Students at a school in the impoverished community of Cité Soleil, in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, enjoy nutritious biscuits made from Tzu Chi’s Multi-Grain Powder. Photo/Keziah Jean
By Grace Wong, Keziah Jean, Pheel Wang
Translated by Pen-Chi Liu, Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
Tzu Chi USA has been providing continual aid in Haiti for over a decade now. Thankfully, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 did not halt these efforts, although conditions in the country have deteriorated dangerously, making the provision of this support increasingly hazardous and challenging.
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has currently placed Haiti at the most critical level in their Travel Advisories ranking, “Red: Do Not Travel,” and describes the risks: “Violent crime, such as armed robbery and carjacking, is common. Kidnapping is widespread. […] Demonstrations, tire burning, and roadblocks are frequent, unpredictable, and can turn violent.”
Notwithstanding the pandemic’s additional bearing down on the country’s economy, Haitians were already struggling in extreme poverty before this global crisis emerged. It appears that people are desperate, and resorting to violence may be their last resort in terms of sheer survival.
“[Due to] the political, economic, and social turmoil in Haiti, it is always difficult for us to achieve something in Haiti,” James Chen, head of Tzu Chi USA’s aid missions in Haiti, points out. Still, while Tzu Chi volunteers may have been ready to weather today’s escalated perils, they can’t even reach the country at the moment. “The Haitian government stopped commercial passenger flights […] which prevents us from entering Haiti,” James reveals.
Yet, as the love and care must go on, the team is successfully circumventing the problem through monthly virtual meetings to manage ongoing programs and the steadfast strides of Tzu Chi’s cherished local partners on the ground in Haiti. Father Zucchi Ange Olibrice, Executive Director of Oeuvre des Petites Écoles de Père Bohnen (OPEPB), who has been at the forefront of Tzu Chi’s aid in Haiti for years, holds a central role and is finding ways around the difficulties of distribution during the pandemic.
When Multi-Grain Powder shipped from Tzu Chi’s global headquarters in Taiwan arrived, Father Zucchi had his concerns. A large portion of the supply was for single-parent families in Cité Soleil and La Saline, two major slums in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. However, the situation in those communities had deteriorated significantly. Nonetheless, he went forward with the plan, recruiting local volunteers to bring the food supplement to the intended recipients securely.
Additionally, the volunteers delivered the powder in an ingeniously tasty form: Cookies baked by OPEPB school staff and faculty. Father Zucchi remembers fondly how the tradition began in 2018, when, “We decided to make all the grain powders into nutritious cookies and provide them to the people in need in the slums and the students in slum schools.”
Transforming the powder into cookies continues until now, as the health benefits, especially for children, have become evident. “According to past experience, when the school provides multi-grain cookies, the children’s height, weight, and health status have all improved, and their health conditions have also greatly improved. The students were less likely to get sick,” Father Zucchi is glad to share.
However, Tzu Chi’s Multi-Grain Powder may be of even greater importance at the moment. According to The World Bank’s recent analysis, the pandemic will push 115 million people into extreme poverty worldwide. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also pointed out that children whose families fall into poverty are prone to malnutrition. In the worst situations, children in impoverished countries and regions are the first to bear the brunt, and the result can be fatal.
Father Zucchi considers the biscuits made from Tzu Chi’s Multi-Grain Powder to be a life-saving staple during the pandemic. Moreover, they are popular due to the tailored recipe. He explains: “Because Haitians prefer stronger flavors and have a sweet tooth, we must add sugar when making them. And these cookies are suitable for their taste buds.” But most importantly, they provide an essential food supplement, helping to strengthen people’s immunity and diminish their chances of contracting COVID-19.
And, during the pandemic, these nourishing biscuits are not only reaching children in schools but also beyond. Father Zucchi and Johnson Chang, a local Tzu Chi volunteer, are distributing the cookies to vulnerable populations in Port-au-Prince’s most impoverished communities. Together, in 2020, they brought this vital nutritional supplement to more than 18,000 children, elders living alone, and people with disabilities.
Another ongoing Tzu Chi charity program in Haiti is the regular provision of rice. Once again, many distributions in the underprivileged communities of La Saline and Cité Soleil proceed in collaboration with Father Zucchi and OPEPB schools. The history of OPEPB’s food aid in these slums is a touching one and began in 1954 with the launch of their School Hot Lunch Program inspired by the old Haitian adage, “An empty stomach has no ears.”
The custom of providing a free lunch continues until this day, and according to OPEPB’s website, “It has been said that OPEPB has the largest free cafeteria in the world. We feed over 25,000 children daily (and hope to increase that number as parents realize that sending their children to school accomplishes two basic needs: education for their children and a place where they may receive free meals).”
However, OPEPB’s free lunch program is interrupted during the summer vacation, which extends three months in Haiti. Therefore, providing rice from Tzu Chi becomes especially important before and after the vacation period. Two bags of rice had been given to students’ families before the 2020 summer break to ensure the children would not go hungry, and they received more at the start of the next academic year.
“Today is the first day of October. It is also our school’s first day of the new semester. After this first day, the students will go home and will return after seven days to officially start school. So, we use this opportunity to distribute rice to the parents,” Father Zucchi explained.
Father Zucchi and Johnson Chang mobilized a team of local Haitian volunteers to help with the rice distribution, and they began by unloading the staple from the many trucks used to transport it to the school. Once everything was ready, the volunteers started the distribution event by performing a sign language song, bringing even more cheer to this happy occasion.
Everyone waited their turn patiently, then when leaving the distribution, with joyful smiles, some fathers carried the bag of rice they received on their shoulders while holding their child by the hand. Mothers transported the rice on top of their heads while their children ran ahead towards home, eager to enjoy a delicious meal.
A total of 1,532 households benefited from this single rice distribution. Seeing the parents’ and students’ gratitude and joy, Father Zucchi was also most pleased, exclaiming, “I saw their happy faces. Without this rice, their lives would be very difficult.”
Even though Tzu Chi volunteers can’t currently travel to Haiti due to pandemic restrictions, the foundation’s mission continues without fail and is even expanding. Furthermore, with the opening of a warehouse on Tzu Chi’s new campus grounds in Port-au-Prince in January 2018, the local volunteers have a place to hold regular meetings and store the rice reserves safely.
Through the local Haitian team’s collective persistence, in 2020, Tzu Chi managed to distribute 90,000 bags of rice, 20,000 pairs of shoes, and a shipping container’s worth of Multi-Grain Powder and personal protective equipment. While there may be a physical distance right now between Tzu Chi volunteers in the U.S. and their colleagues in Haiti, they remain as close as ever since they are of one heart, always concerned about the people’s needs, and doing their utmost to meet them without delay.