We finally arrived to Les Cayes, formerly Aux Cayes, a town and seaport in southwestern Haiti, with a population of approximately 46,000 people. We turned onto a gravel road, and for a few minutes we struggled with the bumpy car swings until we entered Pwoje Espwa or “Hope Village.”
There’s a gate, with a security guard. The first building we spotted on our left was the orphanage. Perched on a 125-acre property, this orphanage, the largest in the western hemisphere, houses over 600 kids.
The kids receive education through high school, balanced meals, clothing, medical services, vocational training, recreation, and much of caring.
We were taken to the guest house, a safe and comfortable place for visitors. The soft breeze of the afternoon was as warm as the greetings and smiles from the Espaw residents.
Throughout our week stay, we had the opportunity to tour the different buildings and projects in the Hope Village. We contemplated the crops, the cattle and goats, as part of the productive projects implemented.
It was unfortunate that we couldn't meet Fr. Marc, founder of Pwoje Espwa, who has spent fourteen years devoted to Haiti. Fr. Marc was gone on sabbatical.
Trash pick up activity with the kids
My first encounter with the children was a heartwarming experience. I’ve never had so many children around me, blooming with smiles and hugs. I loved their sweet little voices, speaking their Haitian creole. I knew nothing of creole but after some memory struggle I was able to retrieve some of my high school French basics, and voilà! the kids understood some of my broken French. I loved how beautiful they pronounced my name.
But the best was yet to come. The next day, we had a “shopping” activity with the little girls. Our team had brought girl dresses that we displayed on tables and shared throughout the patio of the guesthouse. Each girl could go around and pick up a dress of her preference, and hair bows and hair combs. Initially, they seemed shy, but soon they were cheerful and smiley.
Yet the real excitement for me started when one of the girls, Moustafa, started to touch my ponytail and asked me to let her comb my hair. I loosen my hair, and she started to comb it. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by a group of smiley girls, combing and braiding my hair. I was in awe.
Moustafa is the girl on my left
What a heavenly feeling. Right there, I experienced a unique exchange of love and fraternity. We brought a donation in clothing and items for the kids, yet those little souls had nothing but pure love to give us in return. Our spirits were filled with joy by their gracious and tender companion. They were giving from their hearts.
The following days were full of fun, extending our activities to the rest of the kids. Craft and drawing activities.
But I was given another surprise. As the younger boys were finishing a handprint shirt activity, I started to take pictures with my iPhone. The kids wanted to see the pictures, and I showed them. Then I set on the front-facing feature on my iPhone, attempting to take a picture of me with one of the kids. As he saw his imagine on the screen, his eyes shone in awe, and he started to make facial gestures, then he giggled at his own imagine. I turned on the video feature, and produced a quick video of him; his amazement was now greater. This drew attention from the other kids, and within seconds, a crowd of kids were around me, wanting to be video-taped. I made several quick videos and replayed them to the kids. They just loved it! They liked to see themselves. They were the stars on those videos. Then they started to sing and dance while making more quick videos. Lots of fun!
A group of about 16 young men were involved in the village shores and helping to supervise the younger kids. The group is part of a leadership project in which they will learn different skills to survive in the community. Many of them came to the village at a very young age and may not know what to do when they go to the outside world: How to rent a room? How to enroll in college? How to find a job? They also get spiritual guidance, being encouraged to be men with moral standards, and respect for others. A few young men have been helped with grants to attend college. I heard for instance, of a young man who graduated as a physician, and has come back to the village to provide medical services. Another one graduated as an engineer. Every little effort counts. Each successful story is an example to the little ones who we prayed may have a better life than their parents.
Over 2000 people are fed every day in the Hope Village: 600 plus kids from the orphanage, children from the communities around, and the village workers. Espwa is the second largest employer in the town of Les Cayes.
We also spent time out of the village. As part of our agenda, we visited the prison of Les Cayes, where over 500 people are incarcerated. First of all, it was a challenge to get authorization to visit the place, and bring packets with underwear and shirts for the inmates. It had taken Fr. Marc and other people associated to Espaw, several years to build a relationship with the Chief Inspector and to allow visits and donations. After 45 minutes or so of waiting, the Inspector arrived. At first, we thought the Inspector was a military man in a highly decorated uniform driving a white vehicle. But we quickly found out that man was a UN officer from Rwanda, and was there as part of the security that the UN peacekeepers provide to Haiti. The actual Inspector came out of a heavily armored vehicle, with tinted windows and security glass. He was wearing a hawaiian shirt.
We were finally allowed to enter the prison, in two groups. I was in the second group, so we patiently waited outside of the building. When it was our turn, we walked into a courtyard surrounded by cells. What we saw was shocking, even though we had been warned. I have no words to describe the deplorable conditions of that facility and the misery reflected by the incarcerated men and women.
