A 13-member missionary group had only planned to stay for a week in Haiti, but things took an unexpected turn when violent riots erupted in the Caribbean country in response to a fuel hike.
The small group of five adults and eight students had planned to leave on Friday, July 6. They were staying at a campus surrounded by gates and armed guards, on a trip coordinated through Mission of Hope Haiti, when they caught wind of growing unrest outside the walls protecting them.
“As of Friday evening, things had really started to heat up. There were barricades being built in the roads, making some of the roads impassable,” team leader Emily Wheaton told The Epoch Times.
All flights from the country were canceled on Saturday and automatically rescheduled to Sunday. The members, who hailed from the Chapin United Methodist Church in South Carolina, spent all day Sunday “waiting it out” at the North Campus.
“Sunday came around … there were still riots going on,” Wheaton said. “Not only we couldn’t get to the airport, airport authorities could not get past barricades and riots to fully staff the airport.”
The anxious mood escalated after staff members asked the whole campus of 190 people to pack their bags and move to the main campus, located further south. Wheaton said it was done as a “logistics issue” because the main campus contained more food and water and was 20 minutes closer to the airport.
“The trip from our campus to the main campus was nerve-wracking,” Wheaton said. “We had staff at the front of the bus saying, ‘If at any point I say heads down, I mean heads down immediately.’ Some of us were calm and fine, but there were others who were not.”
After entering the gates, Wheaton and others spent hours Sunday night on the phone with airlines trying to secure flights. Finally, they got some good news.
“At about 12:02 a.m., one of the ladies said our entire team was booked on the flight for 3:43 p.m. Monday—it was one of those miracle moments,” Wheaton said. “They had rebooked us but somehow it was not showing on our system.”
At 6 a.m. staff leaders took a car out to see if the roads were passable. Huge trucks were sent out to move a shipping container that was blocking the way. The team eventually left the campus at 12:30 p.m.
“We had a pickup truck in front of us with Haitian military police. Unbeknownst to us, we had another vehicle behind us that also had armed guards in it,” Wheaton said. “We had an armed guard sitting on the bus with us as well.”
Wheaton said the roads were “eerily quiet,” a stark contrast from the usual loud traffic. Police in front halted any oncoming vehicles. One area, in particular, was heavily burned. Protesters were loitering, and the tension in the air was palpable.
“An armed guard behind us fired some shots in the air as a warning, a heed for them [protestors] to get back, and we were able to pass. At the airport, we were surrounded by armed guards and escorted,” she said.
“I had a student sitting beside me grab my hand because it was nerve-wracking.”
As nerve-wracking as the journey to the airport was, once they got there, things smoothed out considerably, and the trip to Atlanta went ahead without incident. Although she felt confident, Wheaton also felt pressure to bring everyone back safely.
“That responsibility weighs very heavy on me,” she said. “I felt anxious and emotional. For me, it was almost physically exhausting to where I’m still recovering from that.
“We watched God do some amazing things in, and through, us this past week as we ministered to the Haitian people. Faith absolutely kept us together.”