Catholic Church of Montreal > News > Topics > Haiti after the earthquake > RELIGIOUS TRUSTED IN RECONSTRUCTION


PORT-AU-PRINCE — With its endless rows of dilapidated tents, the Efrasa refugee camp in Port-au-Prince resembles the end of the world. 

Yet, about 1,700 victims of the early 2010 earthquake seem to have settled there permanently, say members of a Haitian-Canadian delegation of religious men and women after a gruelling visit.

"People have furnished their tents and receive us as they would in their own living rooms," said Sr. Martine Lévy of the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis with dismay. "Among them now are children who were born in the camps and who have known nothing else."

The Haitian government has delayed taking charge of the acute housing crisis triggered by the quake. Eighteen months after the tragedy, more than one million people are still living in tents or makeshift shelters. 

The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, chaired by Bill Clinton, has just announced a $30-million program for the reconstruction of 16 residential neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince, but this project represents only five per cent of the country's reconstruction needs.

Many criticize NGOs for their lack of vision, although they, too, are hindered by the limitations of the disorganized country.

"They have money to spend, but they disregard the systemic crisis,'' explained Colette Lespinasse, director of the Support Group for Refugees and Repatriated Persons. "They operate like foundations — a project here, another one there — but they don't work together as a whole."

According to Fr. André-Paul Garraud, president of the Haitian Religious Conference, aid from foreign relief organizations has adverse effects. "Because the NGOs give a lot, a certain laziness sets in (among the Haitian people)," he said. 

He also expressed his disapproval of the "fake refugees" he has spotted in the camps. These are people who hang around during the day in the hopes of receiving housing assistance but return to more comfortable shelters in the evening.

"So many organizations give to Haiti, and this could end up killing the enthusiasm and the initiative," added Fr. Wismith Lazard, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Haiti. 

Anxious to lay the foundation for systemic change in destitute Haiti, Fr. Lazard established a school at the Efrasa camp. He plays the role of mediator between rival gangs and regularly negotiates with the owner of the land upon which the camp was established. Upset that disaster victims have overrun his land, the landowner has been threatening eviction for a year. The priesthood, a privileged status among Haitians, makes it possible for Fr. Lazard to take on this mediator role. 

"The people trust us, whereas many NGOs do not seem trustworthy,'" he confided.

In addition to his humanitarian activities, Fr. Lazard has responded to the refugees' requests for pastoral care. The misery in Haiti has stirred up religious fervour rather than extinguished it. "Grace of God", "Faithful God", "Thank you, Jesus" — signs such as these are seen on the storefronts of small businesses on the verge of collapse and on windshields. 

"During Holy Week, the people asked us for celebrations, for a Way of the Cross, and they wanted to organize them. They said to us: ‘The only thing we need is a priest. The rest, we will take care of’," he said. 

"Since then, we have been celebrating mass regularly at Efrasa. On Sundays, the people don their best attire to attend mass, making their way along obstructed and ruined roads."


Sophie Brouillet