The Rev. Francis Rouleau has had his bags packed since mid-October to return to the Christ Roi neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he serves as chaplain for the Diocese of Norwich’s Outreach to Haiti program.
But all he can do now is look for the sparse news stories and keep checking his WhatsApp message feed on his cellphone.
He received one such message recently from his friend, the bishop of Jacmel, Haiti.
“Pray for Us,” the bishop wrote.
Violent and peaceful political demonstrations, riots and demands by protesters that Haitian President Jovenel Moïse step down amid allegations of corruption and lack of progress on promised infrastructure improvements have crippled the country.
According to news stories from the Associated Press and the Miami Herald, nearly two dozen people have been killed in the violence and more than 200 injured. Schools in urban areas have been closed since September, and farmers in outlying areas cannot get their goods to the cities. Stores are closed due to both supply shortages and the demonstrations. Food and water shortages are starting to mount.
The AP on Oct. 21 reported that several young men had been shot and wounded as they set up roadblocks in Jacmel — where the bishop was asking Rouleau for prayers.
Several people who have been in contact with friends, family and staff in Haiti told The Day last week that travel anywhere by bus or car is both dangerous and nearly impossible. Protesters have blocked streets with metal barricades, burning tires and whatever debris they can find. Protesters throw rocks, or worse, fire shots at vehicles trying to cross the barricades. Taking a public transportation bus means risking being hijacked, they said.
“It’s been impossible (to go back),” Rouleau said. “It would risk lives of other people to go down there. I can do more from here than I could from there.”
Rouleau normally spends nine to 10 months a year in Haiti. But when he returned to the diocesan Outreach to Haiti office in Norwich this summer to raise money and connect with the 16 Roman Catholic parishes in America with twin parish relations with parishes in Port-au-Prince, he was stuck.
In a statement provided to The Day on Friday, Delta Airlines announced plans to suspend direct service between Atlanta and Port-au-Prince as of Jan. 9, 2020, “due to a soft demand environment.” The airline is working to refund or to “reaccommodate” customers booked for after Jan. 9.
“Even as Delta strengthens its overall presence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the airline must respond to market conditions to maintain its long-term viability,” the statement from spokeswoman Sarah Kaufman said.
Susan Wallace, executive director of the Norwich diocese’s Outreach to Haiti since June, said she traveled to Haiti in June and September, as the program hired a new director of operations in Haiti in June. Outreach to Haiti has 21 staff in Haiti to operate its medical clinic, health center, nutrition program and education program for students and for mothers to start micro businesses.
“Our staff obviously is somewhat affected,” Wallace said. “There has been an uptick in the number of demonstrations and an increase in the level of violence.”
Wallace said there also have been two “extraordinarily large” peaceful demonstrations, one led by artists and artisans and one by religious organizations, also asking the president to step down.
The Outreach to Haiti executive committee met last week to discuss the rising tensions in Haiti and the desire to keep critical medical programs open. The staff there is preparing for potential loss of power, gasoline and supply shortages if the unrest continues, Wallace said.
“Our number one concern is for the safety of our staff, and number two is to keep the medical clinic open,” Wallace said. “… When demonstrations are in the area of the clinic, it is more challenging for staff to get to work and for people to come to the clinic.”
James Michel, chairman of the Board of Trustees for Outreach to Haiti, said Haiti is in a “dire situation right now,” and Outreach must try to keep the health clinic open for families in need of medical care.
He praised the staff and said they send detailed updates daily to him and to Wallace. Michel said he is less concerned about the potential for damage to the Outreach to Haiti facilities, because the diocese has been operating in the neighborhood since 1986 and is a well known, well respected entity.
“The community is very protective of us,” Michel said. But he added the reconstruction of the diocese’s facility destroyed in the 2010 earthquake has slowed, because supplies cannot get through.
The Haitian Health Foundation, based in Norwich, operates health clinic, nutrition and assistance programs in Jeremie, Haiti — on the northern shore of the peninsula that juts out in the southwest area of the country. Executive Director E. Marilyn Lowney, said the foundation sent a large container of donated supplies to Haiti Oct. 19, and the clinic remains open.
“We’re one of the few charities still operating in the area,” Lowney said.
Lowney said foundation officials do not discuss politics. Like the diocese’s Outreach to Haiti, Lowney said it’s critical to remain open to provide health and nutritional services to clients. She touted the success of the foundation’s Center of Hope, a program for severely malnourished children that provides gastric tube feeding. The center has not had a child in two years, Lowney said, signaling the success of extensive nutrition education and food programs to families.
But she fears a possible slippage if supplies are cut off.
“Every time a child becomes that malnourished, they lose IQ points and become physically challenged,” Lowney said.
Enoch Petit Homme, English language intervention specialist at Norwich Free Academy and moderator of the NFA student Haitian Club, said he is in constant contact with family in Haiti, as are NFA’s many Haitian students. NFA students are trying to follow the news on TV or social media, Petit Homme said.
“Most of my students have family there who are either directly or indirectly affected by what’s going on there,” Petit Homme said. “It’s our job here in the school to remind the kids there’s not much we can do right now, except focus on your school work and check in with your families to make sure they are safe.”
By his estimate, Haiti is evenly divided, with about a third of the population pushing for Moïse to resign, a third wanting him to stay and another third “either way.” Petit Homme has family in all camps and said when family members talk, they try to avoid politics. He has family in areas affected by the violence and others in areas that are mostly peaceful.
“The country is crippled right now,” said Petit Homme, who lost several dozen family members in the 2010 earthquake. “Those who have a job cannot get to work, and students can’t get to school.”
NFA students with family in Haiti are frustrated that their family’s homeland can’t seem to rise above turmoil, whether political or natural disasters, Petit Homme said. There are signs of hope, as the younger generation in Haiti has become more educated. Most are high school graduates and those who can afford it, attend college. Some are taking advantage of scholarships to study medicine in Cuba. But when they return to Haiti to practice medicine, they find hospital infrastructure and supplies lacking, he said.
“It’s frustrating as well,” he said of the political unrest. “Elected people in Haiti, some of them are good people. However, what are they doing to help the masses, the people who elected you? They’re very good at making promises, but when it comes to keeping promises, it’s very difficult. That’s what’s happening with this president. He promised they would have electricity 24/7, using solar and wind, however, we have not seen much of that work being done, and it’s been two years.”