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Interview: Carwyn Hill, co-founder, Hope Health Action

27 October 2023

‘This year, three million children will die from malnutrition, and all those deaths are preventable’

Hope Health Action (HHA) started in 2005. I was originally training to be an actor at LAMDA Drama College. In the early years of HHA, I remained a youth leader, but my wife and I moved to Haiti in 2009 for five years, and it’s been full-time ever since.

It was the year of the Make Poverty History campaign, and I was invited to take some young people to the Baptist World Alliance Conference, in Birmingham, where Christians were challenged to respond more radically to issues of poverty and injustice.

I found a Post-it note from a Haitian pastor looking for a bed for few nights. He turned out to be the president of the Baptist Convention of Haiti. We struck up a friendship, and I learned about the critical health needs in Haiti and their desire to build a hospital.

A few months later, we travelled to Haiti and were shocked by what we experienced, particularly the completely unnecessary death of an 11-year-old girl, Julia, who’d died in the government hospital for lack of basic supplies.

We felt there was little we could offer. But we couldn’t see what we’d seen and just offer to pray and do nothing else. Isaiah 65 talks about new heavens and a new earth: a picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like. We returned to Haiti, and set up HHA.

Over the years, the hospital that we co-founded has become one of the leading hospitals in northern Haiti. It’s a 100-bed facility that treats over 35,000 patients a year, and employs over 300 Haitian staff. Its services include maternity, paediatric, and neonatal care; one of Haiti’s first and few rehabilitation units for people paralysed from spinal-cord injuries, started in response to the 2010 earthquake; a respite centre for children with disabilities; and emergency and surgical departments.

In 2016, we initiated work in South Sudan. Sadly, the war broke out, and our team partners became refugees in Uganda. Since then, we’ve set up one of Uganda’s leading outpatient rehabilitation units, which also provides wheelchairs, prosthetics, and orthotics, mainly to South Sudanese refugees, and provided therapeutic food to over 7000 malnourished children, as well as running agriculture and livelihood programmes to reduce food insecurity in the refugee settlements, and we are about to open our first health centre.

Our projects are led by and involve the people they’re serving. It’s the only way of making aid sustainable. Almost all of our permanent staff abroad are local. In East Africa, many are refugees themselves.

We also focus on disability rehabilitation, and reducing stigma: an area that a lot of groups don’t engage with, though they are often the most marginalised, especially in a humanitarian emergency.

Even in the darkest times, the faith of those we work with transforms situations. We know in Christ there’s always hope.

After the earthquake, when we had our first 25 spinal-cord-injury patients, the outlook was very bleak. One international specialist said the majority had little to no chance of survival or leaving the ward. However, every day, the patients asked for their beds to be pushed together, and they prayed, worshipped, and studied the Bible together, even though many had been left paralysed, lost family, their homes, everything. Of the 25, 24 were successfully rehabilitated, and have gone on to achieve incredible things. One of the worst-injured is now a hospital chaplain.

Jesus teaches us to love others as we’d like to be loved ourselves, as we love our own family. When we serve people like that, then giving up or becoming cynical or discouraged isn’t an option.

We’re now fund-raising for a new neonatal care unit in Haiti. We helped open a unit in 2012 for eight babies, but, sadly, it’s a victim of its own success. It’s now regularly operating well over capacity, sometimes with two or three babies sharing a cot.

We return to South Sudan this year, to open our first health centre. There are unimaginable needs there, and we’d love to see HHA help, particularly in the areas of maternal, infant, and disability care.

We were involved in frontline Covid care, particularly in Haiti, setting up one of the few WHO-certified Covid wards. Perhaps more challenging is the cost-of-living crisis, which has impacted giving.

Haiti’s had an incredibly tough few years since the assassination of their president. A void in leadership has led to 70 per cent of the capital being run by gangs. Sometimes, they starved the country of fuel, leaving many health facilities to close or reduce services. It’s also led to limited oxygen and other critical supplies, and staff having to navigate dangerous armed road blocks on the way to hospital.

In East Africa, Covid, inflation, the worst drought in 40 years, and warfare have caused unimaginable challenges and severe food insecurity. We’ve increased treatment for children suffering from severe and acute malnutrition in 2023.

I was raised in Bromley with my mum, dad, and two older brothers. My dad was in the police, and my mum was a part-time teacher, and both were involved in the Church. Today, I’m married to Reninca, and we have three kids — though, tragically, our youngest passed away four years ago from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. We live in Crawley, where Reninca works at St John’s.

I became a Christian at eight, and made regular trips to Romania as a teenager, where I really felt God’s presence among the communities we worked in.

Those early trips to Romania really broke my heart. As Kay Warren says, I was “gloriously ruined”. I became friends with a little street boy who was so hardened he used to put cigarettes out on his own skin. He showed me his home once: just a bin behind the shops. I’d often struggle returning to the UK with the disparity of my life from friends there, and the injustice they faced.

This year, three million children will die from malnutrition, and all those deaths are preventable. In South Sudan, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than finish secondary school. Almost 95 per cent of maternal mortalities happen in lower- and middle-income countries, and most of those deaths are preventable.

There’s no greater joy than when you see a life transformed: when you see someone crawl in the dirt into one of our health centres, and then, within hours, they leave in a wheelchair, with pride, dignity, and incredible joy. They feel loved, valued, and part of their community, sometimes for the first time.

At home, spending time with my wife and kids makes me happiest, alongside running in the countryside, or heading to Wales for holidays. I support Arsenal, and I love listening to music.

The world has answers to most people’s health needs — we’re not waiting on new medicines or expensive research. A South Sudanese refugee in Uganda received an acre of land, materials, seeds, and training in our agriculture project. He was used to being treated as an animal, or asked: “How can a cripple farm?” With our support, he persevered, and had an incredible harvest, which made the community totally rethink their perceptions. He initiated other business activities, and the very people who’d mocked him came and apologised. His life and that of the community have been totally transformed.

I run in the forest, where I reflect and thank God for his faithfulness, ask for forgiveness, and grapple with challenges. I try and surrender them, and seek God’s direction and blessing for the work.

Father Damien went to a leper island in the 1860s. He knew he would likely get leprosy — and he did die there — but he transformed the community. I’d love to learn to love others as sacrificially as he did.

Carwyn Hill was talking to Terence Handley MacMath


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