|On Assignment in Koujol, Haiti|
In October 2008 Fr. Ken Gavin and Armando Borja of our JRS/USA staff visited the Jesuit Refugee Service in northeastern Haiti, along the border with the Dominican Republic. Fr. Gavin wrote this reflection on their visit to a JRS-sponsored farming cooperative on the border.
"Jesuit Refugee Service has been more than a father to us all!" With these words Clauden and Damais, the president and treasurer of a local community group in Koujol, Haiti, summed up the role that JRS has played during the past year in helping a group of 200 local farmers begin an innovative farming project in this small community just a stone’s throw from Haiti’s northeast border with the Dominican Republic.
Unfortunately, Haiti is generally recognized as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Like hundreds of communities in this country, Koujol has been mired in poverty for generations. Most families along the border have little or no electricity or potable water. Many children have never been to school. Without the most basic farming tools or water necessary for irrigation, the people of Koujol have been unable to work their land and lift their families out of the grinding poverty that so many in Haiti must endure. With a staggering 70% of the population unemployed, not surprisingly many Haitians must leave their homes in search of work in the neighboring Dominican Republic where they frequently encounter discrimination, exploitation and abuse.
Father Perard Monestime is a Jesuit priest from the New England area who currently serves as the director of JRS projects in Haiti. As a child in the 1960s, Father Monestime and his family were forced to flee their native Haiti and were welcomed as refugees in the U.S. After teaching for many years in a Jesuit high school in Boston, he returned three years ago to Haiti to work with the migrant poor. He soon recognized that, despite an abundance of rich farm land, the local farmers’ attempts at raising crops had been stymied by lack of basic tools and limited knowledge of crop selection, planting, and irrigation methods. With excitement and conviction Father Monestime went about gathering a team of agronomists who could help develop a viable farming cooperative in Koujol.
As a visitor to the Koujol farming project, I was moved by the sense of real hope in the future that the farmers of Koujol felt as they stood with us and enjoyed the results of their hard work—fields upon fields of waving rice ready for harvesting during the coming weeks. Profits from the sale of this rice harvest and of other crops such as beans, pineapple and yucca will support these Haitian families in the months to come.
Children will be able to attend schools. While in the past many members of this farming cooperative would have been forced to leave home for work elsewhere, now they will be able to stay at home, supporting themselves on the produce from own land.
The JRS team of agronomists clearly takes great pleasure in helping the farmers of Koujol learn up-to-date techniques for planting, irrigating and controlling pests in order to increase their land’s yield. But they see their role as far more than simply teaching farming skills. These specialists are helping build a community of trust and mutual support among the 200 men and women who are members of the Koujol project.
"We visit them regularly and become part of their lives," said Michel, one of the agronomists. He added as well, "They become part of our lives as well. When they don’t hear from us for a few days, they call us to ask us how we are doing!"