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‘We literally drove through fire’: Minnesotans on goodwill missions flee unrest in Haiti

A van carrying a Farmington woman and her 17-year-old son crosses a fiery barricade in Haiti in July 2018. Recent unrest and a “Do Not Travel” advisory from the U.S. made for some dicey exits from Haiti for a few Twin Cities residents. (Courtesy of Dara Cavanaugh)1 / 2
Dara Cavanaugh, right, and her son Brett, left, stand with a Haitian friend during their trip to Haiti in July 2018. (Courtesy of Dara Cavanaugh)2 / 2

Recent unrest and a “Do Not Travel” advisory from the U.S. made for some dicey exits from Haiti for a few Twin Cities residents.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Feb. 7 calling for President Jovenel Moise to step down over ballooning inflation and misused funds they say led to a hike in gas prices.

Heide Olson of Eagan flew in on Feb. 7 with her father to finish building a church just as things began to heat up.

“The protests and the road barricades were already starting when we got there,” she said.

The group of 14 with Global Commission Builders kept their heads down and got to work, finishing the church that would feed 200 to 300 children four times a week with food from Feed My Starving Children, a Twin Cities nonprofit.

By that time, many of the main roads to the airport at Port-au-Prince were blocked. The electricity had gone out and the protesting had turned violent.

“We ended up having to take a helicopter out,” she said. “It was certainly very nerve-wracking.”

Flying into Port-au-Prince, a city of over 2 million people, she described the desolate streets as “surreal” for a city of that size.

“There were no cars on the road,” she said. “We had heard stories of missionaries trying to drive back and being robbed. At the airport, there were Haitians who had been there for five days who didn’t dare go home.”

As they waited at the airport, other missionaries, Americans and Canadians began congregating, hoping to get out of the country. They exchanged stories.

“They had informed us that the protesters were starting to target missionaries and Americans,” she said. “We were very thankful to get out and to get home.”

THROUGH FIRE AND WATER

Unrest has been a way of life in Haiti, especially following the 2010 earthquake that killed 250,000 people and displaced over a million others.

Dara Cavanaugh, 39, of Farmington wanted to help, but in a very specific way. Her son, Brett, 18, has Type 1 diabetes. She knew that without insulin, that condition is a death sentence in undeveloped countries.

She and Brett traveled with a faith-based group called Upstream to take diabetic medication to Haiti in July when demonstrations, or “manifestations” as she called them, started popping up around the orphanage where they were ministering.

“They shut down every intersection violently,” she said. “They were burning tires and shooting guns in the air. They were very upset if you were in a car. They didn’t want anybody on the road.”

As the team started the trek to their host home run by Joe and Sami Rigelsky, who hails from LaCrosse, Wis., Cavanaugh recalled a Bible verse she’d read before going on the trip. It was Isaiah 43:2.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”

“I had that verse in the back of my head and I thought, this is happening,” she said.

The group had six intersections to get through. Several were on fire.

“We literally drove through fire,” she said.

Her son said he could feel the flames inside the van.

“The raw power of the burning tires singed our leg hairs,” he said. “The car shook violently as we crossed the debris.”

At another roadblock, Joe Rigelsky had to exit the van and flash his sidearm at the men carrying rocks to intimidate them into letting them pass.

A bribe of money worked at another blockade. A young Haitian who stood up to the protesters let them through another.

The last barricade was impassable. The group had survived the fire, now they would face the river.

Rigelsky left the road and drove along the river in the pitch black night looking for a place to cross. The van had been modified with a snorkel for high water. Eventually, he found a place shallow enough and drove across the river.

After a 10-hour wait at the airport, the Cavanaughs finally boarded an airplane for home.

“I did not feel afraid because I had that promise with me,” Dara Cavanaugh said.

NOT GIVING UP

Another group, called Healing Haiti, formerly of White Bear Lake but now based in Champlin, missed last week’s unrest due to a fundraiser at The Depot in Minneapolis. But Elisa Bachmann, spokesperson for the nonprofit, said trips are resuming this week in spite of the no-travel advisory.

“I think that the news has sensationalized a lot of it,” she said. “We’re talking to folks on the ground. We have good relationships with people in Haiti.”

Despite the frightening exits out of the country, all of those interviewed for this story said they did not blame the Haitians for their behavior.

“The people of Haiti are amazing and they’re wonderful and they need so much help,” Olson said. “It’s unacceptable that they don’t have food and water and opportunity. You have a lot of people in despair and anger. I really want us all to do something to give them food and water and to change their circumstances.”