Compassion more widespread than violence in Haiti, say Mennonites

By agency reporter
January 19, 2010

Acts of compassion — Haitians working together to help neighbours and strangers — is far more prevalent than the incidents of violence that are reported on the international media, say Mennonite aid workers.

When Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker, Ben Depp, happened upon a group of Haitians who had found a six-year-old boy still alive in the rubble three days after the earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, he was able to help out.

The boy was weak but alive. Depp got out a hacksaw and a flashlight which helped them to complete the rescue.

“Most of the rescues that have happened have been by Haitians pulling their neighbours out of the rubble,” Depp said. “A lot of the people who have been working don’t have simple things like hammers, saws and picks, but they’ve pulled a lot of people out alive,” he added.

At sunrise on Monday morning (18 Jan), every free space, from streets to soccer fields, was covered with people sleeping outside, said Daryl Yoder-Bontrager, reporting what he saw as he surveyed a section of the city near to where he is staying. Yoder-Bontrager, the Mennonite Central Committee area director for Latin America and the Caribbean, arrived on Saturday morning (16 January), along with three other MCC team members who will help Haiti’s MCC staff to coordinate the initial disaster relief and recovery.

“It’s hard for pictures to communicate the atmosphere of a city where thousands of people sleep in their yards or on the streets because they don’t trust the structure of their houses, especially when the aftershocks happen,” Yoder-Bontrager wrote in a recent e-mail.

Alexis Erkert Depp, who is also an MCC worker, said the violence she has heard about is caused by “truly desperate” people who will do what it takes to feed their families.

The Mennonite workers who live in Port-au-Prince are doing all they can to alleviate the growing desperation for food and water in the community near their office. In the first few days, they have been able to import a pick-up load of corn and sorghum from MCC workers in Desarmes, a town that was not damaged by the earthquake.

Depp said the MCC workers carried the food in their backpacks, handing it out discreetly to about 100 people, even as the workers try to buy and secure more food from the Dominican Republic and the Haitian countryside. Buying food is more difficult than expected because merchants are not accepting the US dollar as payment, and banks that would exchange money are closed.

Staff are filtering water at the MCC office and passing it out to people. MCC ordered 1,000 water filters last week, each of which can purify 300 gallons per day. They should arrive in Haiti soon.

Erkert Depp is registering camps of displaced people so that the camps can be matched with international aid that is coming into the country. Larger aid organisations are not allowed to move around the city without a military escort, but smaller organisations don’t have the same restrictions. Through her blog, Erkert Depp was recruiting others in Haiti to assist her.

“This is extremely important work since… people won’t receive aid until these agencies know where they are located,” she said in her recruiting notice.

The larger MCC response is under way, with two shipping containers of canned meat being airlifted into Haiti this week and subsequent containers are being shipped by sea. MCC will send at least 5,000 blankets and an undetermined number of relief kits that typically include towels, hygiene supplies and bandages.

Joining Yoder-Bontrager on the initial support response team are Kathy and Virgil Troyer, of Orrville, Ohio, regional disaster management coordinators, and Sylvia Dening of Edmonton, a former Haiti representative.

MCC’s Haiti team includes nine programme staff and five support staff in Port-au-Prince and nine programme staff in Desarmes. MCC’s Haiti programme has been in existence since 1958.

The Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches, applies the compassion of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.

With thanks to Linda Espenshade, MCC news coordinator.

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