Q & A with two sisters and a volunteer serving at the Haiti-Dominican Republic border
Colombian Sr. Alexandra Bonilla Leonel and Haitian Sr. Iselande Surlin are both members of the Sisters of St. John the Evangelist, also known as the Juanistas. They work in the city of Ouanaminthe, Haiti, located at the Haitian-Dominican border, in a ministry focused on the needs of children and women.
The two sisters and Colombian volunteer Marcela Latorre Velásquez work as a team for a ministry the Colombian congregation founded 22 years ago in Haiti that in 2017 provided assistance to 500 children in situations of unaccompanied deportation, trafficking and sexual violence. Among the mission's activities are overseeing Santa Teresita del Niño Jesús, a church-run shelter for potentially trafficked children and unaccompanied minors trying to cross the border.
This work fits with the Juanistas' charism, which was originally rooted in the needs of workers, making the Juanistas a congregation ahead of its time in Colombia, where much of the church has been perceived as tradition-bound, Leonel said. Their work has now expanded to focus on the needs of women and children, as well.
GSR: Tell us about the congregation. I don't think it is well-known in much of the world.
Leonel: It was founded in 1932 in Bogotá by Msgr. Jorge Murcia Riaño to respond "to work in the world" and to be a friend of youth and girls and also to workers. Championing the rights of workers was contrary to what was popular in the church at the time in Colombia. It was pioneer work in Colombia. Talking of the rights of workers was revolutionary, and Father Jorge was called a communist. In many ways, he anticipated liberation theology.
Now we have ministries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and have been in Haiti for 22 years, and we are always trying to adapt to the reality of Haiti, which is always challenging. Our focus here has been on women and children, and that is a necessary mission particularly since, in recent years, there have been so many deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic.
What is it like to be a Colombian sister and working in Haiti?
Leonel: We have very good working relations between Haitians and Colombians. We Colombians are in love with the Haitian people, and I think the Haitians feel the same way about Colombians! But these kind of relations are not unusual. We are interconnected in so many ways.
The solidarity is very important between us, and what we are doing here at the border — work on migration and against human trafficking — is no different than what sisters are doing in Mexico, in El Salvador, in Honduras, in Guatemala. These networks of trafficking are multinational in nature. It's a vicious situation with drugs and prostitution and rape, and it's getting worse.
Surlin: It's getting worse because the international networks are getting stronger. Before, it was just a network of Dominicans and Haitians; now, people are trying to transport trafficked people to other parts of Latin America, like Chile. Haitians are also going to Brazil and Colombia in larger numbers.
You are also involved in programs to empower women, correct?
Surlin: Yes. Our communal bank project was founded in 2014 and teaches women to manage their money, save, and provide loans for others in a communal group of other members — like a cooperative. They collect money, lend it out. It's like a share for everyone. There is interest to be paid back on the loans, and so when people return money with the interest, there's more money to lend.
The men saw how successful this was, and we now run separate programs for women and men. We have 23 groups total, and most have up to 55 members. Several thousand people are involved, and most of them are in the countryside outside of town.
This system, which is modeled on a program in Colombia, has been a success because most people in Haiti don't have access to loans or to banks. Most people are poor, and this brought a sense of solidarity between neighbors and communities. But it has particularly empowered women, and that continues the vision of Monsignor Jorge.
Marcela, what is it like working as a volunteer here with the sisters?
Velásquez: I arrived in 2015 from Colombia, where I worked at a bank in Bogotá as an accountant, and was supposed to stay a year. But things changed, and I now work in the network of shelters here. The work is important because the kids are often mistreated, have suffered physical abuse or even sexual abuse. The work here is so meaningful. The children give me the strength to go forward.
With so many heartbreaking situations here on the border, what keeps you going?
Surlin: Monsignor Jorge stressed "being to the world a light of faith and love," and I think that continues. My first motivation has always been to do small things, simple work, but small simple work is important.
Velásquez: What brought me here was the work of the sisters, and I have seen that what they do and what we do together is a beacon of hope for people. For me, the best motivation is not a salary, but the work with people.
Leonel: Our motivation is about a love of people, a love of life — la vida — and that idea of just doing small things. There is a phrase from [the late Uruguayan writer] Eduardo Galeano that performing small acts in small places can transform the world. And I believe that.
What keeps you going spiritually?
Leonel: Prayer is very important, and that is what makes us different from a nongovernmental organization. There are a lot of people doing good in the world, but they are not consecrated and don't have that strong relationship with God.
Surlin: I think we take that vision of Father Jorge and try to transfer that somehow to the work we do with people here — that vision based on the Gospel, of the work of Jesus Christ. In order to spread that, we have to claim it ourselves.
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Translation and reporting assistance from Harry Voltaire and Juan Carlos Dávila Valencia in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.]
Check out Horizons, featuring reflections younger sisters.