Everyone who knows about the history of violence and extreme poverty in Cité Soleil had the same recommendation: go and see what the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul are doing there.
For someone with not much religious faith, as is the case of this reporter, that may not sound like a very attractive proposition.
But a quick glance and it was clear that this is a tough bunch of sisters indeed, and that the social work they are doing is truly extraordinary.
It is not easy to find a Christian with a vehicle who is prepared to drive down the dusty streets of this miserable slum of Port-au-Price, the poorest neighborhood in the poorest capital of Latin America.
Around 300,000 people live here, piled on top of each other inside shacks made of mud, wooden boards and tin roofs. These shanty homes turn into ovens when the sun starts to beat down on them, and most of them lack electricity, running water and toilets.
And that is without mentioning that 75 percent of youths who live here may not have a job, but they do have guns and machetes.
The money? My son, even I don’t know where it comes from” Sister Milagros
“I’m used to it...but it’s true there’s not a whole lot of people who want to come here,” shrugs Sister Milagros after opening the large door of the center she runs in the depths of hell.
True, there are not quite as many killings and shootouts as there used to be after former president Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a 2004 coup. But the 2010 earthquake made things worse, and Cité Soleil continues to be a powder keg.
“People have nothing here, just a feeling of hunger and very few ways to make a living,” says Sister Milagros.
Her full name is Milagros Caballero and she is from Valladolid. She has just turned 80, and has spent half her life in Cité Soleil.
“We started out 40 years ago with a small health center right there,” she says, pointing at a spot where two or three dozen mothers are standing in line with their children. The kids are not playing, they don’t have the energy. The problem has not changed since the 1970s.
Those children suffer from malnutrition. Their parents don’t have enough to feed them”
“Those children suffer from malnutrition. Their parents don’t have enough to feed them, life is that tough,” she notes.
It is 11am on a sunny day in late May and 98 children and 35 pregnant women have already received medical assistance. The center sees an average of 200 patients a day. The children in the worst conditions get admitted into a nutrition ward for several weeks or even months, where they are fed three times a day, sleep in a proper bed and play in a small nursery room. Up to 60 children may be here at a time.
“They come back to life here,” says Sister Milagros.
While they are at the center, their mothers spend the day with them, and it occurred to Sister Milagros that these women should be taught a trade to help them earn a living. So she created a sewing workshop in which thousands of women from Cité Soleil have learned to sew and embroider . The nuns sell their tablecloths, aprons, rag dolls and Christmas cards and give the proceeds to the women who made them.
Sisters, go indoors, we’re going to start shooting,” the criminals would say
Despite her double knee surgery, this missionary will not be stopped. Sister Milagros shows off the preschool facilities for 300 children, many of whom come here straight out of the nutrition ward. Then she walks into the pharmacy, the lab, and a room with dozens of cribs for nap time.
“The money? My son, even I don’t know where it comes from,” she claims. When necessary, she does what it takes to secure donations here and there to subsidize the children’s education.
Behind another door is the grade school area for another 700 kids. This project gets funding from AECID, the Spanish development aid agency. The team includes eight nuns, four doctors, several nurses, 20 teachers and various cooks.
The nearby hospital was also built by her congregation and run by the nuns until the unrest that followed the abrupt termination of Aristide’s second term in office. It was then turned over to the state and is presently managed by the non-profit group Doctors Without Borders.
Those were the years when the bullets really flew, although the criminals always respected them, notes Sister Milagros. “‘Sisters, go indoors, we’re going to start shooting,’ they would say to us.”
Queen Sofía of Spain wanted to pay a visit in 2008 but was unable due to security concerns. But she did make it to Cité Soleil two years ago, and was reportedly impressed by what she saw.
“These days, the bullets that do the most killing are poverty and misery,” notes Sister Milagros.