SANTA ROSA, CA (November 18, 2010) – A mission team that included two participants from Redwood Covenant Church barely made it out of Haiti on Monday due to rioting that reached into the tiny airport terminal where they were waiting to catch their flight.
Matthew Nalywaiko and Andrew Mark, director of children’s ministries K-5, flew to the country on Friday to investigate whether Redwood should construct a school building and evaluate the feasibility of such an undertaking. Currently, the 150 students meet in a church’s sanctuary and nearby shed. An accompanying photo shows Nalywaiko filming a group of the children at the school.
As they prepared to head to the airport to return home, a security guard told them that they would have to find an alternate route because Haitians rioting in anger over the cholera epidemic had blocked streets with burning tires and “any other thing they could find,” said Nalywaiko.
After searching for a route into the airport, the driver found an open gate where construction of a new runway was ongoing. He then drove on the runway to reach the terminal.
As they were driving on the runway, the airplane they were scheduled to take back to Florida descended over their car on its final approach. “It landed right in front of us,” said Nalywaiko.
Nalywaiko has done extended missionary work in India and Tijuana, Mexico, but said, “This was the smallest airport I’ve ever seen.” There are only two roughly 50-by-90-foot rooms – one room serves as the security checkpoint. After passing through security, passengers wait in the second adjoining room.
The team was in the waiting room when, “All of a sudden, there was this huge uproar,” Nalywaiko said. A group of rioters was trying to force their way through security.
An airline employee stepped into the passenger waiting area and told them to hurry out the door, and then she rushed back to the first room to help security. The passengers were unable to get out, however, because the door was locked.
“There was that moment of panic – that the adrenaline is rushing – and it comes over you and your hand starts shaking, but that passed real quick,” Nalywaiko said. “We said, ‘Now’s a good time to pray for safety.’”
He added that Mark, who is the son of Covenant missionaries David and Wendy Mark, was unfazed and more concerned that they might have to extend their time in Cap Haitian.
Security was able to push back the rioters after about two minutes, but the time seemed a lot longer for the passengers. Finally, the employee returned to the room and unlocked the door.
The riots still were continuing around the airport as the group made their way to the prop plane that carries 30 people. “I heard three tear gas volleys fired,” Nalywaiko said. Even though the conflict was taking place outside the perimeter, “You could feel it stinging in your eyes.”
The team stopped to take a picture that showed smoke rising in the background – the accompanying photo of Matt standing in front of the plane was taken by Andrew. Once on the plane, Nalywaiko was nervous that the plane would not get off the ground.
“There were a lot of Haitians crossing the runway in front and behind the plane,” he recalled. Nalywaiko believes the people were trying to flee from the rioting and tear gas.
The plane was able to take off, however, and just in time. Authorities closed the airport immediately afterwards. The airport was reopened Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, the cholera outbreak had killed 1,034 people nationwide and hospitalized 16,799, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Nalywaiko said the team left excited about the possibility of designing and building the school. Construction also would help the local economy because Haitian’s would be trained to do the labor so they can earn a wage.
“There are a lot of able-bodied workers there who need jobs,” Nalywaiko said.
Nalywaiko is the founder of a new nonprofit called Serve a Little that connects churches with people in need around the neighborhood. The work in Haiti, which will be done in cooperation with Haitians, is the first international project.
Nalywaiko says he looks forward to returning to Haiti after the violence is quelled and funds are raised.