The narrow dirt road leading up to the mountain village of Dano, about 30 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, is steep and for the most part uphill — like the lives of the children who live there. It is frequently washed out by heavy rain, and even on a good day it can give those who use it a bone-shaking ride over deep ruts in a pickup truck.
Maneuvering that truck is Tony Boursiquot, who for the past 25 years has run the Haitian branch of the Christian humanitarian organization Star of Hope USA. At midday, squinting into a scorching sun, he turns his badly battered vehicle into the grounds of the organization’s brightly painted school in Dano, where hundreds of students, preschool to 12th grade, have lined up to greet him. He smiles broadly, clearly happy to see them, saying that he comes from a poor family, just like them.
Boursiquot’s commitment to the poor, in fact, has persisted even through times of deep personal suffering.
In the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti in the late afternoon of January 12, 2010, he continued to serve the cause he’s been charged with serving even as he spent many terrifying hours assuring that his wife and children were safe, and that his brothers and sisters had been accounted for. Except for one.
His heart pounding, and in the darkness that followed the massive tremor, Boursiquot made his way in his car and on foot through the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince to the building where one of his sisters was trapped beneath fallen concrete with two of her children. Throughout the night, he searched for signs of life. But in the end, they were never found.
Barry Borror, president and CEO of Star of Hope USA, which is headquartered in Ellinwood, Kansas, said he recalls vividly how Boursiquot set aside his grief for his sister and her children — at least temporarily — to lead the organization’s initial response to the tragedy. Hired by Star of Hope in 1989, Boursiquot quickly caught the organization’s vision to help children become “educated, healthy adults who are involved in their communities and share their love of Jesus Christ.”
No one knows exactly how many faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Star of Hope operate in Haiti. Even the government does not know. A good guess would be in the hundreds, maybe thousands. Many come to provide much-needed relief in the wake of natural disasters. Many remain to offer follow-up assistance in reconstruction and development. And many just come and go.
But large, well-funded ministries such as Episcopal Relief and Development, Catholic Relief Services, Food for the Poor, Lutheran World Federation, and World Vision have maintained a presence in Haiti for years — as have Samaritan’s Purse, founded by the Rev. Franklin Graham, and Partners in Health (PIH), co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer to address the health-care needs of the poorest residents of Haiti’s Central Plateau in 1987.
Farmer was raised Roman Catholic but now calls himself a “lapsed Catholic.” He and his PIH colleagues, who recently opened one of the largest and most technologically advanced public hospitals in Haiti, located in Mirebalais, about 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince, have adopted several key concepts of liberation theology and applied them to medicine, including the Catholic-inspired notion of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”
“Imagine how much unnecessary suffering we might collectively avert,” Farmer wrote in an essay published in Sojourners in 2013, “if our health care and educational systems, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations genuinely made a preferential option for the poor.”
Many Haitians, in the meantime, resent well-meaning Christians who come to Haiti to help but also to win converts. Evangelical Christians in particular have waged a pitched battle with Haiti’s voodoo community, which still holds considerable sway among large segments of the population.
The overwhelming majority of Christian NGOs, however, focus their efforts on providing critical support to the residents of one of the world’s poorest countries in areas ranging from education to heath care to housing.
Recently the Missouri-based NGO Convoy of Hope announced a partnership with a leading university in Haiti to help farmers learn the latest techniques for conserving soil, generating higher crop yield and marketing and selling their produce. Clearly, the project has a laudable humanitarian objective, but it also aims to further boost self-reliance among Haitians. The organization offers a wide range of services to Haitians, including feeding 60,000 children a day in schools and orphanages across the country.
For its part, the school being run by the Star of Hope in Dano provides a Christian-centered education and much more to 600 children from the village and the surrounding countryside, including one hot meal a day. Built in 1998, it is one of seven Star of Hope schools in Haiti, which serve 3,000 children.
Partly destroyed by the earthquake five years ago (about 4,000 schools in Haiti were completely destroyed), the Dano school has now been rebuilt. It has also been equipped with seven laptop computers. Most of the students have never even seen a computer, let alone used one, said one of the teachers, Fritznel Baptichon. But they are learning fast.
Boursiquot said Haiti’s government, even after five years, does not have a plan for rebuilding the country.
“I’m sure that things will get even better,” he said. “But it will take time. Everyone had expected more by now. They’re losing patience.”
The poor still do not have jobs, and he wishes he could do more. But for now, what he’s doing is a lot.
Gary G. Yerkey
Image: Students surround Tony Boursiquot, director of Star of Hope’s work in Haiti. • Gary G. Yerkey