Diaspora

Sioux Center native separated from family in Haiti – nwestiowa.com

Mainly cloudy. Low 14F. Winds WNW at 15 to 25 mph. Higher wind gusts possible..
Mainly cloudy. Low 14F. Winds WNW at 15 to 25 mph. Higher wind gusts possible.
Updated: November 18, 2022 @ 9:49 pm

Sioux Center native Taunya (De Weerd) Merilus spends several hours a week praying for Haiti where her husband and daughter remain as gang activity increases in their neighborhood in Simonette.
Sioux Center native Taunya (De Weerd) Merilus and her husband, Garry, and daughter Kerina are missionaries in Simonette, Haiti. Merilus remains in Sioux Center while her husband and daughter have fled their home to safety amid gang activity that’s reached their neighborhood.

Sioux Center native Taunya (De Weerd) Merilus spends several hours a week praying for Haiti where her husband and daughter remain as gang activity increases in their neighborhood in Simonette.
This is the first in a three-part series connecting with local individuals and organizations impacted by the turmoil in Haiti.
SIOUX CENTER—Three times a week — or more — Taunya (De Weerd) Merilus can be found with a Bible and her hands folded in prayer at House of Missions + Equipping, or HOME building, in Sioux Center.
The Sioux Center native came back to the area July 23 for what was supposed to be a month or so to visit her parents, Larry and Donna De Weerd. Increased gang activity and general unrest in Haiti has kept Merilus in Sioux Center while her husband, Garry, and 9-year-old daughter Kerina remain in Haiti but not in their home.
The family operates Kingdom Kids, a faith-based after school program through which they offer meal and tutoring support, in an area called Simonette, located by the ocean and about 40 minutes north of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Merilus estimates the rural neighborhood that has one main gravel road leading into and out of it is home to about 1,000 people.
Sioux Center native Taunya (De Weerd) Merilus and her husband, Garry, and daughter Kerina are missionaries in Simonette, Haiti. Merilus remains in Sioux Center while her husband and daughter have fled their home to safety amid gang activity that’s reached their neighborhood.
Her family lived in a home at the base of a small mountain with a view of the ocean — a home they hope to come back to someday but have had to abandon due to gangs circulating and taking control over the area.
“Every day I pray for protection. That’s our biggest prayer that God’s got this. He can protect our home, protect our neighborhood,” Merilus said. “It was a place a lot like Sioux County in the feel of it in that everyone knows everyone, everyone watches out for each other. It was a place that was a blessing for those who lived there.”
Most villagers, however, have fled from their homes for safety in the past month as the gang called the “Vilaj de Dieu,” or Village of God, has moved in.
“I also pray for the hearts of those in the gang,” Merilus said. “I pray the Holy Spirit will convict the hearts of gang members, that they would lay their weapons down and turn to Christ.”
Gang violence, kidnapping and intimidation has forced about 96,000 people to flee their homes in Haiti’s capital, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said Friday, Oct. 28, as the country faces a crisis that has prompted the government to request the immediate deployment of foreign troops.
Violence, natural disasters and political instability have plagued Haiti for decades, but in recent months, the country has descended deeper into socioeconomic and political chaos as armed gangs have ramped up their turf wars. According to the U.N., gangs are believed to control some 60 percent of Port-au-Prince, raping women, children and men and setting homes on fire as they fight to control more territory in the wake of the July 2021 assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moïse.
Most recently, the armed gangs have shut off access to Haiti’s main fuel terminal, decimating basic services amid a cholera and hunger crisis.
Merilus said her village began noticing changes late spring and early summer.
“Around then, the main road to our area started to be blocked at times by gang members,” she said. “Police tried to get involved. There would be a shootout. They would leave for a little bit and come back. It was happening more frequently as the summer continued. You didn’t know if the gang would be on the road, try to stop you and rob you. They started stopping trucks and making drivers pay or stealing from them, too. We got used to it, thinking that was the new normal, but then as the summer went on, other incidents, especially stealing, happened in our area that had never happened before.”
The Merilus family had a generator stolen from their property.
“My husband started to feel nervous about the activity happening in our community. He encouraged me to visit the States until things seemed quieter, safer,” Merilus said.
