Haiti, ten years after the earthquake: An interview with Jean-Denis Saint-Félix, SJ

January 10, 2020 – “I’m tired of only hearing about Haiti’s problems in the news. We have problems but we aren’t a problem.” That is the heart-felt plea that the Superior of the Jesuits in Haiti, Jean-Denis Saint-Félix, SJ, made during an interview marking the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck the country on January 12, 2010. Fr. Saint-Félix spoke to us about his hopes for his country and the Society of Jesus, the rebuilding of Haiti as well as the current political and social situation.

And now, ten years after the earthquake, what is your hope for Haiti and for the Society of Jesus in this country?

My hope is based on the number of young people I see in this country. And it also fits well with the Universal Apostolic Preferences, especially the third one: accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future. It should be noted that 50% of Haiti’s population is less than 25 years old. These days, what makes me really happy is to see how excited these young people are to learn. But at the same time, it’s very dangerous, for we know that 85% of our graduates live outside of the country. My hope lies here: young people that wish to excel, learn, make a difference and fight for a better tomorrow.

And despite the crisis we are experiencing, creativity is thriving in several fields such as music, art and literature. These are very vibrant and productive sectors. I don’t know if it’s because of the crisis but this production is amazing, it’s as if the crisis is spurring it on. And if we’re producing, we’re alive. Haitians love to live life to the fullest – it’s funny to see that the minute people can go out, they go out because they want to live, to defy death, paralysis, and the odds.

As far as the Society is concerned, I think the country has many expectations when it comes to us. We are already making great contributions in several sectors, especially when it comes to spirituality. We are very solicited at all levels for retreats and spiritual guidance. That’s why we’re making a plea for more space in order to welcome and help people on a spiritual level. Our presence with migrants and displaced persons, along with our regular border work, is very much appreciated. We are also present in the education sector through our network of Fe y Alegría schools, even though we are having trouble with our schools; in principle, the State should be paying our teachers but it is not doing so. It is a great crisis, but it is an important place, because the premise of Fe y Alegría is to provide a quality education to an impoverished population. We try to live up to this philosophy. We are also present at the university level, namely at the Université Notre Dame d'Haïti, with a Jesuit who is the rector. We also have a high school which is starting to run quite well. But people are calling for more because there is a real demand for education.

People are expecting more from us and young Jesuits also want to develop and build ministries that are more representative of the Society of Jesus. There is a lot of talk about the visibility of the Jesuits in Haiti. People know we are there but we aren’t visible enough. That can be explained by historical patterns and a question of numbers, but we are growing in numbers and our presence needs to be better felt. Up until now, we have been present in Port-au-Prince and in the northeast, but we would like to see our presence grow in other areas of the country.

What can we do to support Haiti and the efforts of the Society of Jesus in the country?

With the various crises abounding all over the world, including South America, I think people have a tendency to forget about Haiti. I think one of the things that can be done for us is to make us more visible on the world scene. We are experiencing great difficulties when it comes to our ministries. We’ve realized that the NGOs are leaving the country. That phenomenon could be considered as good news, for sometimes the money from the NGOs doesn’t reach the population. However, we have less and less means to carry out our projects. We need empathy for Haiti, but also concrete cooperation so that our ministries can work. One concern does not supersede another.

Also, what works is when people come to see for themselves. Haitians are very welcoming in the midst of all this poverty and misery. They are a people that welcome, that smile, that celebrate and that love to have visitors. And ordinary people need to talk about the earthquake, to tell their own story. And that kind of meeting can lead to many things.

Finally, we have to change the narrative about Haiti - on our part, but also on the media’s part, for it’s too interested in what’s not working. I’d like to see the spotlight on something else besides the problems and somewhere else than Port-au-Prince. Talk about the people, the talent. There’s too much talk about the ugliness, we don’t speak enough about the beauty of this country. We constantly point out the help which the country needs. However, we don’t emphasize enough how this country contributed to making humanity a much more livable place when it comes to rights and freedoms, struggles, solidarity, poetry and literature. We are making an effort in this respect: through our teaching, we are trying to show young people the positive aspects of the country so that it becomes a way of life, so that they become aware of the richness of their country.

And in order for readers to get another view of Haiti, I always suggest the following novels: Gouverneurs de la Rosée by Jacques Roumain or Fille d'Haïti by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.

Ten years after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, how is the rebuilding going and what role are the Jesuits playing in it?

I think things are playing out on various levels. There has been an effort with some public buildings that housed certain government departments, but the majority of buildings are still not functional.

On a second level, there are the concrete steps that affect people’s lives. There have been initiatives here and there, but the great expectation that people had about relocation has not been fulfilled in general. Since the government wasn’t doing anything and the help that was so awaited did not and still has not come, people have coped on their own to rehouse themselves. For example, in Canaan, at the northern entrance of the capital, hundreds of thousands of people have relocated there, in very bad quality housing, without a plan, for the State is totally absent. We were hoping to learn from the experience of this terrible earthquake and build in a better manner, but I don’t think we have managed to.

The other aspect is what is affecting the Church. Some churches have been rebuilt. But there are two other emblematic buildings that have not yet been touched by this effort, namely the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Port-au-Prince and the Anglican Cathédrale Sainte-Trinité. These are both cultural and religious buildings. The Palais national is still in ruins. I’m mentioning these three, because I realize that one of the challenges we are facing now is that we don’t have any symbols left. I’m saying this because I’m more and more convinced that you can live without bread, but you can’t live without symbols. And for me, the great error was to not prioritize the reconstruction of some buildings that proudly exemplified the Haitian people.

Finally, we must mention that some schools have been rebuilt, namely religious schools. But as for State university and high school buildings, nearly nothing has been rebuilt.

What are we Jesuits doing in all of this? We have some schools - for example, in Canaan, there is a Fe y Alegría school which was built to accompany young people. Right after the earthquake, the Jesuits were quite present helping people in the streets and in the camps, especially through Jesuit Refugee Service. We are also involved in the rebuilding reflection through the Centre d'action et de réflexion. Moreover, in 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck, especially the south. And one of the greatest rebuilding projects was carried out by the Jesuits, namely a housing project. It has been quite a success which has brought a much more concrete solution to people’s needs.

And presently, with the host of challenges related to President Moïse, have tensions started to diminish?

I think tensions are still there, for the people’s situation has not improved: misery abounds, armed groups are growing and now number 76, there are approximately 500,000 illegal weapons in circulation in the country, there is no work (more than 60% of the young population is unemployed), nearly 4 million people are facing food insecurity, transportation is a disaster, all that added to an environmental catastrophe. I think it’s the perfect recipe for feeding and maintaining the population’s discontent.

Now, since the end of November (so for the first time since September), we have the impression that things are starting to improve. We tried to reopen some schools. Why? Because people are fed up with this, because the State has made no difference in their lives and they have to cope on their own to survive. When there is total paralysis, the

State does not intervene and people have nothing to live on. I think that the resumption of activities in the last few weeks is rather due to a rejection by the people of the opposition and of the government.

The government is not managing anything, for it is incompetent and corrupt. Consequently, it should not continue. But at the same time, the opposition is useless, it only has slogans and does not inspire confidence. We are stuck between incompetency and total uselessness. All we have is a stalemate between the government and the opposition. And especially at the end of the year, people would like to breathe a bit and go about their daily lives. For a population which lives day-to-day, ten or twelve weeks of insecurity has repercussions: stress occurs, illnesses related to it… The calm which we are witnessing today is not due to a political understanding – I think each side is sticking to its opinion and in the meantime, the people are the ones that are suffering.





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