Haitian immigrant back home working for CRS says faith gives her hope

IMAGE: CNS photo/Denis Grasska, The Southern Cross

By Denis Grasska

Cassandra Bissainthe left Haiti for the United States some 17 years ago, it
seemed unlikely that she would ever return.

Political instability and
economic insecurity were rampant in her homeland, and extreme poverty had
driven desperate people to do terrible things.

Shortly after her relocation to
Miami, Bissainthe discovered that she had been in danger of being kidnapped.
Around that same time, her aunt actually was kidnapped and held for a week
until the family paid a ransom.

“I never thought I would
go back,” Bissainthe, now 33, said during a visit to the Diocese of San Diego earlier
this year.

Today, she is stationed
in Haiti with Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church’s overseas
relief and development agency. She is the agency’s church partnership and
capacity strengthening manager.

In the aftermath of the
7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010, she reflected on what
she could do to help the suffering people of her homeland. She began working in
Haiti for Trocaire, the international development agency of the Catholic Church
in Ireland, and then in 2015 joined the staff of CRS, the organization’s U.S.

Bissainthe holds a
bachelor’s degree in international relations from Florida International
University. She was drawn to development work both by the example of her
mother, who had worked for the U.N. Development Program, and by her experience
at her all-girls Catholic high school in Haiti, where community service
requirements awakened within her a desire to work for a mission-driven

In Haiti with CRS,
Bissainthe has her work cut out for her. The country is ranked as the poorest
in the Western hemisphere, with some 80 percent of the population subsisting on
less than $2 a day. In addition to an unstable economy and political climate,
Haiti also is still recovering from the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake,
coupled with the devastation of Hurricane Matthew, which impacted more than 2
million people in late 2016.

“I like to be in the
field,” said Bissainthe, who added that her co-workers will confirm that she is
rarely found behind her office desk. But, she said, “in the field, you get to
meet people that have nothing, so those situations can (bring) you down.”

Encountering people who are
struggling amid poverty and natural disasters can be challenging, but in those
moments, she relies on her Catholic faith, which inspires her “to look for the
positive.” Past experiences of CRS’ life-changing work have given her reason
for this hope, she told The Southern Cross, San Diego’s diocesan newspaper.

She has seen, in villages where
most of the youth used to drop out of school by the sixth grade, an increasing
number asking for high school recommendations. After major disasters, she has
encountered people whose entire livelihoods have been wiped out; yet, several
months later, she has witnessed them rebuilding their lives with whatever
support CRS was able to offer them.

A key component of CRS’ approach
to development and a reason for its success is its collaboration with local
partners in the various regions in which it serves.

CRS only has three offices in
Haiti, Bissainthe said, and it’s only because of community partners that the
organization is able to assist as many people as it does. Those partners
continue to be key players in the community, even after CRS pulls up stakes and
leaves the region, carrying on the programs that CRS put in place.

Bissainthe’s job places her at
the center of cultivating relationships with these partners, particularly the
local Catholic Church, from the national to the parish level.

“It’s truly crucial that we
maintain a strong relationship with the church, because they are our eyes and
our knowledge of the field,” she said, adding, “They know these communities ‘
and they might know the needs better than (we do).”

Bissainthe visited San Diego in
late January as part of a two-week U.S. tour to promote CRS Rice Bowl, a Lenten
faith-in-action program that encourages U.S. Catholics to show solidarity with
the poor through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Some 75 percent of the funds
raised through CRS Rice Bowl support the organization’s programs around the
world, including agriculture, water and sanitation, microfinance and education
projects. The remaining 25 percent benefits the poor and hungry in the
communities where those funds were raised.

Just as she enjoys meeting the
people CRS serves in Haiti, Bissainthe said she is grateful for the opportunity
to meet the U.S.-based donors whose generosity makes CRS’ work possible. During
her recent tour, she was able to hear their stories while also sharing her own.

“I think it makes you even more
humble about the work that you do,” she said of her experience on the tour,
“and also see the value in what we do.”

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Grasska is assistant editor of The
Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.

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