While the island government and tourist industry works to rebuild hotels and restaurants, locals are still struggling to eat. Many people lost their jobs because the hotel or store where they worked is now closed and under repair. Some hotels, restaurants and retail are closed permanently. Low income housing was devastated throughout the island, in part because of bad location and construction quality.
When we arrived on the island in January, I began looking for volunteer opportunities. John’s supervisor put me in touch with the community outreach coordinator at the medical school. She did have an opportunity for me to help at a medical screening event, but it was a one-time sort of thing. At the screening, the level of poverty on the island was evident. People lined up to be seen by a doctor and waited for well over an hour in the sun. Most patients were over 60.
I looked into the Red Cross, but the island’s office is run by the Netherlands. The posting on their website under volunteering was a donation tab. I found an article about how the Dutch Red Cross had decided to stop relief efforts (providing a food bank, for instance) in September, 2018, because they didn’t want to foster a “dependent” attitude. However, insurance money, if they had insurance, has not arrived for many people and the Dutch government has not released all the funding promised.
I knew the Catholic Church on the island tried not to use volunteers, but rather looked for resources to employ someone to do odd jobs, such as remove lawn rubbish or clean the sanctuary. The same is true for other churches. They did not need some well-meaning American to show up temporarily. Because of past back issues, I had to pass on doing actual physical cleanup in a wildlife reserve. I kept hitting dead ends.
Fortunately, Kathryn, a Canadian and good friend on the island, reconnected with me. Over dinner she told me about an 80-year-old woman who lost everything in the hurricane. The poor woman has been living under a tarp, as are many people, since Irma hit 19 months ago. Residents are also aware the French government did not accurately report all the deaths on that side of the island (close to a thousand). In fact, no one is really sure how many illegal immigrants, mostly from Haiti, died. Without legal papers, they could not go to a designated shelter. Additionally, the number of people in need of food is still being underreported.
The good news: Kathryn heard about two men from The Netherlands, former residents of the island, who decided to do something about the need for food and step into the gap. DJ is a chef who had a vegan cafe back home. So Joost and DJ moved back to the island, and opened the Freegan Cafe. (Free + Vegan ) They spend their days collecting surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets. It’s estimated approximately 40% of food in stores world-wide is discarded-overripe bananas, vegetables that haven’t sold, tofu nearing the end of its shelf life. They turn the discarded food into delicious vegan meals and distribute them in the poorest neighborhoods. A repurposing of food.
Their communication with the locals is through WhatsApp and word of mouth. When the neighborhoods know the food truck is coming, people line up. The program has expanded to include fresh food items (tomatoes, cucumbers, grapefruit, etc.- a quasi-farmer’s market) and non-food items (children’s shoes, bed linens, clothing). Volunteers in each neighborhood let Freegan know what the current need is, as well as communicate to the neighborhood what is available. When they arrived with produce the other day, an older woman told them “You came just in time”. Her refrigerator was empty.
Kathryn, Bhuvana(another friend) and I spent yesterday morning cutting up cucumbers, juicing tangelos and grapefruit, peeling potatoes and washing dishes. The three hours flew by. In the end, we sat down and enjoyed a great meal of yellow curry and rice, vegan Schwarma and a banana chia bowl. All of us were tired, but it was that happy kind of exhaustion you get when you help someone else and forget for a brief moment about yourself. The whole experience gives me hope.