Mary’s Meals Haiti Christmas Appeal
Sunday Times Full Article December 2006
By Billy Briggs
About two hundred yards past a group of UN tanks stationed outside a bullet scarred building a mass of people are crowded at the roadside. Men and women sweating in the baking heat and skinny children are squeezed together mumbling to each other and trying to push closer. Here lie the bodies of Valnie and Sanon. The twins are laid out side by side on a black bin liner both naked from the waist down. Beside them are some green leaves and rocks and it is unclear whether the babies were dead before being put in the stream running next to Route Neuf - or if they were drowned alive. A couple of notes beside the greying infant corpses give their names and the date they were born - Nov 26th, 2006. Valnie and Sanon, a lifetime of only three days. “This happens a lot in Haiti,” Augie, the translator says. “Many mothers can’t afford to feed their babies so they give them up.” We are in Cite Soleil, a stinking slum in Port Au Prince, the capital city of the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, where life expectancy is only 53 and where 80% of the population live in abject poverty.
Cite Soleil, home to nearly 500,000 people packed into land next to the port and to the sea, an area not even three square miles in total; the equivalent perhaps to the population of Edinburgh crammed into a scheme the size of Drumchapel in Glasgow. In the tropicalheat half a million Haitians swelter in tiny ramshackle huts made of rusting corrugated iron sheets with no electricity, no running water and no sanitation. Dubbed the Calcutta of the Caribbean and only an hour and a half by plane from the millionaire marinas of Miami and blonde beaches of the Bahamas, Cite Soleil is a medieval sore that humanity should be ashamed of.
The population live in a filthy, toxic rubbish dump teeming with disease and vermin, and malnourished children walk barefoot through lakes of stagnant, green water and open sewers. There are huge black pigs everywhere snorting and grunting with their snouts in the excrement and slime and in the half light of dusk the scene is near apocalyptic. And when night falls come the rats, an estimated ten to every human living here. There is no street lighting, no cars, no refrigerators and no television, and the misery for innocents is exacerbated by daily gun battles between the armed gangs that rule the streets and a UN peacekeeping force accused by the community here of rape and murder. This place resembles a war zone. Welcome to Cite Soleil by the sea...
MAGNUS MacFarlane-Barrow says the poverty in Haiti is the worst he has ever seen. The founder and director of the charity Scottish International Relief/Mary’s Meals (SIR) speaks from a wealth of experience as his organisation, one of Scotland’s most respected home grown charities, has on-going humanitarian projects in places such as Kenya, Liberia, and India, and 38-year-old MacFarlane-Barrow travels widely to oversee its work. He set up Mary’s Meals in Haiti after meeting with a women who had worked there on a trip to Bosnia earlier this year. SIR now feeds 135 children at a rural orphanage in a place called Hinche three hours from Port au Prince, and it is working with an American charity called Hands Together which has seven schools in Cite Soleil. He says the horror of Haiti is unsurpassed. “I was deeply shocked by what I saw. I thought I had seen quite a lot over the years in terms of suffering but this was the most extreme I had ever witnessed. Even in war zones like Bosnia or Liberia, or after disasters like the Tsunami, I have not seen people so utterly stripped of their dignity.”
Since its inception 14 years ago SIR has become a highly effective overseas aid organisation whether providing homes for abandoned children in Romania or through the Mary’s Meals project that feeds thousands of children on a daily basis at schools in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and in the Americas. McFarlane-Barrow runs the global operation from the grounds of Craig Lodge, near the small village of Dalmally in Argyll, and juggles his workload with being a
dad to five young children. “I am away perhaps 8 to 10 weeks during the year. I don’t want to be away from my wife Julie and children any longer than that,” he says. SIR began by accident in 1992 after he watched graphic television reports of refugee camps during the Bosnian war. It struck a chord with him and his brother Fergus as they had made a pilgrimage to the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, famed for apparitions of the Virgin Mary, ten years earlier. Desperate to help, Magnus, 24 at the time, and Fergus, his older brother by a year, wanted to personally take aid to the region and began raising money to drive a Land Rover filled with clothes, food, medicine and toiletries. They asked local people to help but when they returned after their trip to Bosnia thinking their kind deed was done they found the donations just kept on coming.
Despite the obvious dangers of operating in a war zone MacFarlane-Barrow decided to continue and devote a year of his life to driving aid into Bosnia, and by the end of 1993, SIR had charitable status, a warehouse and a charity shop. Instead of returning to salmon farming MacFarlane-Barrow became the charity’s first full time member of staff and his life change was complete. “It (SIR) was never planned and the whole thing just kind of took off,” he says. The charity now has 14 full time staff and around 400 volunteers in Scotland alone. It operates in Ukraine, Uganda, Peru, Philippines, Kenya, Bolivia and Albania, as well as the countries already mentioned, and has provided emergency aid to places such as Rwanda and India after the tsunami. There are 3000 SIR volunteers working in Malawi alone.