Though through a security company, they hired a driver to take Merilus in an armored vehicle to the airport. Merilus said that trip went smoothly and made her feel she’d return home soon. Yet, she remains in Sioux Center.
Her husband and daughter remain in Haiti as they do not have visas to travel to the states.
Merlius stayed in contact with her husband who continued the after school program through the summer, as they had up to 75 students grades first through eighth participating in their ministry.
“Offering a meal is a big part of what we do,” Merilus said. “Most schools don’t offer that like they do in the States and many kids don’t have a big meal or sometimes any at home. So that’s partly why we kept the program going through the summer.”
However, he stopped the program about two months ago due to the gas shortage.
“Gangs were blocking the road, so no trucks could distribute the gas, and food prices are going up,” Merilus said. “Also, clean drinking water is not easily accessible. It was getting harder for my husband to get to the bank to get money to buy food, too.”
A kidnapping in their community about a month ago resulted in her husband and daughter deciding to move out of their home. Their daughter stays with extended family while her husband stays a little closer to home in an attempt to check on their property at times.
The couple knew well the adult who was kidnapped.
“He was released unharmed — praise the Lord — but that was very concerning,” Merilus said. “My husband became concerned for his safety, too, as he had heard it was gang related. He was hearing things about the gangs seeking out those who have ties to Americans.”
Though her husband and friends have been able to stop in their home to retrieve their solar panels, an inverter and batteries, he lives out of a suitcase elsewhere.
“These may not seem like big things, but they’re valuable to us,” Merilus said. “Haitians will save their entire life to have a house. Even if they don’t have much else, they still have a home, so it’s devastating to have to leave that — everything they’ve worked for — behind.
“And when a property is empty, it’s an open door for anyone to take whatever. That’s been a concern. Not that we have a lot, but we do have some things of value so my biggest prayer is to know God’s got this, that He can protect our home, our neighborhood even with most of our community no longer living there.”
Gang members have come into the neighboring village area of Minotrie and a town up the road called Titanyen as well.
“We felt blessed in our area and now there’s a gang there. It doesn’t make sense. We don’t understand it. Many people ask, ‘Why?’ We don’t know. We assume the gang wants control of Lafiti Port, but that’s just a guess,” Merilus said. “We don’t know why the gangs have decided to come to an area so far north of the capital. When I’m told about the gunfire, that you can hear shooting at times, that’s very scary. It’s so hard for me to hear.
“It’s been very difficult to be away. Some days I just feel in shock. I don’t know what to do or what to feel. What’s helping me is praying and sitting before the Lord and the prayer support of people around me.”
Offering prayer is the biggest support everyone can offer, she said.
“Sometimes I remember those are material things in my home, but I’m trying to have a heavenly perspective, that those are just material things,” she said. “I’m trusting that God has this and cares about the hearts of the people.”
The community is invited to join her in prayer, whether it’s specifically with others praying for Haiti noon-1 p.m. Wednesdays at HOME ministries, 101 19th St., or in their own homes.
“There are so many ways we can intercede for Haiti,” Merilus said. “The people — all Haitians, whether it’s my family, my neighbors, the citizens, those in the gang — they all need God’s love. I pray the Holy Spirit will convict all their hearts. I pray for revival.”
Becoming a missionary
Before moving to Haiti in 2013, Merilus worked about seven years as a day care provider in Sioux Center. After the destructive 2010 earthquake, she traveled with Vi Bella Jewelry founder Julie Hulstein to Haiti. She found herself going back a few more times after that.
Then she connected with Dell and Renae Grooters of Rock Rapids, whose daughter was living in Haiti and had married a Haitian. The couple founded the nonprofit organization, Touch of Hope, to raise funding, in part, for an existing orphanage, Tytoo Gardens in Simonette.
The orphanage needed some people on the ground to manage the property, which Merilus filled until 2020 when she married Hatian Garry Merilus and began the process of adopting her daughter.
They couple began the after school program Kingdom Kids a year and a half ago to provide children and young adults with mentors and discipleship and a safe place to hang out, develop positive relationships, do their homework after school and, most importantly, learn about God’s love for them.
SIOUX CENTER—A Tour of Homes event is returning to Sioux Center this holiday season, courtesy of the Sioux Center Health Foundation.
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