Haitians in Jamaica think of loved-ones left behind

Published: 15 March 2004 0:00 CET

Åsta Ytre in Kingston

Haitian music drifts from the Seventh Day Adventist church in Port Antonio, capital of the north-eastern Jamaican region of Portland, while at the Winnifred Rest Home in nearby Fairy Hill, young men and women play football by the beach.

If you didn’t know better, you would think they were just spending a Sunday hanging around with friends, and that they would go home to their families before dark.

But the 134 Haitians in Portland are far from home. The ocean that separates them and their families is big, and probably much more familiar to them than they ever desired.

The door outside the Seventh Day Adventist Church is guarded by a police officer, and in a corner of the room there is a pile of mattresses. The church is their shelter; they eat, sleep, play and pray in the same room.

At the Winnifred Rest Home, the gates are also guarded by police officers. Eight rooms in the rest home and four tents outside are now home to 51 Haitians, where they are cared for by volunteers from the Jamaica Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The first of the Haitians came to Portland on 14 February. Since then, several more small fishing boats filled with people have landed on Jamaican soil. Children and adults, fleeing from hunger and violence, are now taken care of by the Jamaica Red Cross and other relief agencies.

With donations from individuals and companies all over Jamaica, the Haitians are fed, clothed and kept safe. Doctors and nurses visit every day, giving out medication and conducting check-ups. Hard-working volunteers cook, clean and give basic care to these displaced people, and their efforts are appreciated.

“They say ‘thank you’ and look happy when we help them,” says Eva Coore, a Portland Red Cross volunteer who has worked at the shelter at Winnifred Rest Home every day since the first Haitians arrived. “Because of my age, they all call me ‘mother’, and I get a lot of hugs.”

Food, shelter and clothing are the easiest things to provide in a situation like this. Once the bare necessities are covered, other needs become more evident. Some of the displaced have family members who are also fleeing their country, but have not yet arrived. The situation of family and friends in Haiti is also unclear. This naturally makes them wary, and the strain is also felt by the volunteers.

“They stress me terrible,” says Brenda Taylor, chairperson of the Port Antonio area group of the Jamaica Red Cross. “It stresses me, but it is good in between.”

Red Cross volunteers say the Haitians are concerned about their loved ones still inside the country. One man, who speaks a little English, had told relief workers that he had left three children in Haiti, but he felt that he had to go.

“It was not an easy decision,” he said. “There was just no time to wait.”

Others have managed to bring their children along. Of the 134 Haitians who have come to Jamaica so far, several are young children. They have come with one or both parents. Most are healthy and well taken care of by parents and volunteers.

“I always bring some sweets for them,” says Eva Coore. Laughing, she says the sweets are well received. “The big bag is always finished at once!”