, CCCB Vice President Archbishop Paul-André Durocher had noted the paradoxes of the country. Today, these were again evident. Despite abject poverty, Haitian women remain determined they and their families will wear clean clothing. When there are no other options, the women resort to washing clothes in polluted streams along the roadways, and hanging clothing to dry on bushes just inches away from dusty streets.

Father Miguel explained to his Canadian visitors that the new building being constructed is with the technical assistance of a Quebec company that specializes in making construction blocks. The contract stipulates the older children will be involved in learning construction skills, with the manufacturing equipment to be left behind once the new building is finished so other children will be able to learn this trade also in the future.

The PMS is staffed in part by members of the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Saint Joseph, two Haitian religious communities who assist the poorest of the poor, often walking long distances to visit them in their homes. One of the PMS staff explained how the foyer provides a childhood to children who have been obliged to accept adult responsibilities early in their young lives. Although run under Catholic auspices, no rest-avec child is refused help because of his or her faith.

singing2Proudly dressed in their blue uniforms, over 150 rest-avec children sang a song of welcome to the Canadian delegation, to which Archbishop Durocher, who had trained professionally in opera before entering the seminary, sang “thank you” using the same melody. The President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Richard Smith, told the children and staff how important it was for Canadians to know about the foyer and its work. Father Miguel expressed his thanks to Development and Peace, and to all Canadian Catholics for their support. “They walk with us,” he assured the children, to which they sang another song, “Thank you always.”

Caritas Haiti

caritasThe day concluded with a visit to the offices of Caritas Haiti, for a meeting with its Executive Director Father Serge Chadic and Assistant Executive Director Father Patrick Aris (who is also Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince). Development and Peace is collaborating on several major projects with Caritas Haiti, some of which the solidarity visitors would be seeing the next day.

“What gives you hope?” Archbishop Smith asked them. The responses of those who benefit from our assistance; the involvement of the local community; and the support of other Caritas organizations throughout the world, they responded. Caritas Haiti organized the country’s first-ever symposium on housing, they pointed out, adding that their housing projects are for all in need and do not discriminate on the basis of religion.

“What are your greatest challenges?” Archbishop Durocher inquired. After two years of living in these conditions, they said, we are concerned our people will get used to it all. “We must remain vigilant about this,” they said.

Archbishop Smith and Archbishop Durocher are accompanied on their solidarity visit to Haiti by Development and Peace Executive Director Mr. Michael Casey, its Latin America and Caribbean Programs Officer Mr. Normand Comte, and its communications officer Mr. François Gloutnay, as well as CCCB Assistant General Secretary Mr. Bede Hubbard.

By Bede Hubbard
Assistant General Secretary
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops