The Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation, which has operated in the desperately poor nation of Haiti since 1982, suddenly finds itself in the midst of a growing refugee crisis triggered by last week’s earthquake.

The Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation, which has operated in the desperately poor nation of Haiti since 1982, suddenly finds itself in the midst of a growing refugee crisis triggered by last week’s earthquake.

At least 2,000 people whose homes and businesses in Port-au-Prince were destroyed have moved back to live or be near family in the Grand Anse, a large region of the island’s southwestern end where the foundation runs a clinic in the city of Jeremie, Executive Director Marilyn Lowney said.

Lowney said studies have shown that between 70 percent and 80 percent of the people who live in the capital have family in the Grand Anse, where the foundation also operates a health outreach program to more than 100 mountain villages.

While most of Norwich’s 3,000-plus Haitian residents moved here from Port-au-Prince to escape the city’s poverty, residents in even greater poverty in Jeremie typically leave that city and the surrounding area for Port-au-Prince. Once these residents land jobs, they send money back to their families living in thatched-roof, village homes.

In the long run, this means a crisis is looming for thousands of families that were already poverty-stricken and being served by the foundation.

“The breadwinners without a job and only the clothes on their backs are coming back to live where there is nothing,” Lowney said.

In the exodus from Port-au-Prince, 1,500 people traveled by ferry to Jeremie on Sunday. Further trips are on hold because the ferry is out of gas. Others have hopped aboard the backs of large trucks or canoed. Still more are walking the six-day journey, with some dying on the way and with some carrying loved ones in caskets.

Lowney said there is one hospital with 200 beds and one psychologist in the area. The clinic is not a trauma center and yet staff were busy Monday handling visits by people with broken limbs, burns and other serious injuries. For those who did not require hospitalization, the clinic offered its pharmacy, X-ray, sonogram and other medical services and supplies.

‘Sense of community’

Lowney said staff have described the migration as orderly and peaceful, though security officials are using metal detectors on new arrivals to ensure none of those who escaped from prison in Port-au-Prince arrive with weapons.

The clinic offered its school to temporarily house orphans who have arrived in the city, but people are still too afraid to sleep in concrete buildings and have opted to care for the children in an open square in Jeremie.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of community, and people with nothing helping people with nothing” Lowney said.

On Monday, Jeremiah Lowney, who founded the clinic in the 1980s, and Marilyn Lowney were at the Norwich office working with a team of volunteers.

Marilyn Lowney first told would-be donors that they weren’t ready to accept food and other items because there was no way to deliver them to Haiti. Instead, they and many other charities said the biggest need was money. But on Monday, Lowney said her office will collect donations of such items as tuna, peanut butter, Spam, soap and other goods for future shipments. The Lowneys plan to visit the clinic as soon as they work out the logistics.

During commentary on the earthquake in Haiti, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly told viewers he gives money to Lowney and the foundation. That unofficial endorsement prompted donations from across the country and such places as Cambodia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Long history

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said the city first thought of the foundation after the earthquake, with the volunteer fire departments collecting more than $7,000 from residents, some who said they were unemployed, at boot drives across the city Sunday.

“It’s the history, the longevity and the commitment that Dr. Lowney and the Haitian Health Foundation represent,” Nystrom said.

More than 9,000 people are on the foundation’s mailing list, with more than 5,000 from Connecticut. Hundreds of local volunteers have joined various missions to the clinic.

When asked to reflect on the foundation’s work following the earthquake and after years of service prior to the disaster, Jeremiah Lowney opted to write a statement.

“The Haitian Health Foundation has served the poor of Haiti for almost 30 years,” he wrote. “We know the spirit of the Haitians; they are a resilient people. I know that they will make a strong comeback from this terrible tragedy.”

Norwich Bulletin