There were about a dozen cells, each of 10 x 15 feet approximately. In these cells were an average of 45 men. One cell had only 5 prisoners, who were isolated because of chicken pox. Prisoners were reportedly allowed time in the courtyard once a day for a few minutes. We observed men bathing in the courtyard, soapy water from a bucket. Men wore only underwear. I believed it was most likely because the heat would have been unbearable.
The cells looked so crowded, men were clinging to the iron bars on the doorway, struggling for fresh air. I noticed a four-tiered bunk bed in each cell. I wondered how they rotate turns to lay down. We heard the inmates receive only one meal a day. I spied a couple of guys eating some brown slop from a tin bowl, with their fingers. I had to fight back tears.
We handed out the packers with the assistance of an inmate assigned to help with this. We were told how many men were in each cell, and that exact number of packets were handed through the cell opening to the “cell leader.” It was interesting to learn about the informal hierarchy established within the cell. As we went from cell to cell, we discreetly glanced at their faces, sensing a wide rage of emotions. Some were despondent, some smiled, some looked depressed, some looked angry. A few expressed thankfulness. We heard a couple of “Thank You”, in English.
The women seemed more fortunate than the men. The 24 women, all in one cell fairly larger than the others, fared a bit better. They were sitting and talking, and some were combing and braiding their hair. We handed their packets to the cell leader, each containing washcloth, soap, sports bra and underwear.
We concluded our visit by leaving enough packets for the prison workers. We heard some of these inmates are guilty, some not, some have done more time than they could possible imagine for petty crimes. Some have been incarcerated for months or even years without being formally charged or seen a judge. There’s a heavy bureaucracy in Haiti, we learned. Not just in the penal system, but in every instance of the local government.
No doubt it was a dreadful place. It was a disturbing scene what was in front of us. Beyond punishment, what people faced right there was a spiritual breakage. No one should have to suffer such inhumane conditions. I pondered whether anyone would think being there was worse than the death penalty. Physical suffering, emotional pain, and soul inertness were tested to the limit.
I found out later that in 2010 there was a massacre that took place exactly in that prison. More than a dozen prisoners were killed and over 40 were wounded by the police. Read more here.
I was thankful for the opportunity to, at least, show those men and women that there are people out there thinking of them. That there is hope even when one’s life seems reduced to mere misery and devastation. That they were in someone’s prayers.
By the next morning, I felt it would be a different day—a special day.
That was the day to visit Mother Teresa’s orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity.
The place was gated and we were instructed that pictures were not allowed. We met a sister from India who kindly started to show us the facility. We initiated our tour with a unit with many babies, apparently under two years old, laying in cribs. We were told those were sick and terminally-ill babies. Many suffered of malnutrition, others had AIDS, or TB, etc. Our hearts broke as we walked down the rows of cribs, and glanced at those little sad faces. No smiles, no sounds of laughter, not even sounds of crying. Only blank stares from the diminutive faces peering between the bars of the cribs.
We learned that many of them wouldn’t make it. Heavy tears rolled down my face. I glanced at my friends, and I felt a mild relief as I noticed I was not the only one bursting into tears. The nurse told us it was okay to hold the babies, and we did. The babies clung to our arms, and didn’t want to let go. Then some began crying when placed back in the cribs. We discreetly wiped our tears away, and continued our tour, speechless.
We went upstairs to the floor for disabled kids. It was a different panorama. Happy faces, joyful voices and many laughters unfolded in front of us. What a fresh air! We met sister Guadalupe, an amazing and devoted woman with a heart of gold. She spoke with passion, and emphasized about these kids being ‘the poorest of the poor,’ yet living a life with dignity, treated with respect and love. There was no doubt about this statement based on what we observed. We went through the different rooms and identified some of the kids diagnosis: Down Syndrome, Paraplegia, Quadriplegia, Blindness, Autism, Deafness, Mental Retardation, Amputations, etc. Several kids were in wheelchairs. The place was clean and harmonic. It was obvious that there was an organized schedule of therapy exercises and classes, as well as a properly supervised routine of activities.
Besides the sisters, Haitian ladies worked in the place as caregivers. Even though these women were not professional therapists, they had been taught exercises and skills to help the kids, by therapists that visited the place. There is a Neurologist who comes to the orphanage once a year, and sees all of the disabled kids—over one hundred kids. The kids are supplied with medical treatments and medications. Sister Guadalupe mentioned that this doctor, who is from India, has been pleased with the kids improvement, stating: “Whoever your God is, He is here!”
We agreed. The presence of God was there, and so the spirit of Mother Teresa, her philosophy of love and compassion to the poorest of the poor. That was a place of miracles.
We spent some more days in Les Cayes, enjoying time with the Espaw kids, and with people from the community.
We left Haiti on July 6, but we brought with us an enlightening experience which we have shared with many others.
I have kept in contact with some of the others that went to this mission trip, and we agree in two important facts:
Our lives will never be the same.
Our Haiti mission has just started.
How can you help?
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