Cayman lends helping hand to Haiti

As Haiti reels from the devastating earthquake that flattened its capital city on Tuesday, donations and support from people in the Cayman Islands have been pouring in.

haiti quake

Survivors gathered around bodies in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince during a joint Red Cross Red Crescent/ECHO (European Community Humanitarian Organization) aerial assessment mission following Tuesday’s devastating earthquake. Photo: AP

However, the Red Cross is appealing for members of the public to donate money rather than clothes or food to ensure that only the most essential items get to the victims of the disaster.

Hemant Balgobin, the disaster manager at the Cayman Islands Red Cross said there had been a good response from the public to the appeal for funds.

About $6,000 had been raised by Friday morning, which included a $5,000 donation from Foster’s Food Fair IGA, and more donations were arriving, he said.

Mr. Balgobin said the Red Cross was not accepting donations other than money because there was no infrastructure or resources in Haiti to disseminate donated goods and because the port is severely damaged, no ship can dock there to deliver containers of goods.

‘We are trying to encourage people to be mindful of how they contribute. People like to give things, but right now what we need is finances to be able to get the appropriate things most needed on the ground.

‘If people donate other things, that will create more of a burden here and for the operations on the ground. There is no system on the ground to handle that yet… I know times are tough economically right now, but we need to use resources wisely,’ Mr. Balgobin said.

The Red Cross is also helping Haitians in Cayman contact their families in Haiti and he said a number of people from Haiti living in Cayman had contacted the organisation to help find out if their families were safe

Mr. Balgobin said he had heard one Haitian man working in Cayman who had returned to his home country for a holiday had died in the earthquake.

‘We have communications systems on the ground in Haiti. Our Red Cross colleagues have [satellite] phones. We are restoring family links. Any Haitians living here, if they need support or need to find out about family members, come to the Red Cross or call us,’ he said.

Donations to the Red Cross can be made at Butterfield Bank under the Cayman Islands Red Cross Haiti Earthquake Appeal (02-201-035054-04).

Containers

Despite the difficulty that will be involved in shipping containers of goods to Haiti, some individuals and community groups are trying to organise containers which they say will be able to help the people of Haiti at some stage. However, by Thursday morning, no containers were yet in place to take donations.

Carmen and Yves Fontaine who are trying to organise a container to take donated goods from Cayman to Haiti had still not heard from their family members in the earthquake-stricken country by Thursday, two days after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in which tens of thousands are feared dead and three million affected.

‘We’ve heard nothing so far,’ said Mrs. Fontaine. ‘We’re very stressed out.’

Mr. Fontaine’s father, sisters and other family members live in Les Cayes and Port-Au-Prince, near the epicentre of the earthquake.

The couple have contacted Thompson Shipping to try to secure a container which they hope to fill with donated items.

Angel Hawkins of Cayman Outreach is also hoping to secure a container and fill it with goods that can be shipped once sea access to Haiti is possible.

Donations of money, food, medicine and water is flooding into the country from around the world, leading to Port-au-Prince airport becoming congested with planes from several nations landing with relief goods.

Refugee situation uncertain

Meanwhile, the spectre of a long recovery in Haiti has given rise to the possibility that medium and even long-term housing for earthquake refugees may have to be found in other Caribbean countries and the US.

One news report from the US suggested that the American government would open up Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to temporarily house refugees.

The Cayman Islands does not have a particularly large Haitian community, but there are Haitian nationals here. According to the Immigration Department, some 21 Haitians were employed in Cayman on work permits as of late November. There are also some Haitians who have obtained permanent residency or Caymanian status, but their exact number is unknown.

Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs Chief Officer Franz Manderson said it would be a policy decision to accept or reject Haitian refugees if the situation should arise and Cayman was called upon. He indicated that his comments for this story should not be taken as either supporting or opposing such a move.

Mr. Manderson said there would be a number of factors for lawmakers to consider.

‘Haiti nationals require a visa to enter the (Cayman) Islands, but that requirement can be waived by the chief immigration officer,’ Mr. Manderson said.

The government would also have to take into account the language barrier, how refugees would arrive on the Islands, and how housing and upkeep for the refugees would be provided.

Some screening of refugees would be required to ensure those who might pose a security risk are not allowed into Cayman, Mr. Manderson said.

Cayman currently has an Immigration Detention Centre in George Town that can house 15 to 20 individuals safely and relatively comfortably. The facility is generally used as a temporary holding centre for Cuban migrants who arrive in Cayman by boat.

The Caribbean Community indicated in a statement released Thursday that Jamaica would serve as the staging point for the group’s regional aid response. The Bahamian government, which has a relatively undamaged embassy building in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, has offered that structure for CARICOM operations.

The United National High Commission on Refugees does not maintain a presence in Haiti, but is working with local volunteer agencies to assist in refugee services.

Message of support

On Wednesday, the Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush released a message of support to the people of Haiti.

‘The Cayman Islands Government and people are saddened to hear of the devastating earthquake that occurred yesterday in Haiti.

‘Haiti is of course part of our wider regional community and the damage suffered on this occasion is therefore even more distressing. As a people who have ourselves faced two major natural disasters, we empathise and identify with this situation that confronts our Caribbean neighbours.

‘We will continue to pray and will assist in any possible way. We ask God’s blessing on the country,’ Mr. Bush said in his statement.

On Thursday, Mr. Bush said the government would contribute US$50,000 in relief funds to Haiti.

‘I’m calling on the private sector for their help so that we can add it to our amount and we can give collectively,’ he said.

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