The seventeen people from an Christian aid mission abducted in Haiti while returning from an orphanage remain missing, four days later.
Their kidnapping – brazen even in a country where abductions have increased exponentially recently – have cast a spotlight on the work that religious relief organizations undertake in sometimes dangerous conditions.
Indeed, such aid groups are often found in the parts of the world where conditions are most dire.
To understand the sorts of security protocols they take, and how they weigh their call to serve against significant risks, we spoke with three religious relief groups: Samaritan’s Purse, Catholic Relief Services, and Mennonite Central Committee. Each does relief work in Haiti.
Christian Aid Ministries, the group whose workers were kidnapped on Saturday, is based in Berlin, Ohio. Its relief teams are from Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist communities, according to its website.
The kidnappers are reportedly demanding $1 million per person abducted
Those abducted include six men, six women, and five children; 16 are Americans and one is Canadian.
The children kidnapped include an 8 month-old baby, and 3, 6, 13 and 15-year-olds, according to Christian Aid Ministries.
The Haitian gang that abducted them is reportedly demanding $17 million for their release, according to The Wall Street Journal — $1 million per person. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the State Department and FBI are working to secure the group’s release.
Christian Aid Ministries did not respond to NPR’s questions about its work and its security protocols. The group has provided emailed updates to NPR, in which it said civil authorities in Haiti and the United States are offering assistance.
Christian Aid Ministries has made headlines once before. One of its former employees, Jeriah Mast, was convicted in 2019 of sexually abusing two boys in Ohio. The judge in the case said Mast admitted to abusing many boys in Haiti over a 15-year period, according to the Wooster Daily Record.
Five of the missing are kids. Aid groups differ on bringing children to certain posts.
Edward Graham is assistant to the vice president for Programs & Government Relations at Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian relief organization. The mission of Samaritan’s Purse is aid efforts as well as promoting the gospel.
Graham was in Haiti just last month, visiting the group’s recovery programs following the August earthquake there.
He says he wasn’t surprised that there were children there among the Christian Aid Ministries group in Haiti.
“For missionary families, they live in all parts of the world when they work, and these families get to judge risk as they want,” Graham says.
His organization has pulled out staff from places deemed too risky at various points, though he says those decisions are up to the individual missions to make.
“But these families live down there, they’re invested and many feel safe, and they usually are around their communities that they work, because those communities love them and embrace them,” he says.
Many families feel safe in the communities they work in, “because those communities love them and embrace them,” he says. But when they travel around the country, as the kidnapped group was, they may not have that same protection. “But I’m not shocked or surprised that there were children there.”
Bill O’Keefe is executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services. He says at his organization, the vast majority of the staff around the world are citizens of the countries where they’re working — and naturally, those people have families.
But for the relatively small number of staff from other countries, there are certain countries that are not family posts, he says, “because of the particular risks of those situations.”
“Where it’s safe enough for people with families is a very, very tough decision but one that needs to be looked at very seriously,” O’Keefe says.
The dangerous situation in Haiti has caused aid groups to make some changes
Graham of Samaritan’s Purse says the conditions in Haiti require significant precautions.
“You have to have security there. We have a very robust security team where we have subject matter experts that do the risk assessments, but also we have teams on the ground,” Graham tells NPR. “We have Haitian specialists and security that partner with our team and they give my father [Samaritan’s Purse President and CEO Franklin Graham] and our leadership recommendations here on how we respond.”
In Haiti, those assessments “influence where and how we move, what we can do, what we can’t do,” he says. “It does make things very challenging and it does limit our response capacity sometimes.”
But security doesn’t mean that the group’s missionaries are rolling around in armed vehicles, Graham says. And they make changes when they have to.
When Samaritan’s Purse responded after the earthquake, their trucks would leave Port au Prince and drive to Les Cayes where the group was working.
“Those trucks were getting robbed, the drivers were getting beaten up. So we stopped doing that, and we had to fly in most of our equipment,” Graham says.
Aid groups rely on local knowledge to mitigate risk
Without a minimum level of safety, relief organizations can’t do the work they’re there to do.
“We work very hard at ensuring that our staff are safe in order to conduct their lifesaving mission,” says O’Keefe with Catholic Relief Services.
At the heart of his organization’s strategy is what O’Keefe calls “community acceptance.”
“We work directly with local partners in local communities with credible local leaders — frequently faith leaders — who have their finger on the pulse of what’s really going on in those communities, and are frankly best placed to advise us about what’s safe and what’s not safe. And when it’s safe to go somewhere and when it isn’t,” he says.
Because of those long-term relationships, O’Keefe says they’ve had the ability to work in difficult situations — and they’re always weighing what they’re learning from folks in country about the possible risks against the goals of what they’re trying to accomplish in those places.
And, he says, faith-based organizations can sometimes provide relief where secular groups can’t.
“The nature of our work is interfaith, and is ‘need not creed.’ Therefore, where tensions in society cross religious lines, for example, our working across those lines provides added level of protection, because we’re respected as a neutral player that assists people on all sides.”
In Afghanistan, O’Keefe says, the local people understood why someone would want to do humanitarian work on the basis of faith.
“There was a box that we could fit into that made sense,” he explains. “As long as we respected the local culture and assisted everybody on the basis of need, we were able to operate very successfully there.”
Relief groups say they are called to do this work
Laura Kalmar is the interim communications director for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which has no formal connections with Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti.
MCC is a relief, development and peace organization, that works “particularly with vulnerable communities, with the intention of sharing God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ,” says Kalmar.
The organization often works in places where the needs last long after the news cycle has moved on, she says: “In places like Haiti, for example, where we’ve been for more than 60 years, Haiti gets in the news because of an assassination of a leader, because of a hurricane, because of an earthquake. But MCC is there working alongside local partners for the long term, recognizing that development takes time.”
And while there may be elements of risk, they are driven to serve the most vulnerable people.
Kalmar says they aim to strike a balance between that commitment to serve with the safety and security of staff and partners — by listening to local guidelines and experts, taking precautions where necessary, and having protocols in place to protect workers.
Kalmar explains that the calling to serve the vulnerable is “to be the hands and feet of Christ.”
She gives the example of bringing someone a handmade comforter, she says: “that warmth is translated on a really practical level, but also on a on a very emotional level. People recognize that that’s a sign of hope because they haven’t been forgotten. That sense and that calling that Jesus asks us to reach out to our neighbors.”
Their eyes are on Haiti
Graham says that on Monday morning, the staff at Samaritan’s Purse gathered in prayer for a peaceful resolution to the situation of those kidnapped.
“I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now and their families back home,” he says. “It’s my prayer for peaceful resolution and that I’m praying for the kidnappers that they realize they’re wrong and they are their ways and their heart softens to what the grave mistake they made.
Kalmar at Mennonite Central Committee echoed that concern.
“It’s clearly a deeply concerning situation. Our prayers are really with the entire team at Christian Aid Ministries and our hope and prayers [are] that everyone can be released without harm.”
And of course Haiti’s ongoing violence is a challenge not just for aid workers, but to the local Haitian communities.
“Insecurities with jobs, insecurities with sending children to school because of because of local strikes or local unrest or local violence, or an earthquake where people are still really reeling from the trauma of that,” Kalmar says. “When communities are facing so many challenges that pile up on each other, we’re just really reminded of the vulnerability of people in these situations. And the challenges that they face on a daily basis.”