MacFarlane-Barrow says that most donations still come from Scotland and the charity has grown through word of mouth - he eschews high profile advertising or tin rattling in high streets. Since 1992 SIR has donated more than £1 0m to good causes and MacFarlane-Barrow’s efforts were recognised in 2005 at the Young Person of the Year awards Vienna. It was in 2002 that the inspiration for the SIR project Mary’s Meals came about, the charity’s major focus now. On a visit to Malawi a young boy called Edward told MacFarlane-Barrow that his dreams were to have food to and to attend school. With poverty being a barrier for many children gaining access to education the idea is simply that the provision of a school meal will bring many children to school who might not otherwise attend.
Mary’s Meals, named after the Virgin Mary, now feeds 120,000 children every day and MacFarlane-Barrow hopes to expand and take the initiative to other impoverished countries. “Four years ago we began Mary’s Meals by feeding 200 children daily meals,” he says. In Haiti, MacFarlane-Barrow’s wants to move into rural parts areas where the poverty is so acute that people migrate to places like Cite Soleil. “It makes you wonder what conditions are like there,” he says.
ABOUT a mile further along Route Neuf in the Bwa Nef zone of Cite Soleil sits St Veronique School, it’s green walls topped with razor wire. It is one of seven schools in Cite Soleil run by Hands Together and the 590 pupils now get breakfast every day through Mary’s Meals. A canteen has been built with a special message which reads ‘Thank you SIR and Mary’s Meals’ and this is where parents of pupils prepare meals. In a classroom of first grade students aged 6 to 7 years teacher Claude Jean Pierre leads a prayer before the children eat a breakfast of bread and vegetable soup. “I am very happy because the children here cannot afford food and they get quite sick...so we thank God for this meal,” he says.
For many children the food at school is the only meal they receive and after finishing eating some of the pupils tell us of their ambitions. Speaking in the Haitian language of Creole, Louise Augustin, 6, says she wants to be a teacher, while Jonathan Louis, also 6, says he hopes to be an engineer. These children consider themselves fortunate because there is no free state education in Haiti and the vast majority of kids in Cite Soleil do not get schooling. It means their future is less than bleak in a society where more than two thirds of people are unemployed. The school is vastly oversubscribed but the poorest children are given priority
each June when enrolling takes place. During break the children, immaculate in their uniforms, play skipping and footballand for a while at least they can forget about the hardships of life in Haiti.
An American priest called Father Tom Hagan, who has worked in Cite Soleil with Hands Together for a decade, describes the situation as desperate and says the street fighting between the gangs and the UN peacekeepers makes conditions even more dire for the children. He takes us to St Francois de Salles School in zone 24 and shows us a classroom on the second floor. There are seven bullet holes in the walls and roof. The teacher, Alexis Jolius, says the previous Monday shooting started around 4pm while his class was reading. It lasted about an hour and came from the direction of a UN post about 100 metres away, currently manned by Brazilian troops. He says he cannot understand why soldiers would target a school and insists that no firing was coming from inside the school. Pupil Raoul Moroney, 11, was in class that day and says that everyone was petrified and threw themselves to the ground before crawling downstairs to safety. “The white people began shooting. Everyone was crying,” he says. But violence is endemic in Cite Soleil and as we leave the school we hear shots from close by, from gangs aiming at a UN helicopter flying above.
In fact every day of our stay we hear the rattle of machine gunfire. The UN force MINUSTAH ( Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti) has been deployed in Haiti since 2004 following the overthrow of the nation’s leader Jean-Bertrand-Aristide. MINUSTAH claims the gangs cause the violence and that a number of soldiers have been killed, including two recently from Jordan shot dead on November 10th. But the local community accuse MINUSTAH of targeting unarmed civilians. “During a UN operation in July, 2005, a lot of civilians, possibly up to 90, died when soldiers went into zone Bwa Nef to kill the gang leader Dread Wilmain. Both sides - and the gang leaders here want peace - need to talk to each other to stop the killings,” Father Tom says, who has the trust and respect of the militias. The situation is so dangerous that all aid agencies apart from Doctors Without Borders have pulled out.
“I want to show you something else,” Father Tom says, and he takes us to zone Bellecour. Gunfire starts up again as we squeeze past dilapidated tin huts followed by hungry children with copper tinged hair, a sign of malnutrition. Men, women and children sit about in the heat with nothing to do, swatting flies away or listening to portable radios. “Bonjou,” they say, waving and smiling as we pass. Father Tom takes a right into a small passage and walks up a flight of stairs. “There,” he says, and points. On the roof of a house a women is making mud pies, dozens of them laid out drying in the sun. Each one is grey and about the size of a small plate. They look like oversized oatcakes. Made from dust collected from the countryside mixed with water, and sometimes herbs and butter, these are what pass for sustenance in Cite Soleil. “This is what the poor eat... this is why we need Mary’s Meals,” Father Tom says.
BillBriggs December 2006 www.billybriggs.co.uk