As the sun rose over Port-au-Prince early one mid-September morning, Dr. Jacob Bernard, the director of a Natick-based children’s home, and two managers roused the home’s hundred children and lined them up two by two on the street outside.
The children, ages 7 to 12, thought they were just going for an outing, he said.
But Bernard and some trusted Hope for the Children of Haiti staff members were planning something far more daring that morning. After a month of escalating threats from one of the neighborhood’s increasingly powerful and rapacious gangs, they had decided to escape.
“If they knew we were getting out, they could kidnap 10 of them,” Bernard said by phone from Haiti last week.
The children’s flight is just one example of the deteriorating security and economic situation in Haiti, with some Boston-based charities there calling the conditions the worst they have seen in a quarter century, worse than the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
The children’s home had a “tenuous” relationship with the gangs since they moved into the neighborhood five to seven years ago, according to Craig Miller, one of Hope for the Children of Haiti’s founding board members. Every month they would check in with the gangs through back channels.
“It’s been a tightrope,” said Miller, a Winchester resident.
In September the tightrope snapped.
“The handwriting is on the wall,” Miller said. “When the report [from the gangs] came back ‘We don’t know why you’re still here,’ there was no debate. We had to leave.”
The economic and political situation in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, has been in turmoil since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
When the US-backed acting president who replaced Moïse announced the elimination of fuel subsidies in September, it sparked street protests and prompted a powerful gang federation to seize control of the country’s only fuel terminal, effectively cutting off supplies of gasoline and causing shortages of everything from food to medicine. The UN recently reported that a record 4.7 million Haitians face “acute hunger.”
On Oct. 7, the acting president appealed to the international community to help him restore order. In response, the US and Canada have supplied armored vehicles to the Haitian National Police, and the UN Security Council is mulling a potential intervention.
“I am concerned that the general public is not aware of just how dire the situation in Haiti is currently,” said Conor Shapiro, president and CEO of the Newton-based charity Health Equity International, which supports St. Boniface Hospital in rural southern Haiti. “We have confronted earthquakes; we have confronted hurricanes. Those have been horrible. ... This, believe it or not, is the worst humanitarian crisis we have confronted as an organization.”
Almost all hospitals and clinics in the country closed because they cannot get fuel or medicines, and at the same time, cholera has broken out, Shapiro said. St. Boniface has remained open thanks to the heroic efforts of the hospital’s Haitian staff, but it’s unclear how much longer they can hang on, he said.
When Bernard and the US board made the decision to take the children from the home to a safer place, they were making the painful decision to abandon 27 years of hard work.
Marion Austin, a retired nutritionist from Boston and mother of trailblazing WBZ-TV reporter Charlie Austin, founded Hope for the Children of Haiti in the mid-1990s. Since then, it’s grown to care for about 100 children and operate a neighborhood school with 35 Haitian employees and support from about 30 to 40 American volunteers and 20 churches, mostly in the Boston area.
Bernard wasn’t thinking about that loss on the morning of the escape, he was focused on getting the children to safety.
After an anxiety-ridden 15-minute walk, the group reached a bus waiting at the bottom of the hill that whisked them to safety at a guest house Bernard runs, he said.
It wasn’t a moment too soon.
In the following days, gang members went door to door looking for Bernard, and in October they laid siege to the charity’s neighborhood school, locking the remaining students and staff inside and burning tires around the buildings, Miller said.
The children were “longing” to leave the old neighborhood, where they would often hear gunshots outside, and are enjoying life in the guest house, which has a pool and a gymnasium, Bernard said. But operating the guest house is more expensive than the old campus and it put serious financial strain on Hope for the Children of Haiti, which was already in the middle of fund-raising for a new building, Miller said.
But, he said, “it makes us want to fight even harder to help these kids succeed.”
Bernard isn’t losing faith either.
“The American embassy encouraged all American citizens to leave Haiti, but man, you know, each one of us has a calling in life,” Bernard said. “My wife and I ... came back to help.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.