Haitians Look to Family 1,500 Miles North for Help
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As Alourds Grandoit hitches her chair across the yard, following the spots of shade, her thoughts linger mostly on the dead: 10 relatives lost in the Jan. 12 earthquake. But sometimes they turn to a plastic barrel that is wending its way toward her, from her cousin’s two-family house in Queens to a ship moving down the Atlantic coast to — someday soon — a truck rumbling up the road to her brother’s cinderblock bungalow, where she moved when the cataclysm wrecked her home.
Inside the barrel are dresses from Marshalls, soap from the Far Rockaway flea market, evaporated milk from the grocery store. Since the earthquake, her cousin, Gislaine Vieux, who left Haiti 41 years ago, has made weekly expeditions to her favorite shops looking for bargains. She piles them carefully in a barrel until it is full. She has sent two so far.
These simple offerings cannot salve the pain that Ms. Grandoit, 70, feels for the family crushed in the ruins of her cozy, humming house — among them her husband, three of her five children and a grandson.
But as the barrel bobs toward her, it carries something like a message in a bottle from “lòt bò dlo,” Creole for “the other side of the water”: the relatives who slipped away over the years into a mysterious new life abroad have not forgotten her. No government official or relief worker has visited her. No one has even counted her dead. Yet money and moral support are flowing south from New York, and however dwarfed they might seem by her catastrophe, they are the only outside help she has.
Fifteen hundred miles north on Hollis Court Boulevard, lined with the pointy roofs and small square lawns typical of middle-class Queens, Ms. Vieux can no longer imagine moving back to Haiti — “No electricity, no security; I’m not used to those things anymore,” she confesses — and the earthquake has made the homeland seem even farther away. Yet it has also strengthened the tendrils of love and compassion, of guilt and generosity and dependence that tie her to family back home.
Stories like these reveal how Haiti’s disaster is remaking relationships already complicated by the strains of immigration and exile. Haiti’s chaotic history has spawned a diaspora that sends more than $1 billion in annual remittances from places like the United States, Canada and France. Now the earthquake is magnifying the connections — and the gaps — between those who left and those who stayed behind.
At Ms. Vieux’s Roman Catholic church in Queens, which she and her husband helped reinvent from an emptying parish of European immigrants into a hub of New York’s Haitian community, the quake stunned the successful and the struggling alike. When the church, SS. Joachim and Anne, began registering missing friends and relatives in a notebook, it filled quickly with hundreds of names.
Six months later, parishioners are still taking in relatives from Haiti, joining relief missions and wiring enough money south to cause a worrying drop at the collection basket. Their compassion seems tinged with a new homesickness, a sense of inadequacy, even a strange envy — a longing to be part of a monumental experience in Haiti’s history.
Here in Haiti, their relatives wait for help from a comparatively comfortable world some can only vaguely imagine, from loved ones toward whom they feel by turns admiring and abandoned.
And even for the most solicitous Haitians in the United States, the disaster remains somewhat abstract. Few Queens parishioners have returned and witnessed the texture of post-quake life for their relatives, details like these:
Gertrude Beni’s feverish 14-year-old daughter lies mosquito-bitten on the concrete foundation of their fallen house, pressing her cheek to the only surface that is slightly cooler than the air.
Gisele Prinvil’s 1-year-old clambers over rubble in an immaculate white dress.
Ms. Grandoit’s grandson Boris, 11, sits in a room stuffed with mattresses rescued from the house that entombed his mother and little brother. He is doing his homework.
Gifts Across the Water
Ms. Grandoit’s house was a gift from “lòt bò dlo.” Her brother Fritz did well enough in Brooklyn — doing what, she never knew — to fulfill a staple immigrant dream: In 1988, he bought his sister a house that transformed her life.
It stood off Rue Bourgelat, in a working-class section of Port-au-Prince where pigs bathe in sewage canals. It had two stories, balconies, room for 15 people. It was a hive of warmth and activity; Ms. Grandoit always had extra food for visitors.
The earthquake destroyed it in 25 seconds. Those who were upstairs lived. Those who were downstairs died — except one. A grandson lay flat in a bathtub until relatives dug him out.
Ms. Grandoit, tiny and elegant, now lives with her brother Roland. He never asked the survivors to move in; they just knew they were invited. Clattering traffic throws dust into the yard, the well water teems with insects, electricity is intermittent. But Ms. Grandoit spends afternoons in the spangled shade of a grape arbor — luxury compared to the stifling tents of many survivors.
She has no words to describe her loss. She refuses to visit the remains of the house, which like most of the city’s ruins lie untouched. “It’s over,” she says.
But she lists the dead as if saying a rosary. She digs their photographs out of a worn leather pocketbook: Her grandson Kevens, 5, and her daughter Eunide, 44, both in Santa Claus hats. Her daughter Judith, 41, and son Franklin, 36 — both accountants, the family’s only breadwinners — grinning last year in New York on a visit to Ms. Vieux, her cousin.
In Queens, Ms. Vieux’s house has silk flowers and matching towels in the bathroom, framed Bible verses and gleaming china cabinets along the walls. She still remembers the date she left Haiti: Aug. 9, 1969. Searingly homesick, she forced herself to stay; her family back home needed her income. She worked 30 years in a hospital operating room, restocking the instruments the surgeons needed.
Ms. Vieux, 66, used to visit Haiti often, but the trips tapered off as the country grew more chaotic. When disaster struck, she was planning her first visit in a decade.
In the earthquake, her sister lost a leg. But the one who needed her most was Ms. Grandoit. Ms. Vieux wired money. It did not feel like enough; she wanted to send gifts she had touched.
Ms. Grandoit, an orphan, had lived as a young woman with Ms. Vieux’s parents. She was washing clothes at a neighbor’s water tap when a shoemaker, Émilius Jean Vernet, remarked on her beautiful legs. They married in 1965.
Ms. Grandoit’s house became “a center for the family” that “projected warmth,” said her son Patrick Jean Vernet, 39, an unemployed computer technician.
The day of “the event,” their shorthand for the quake, they had just finished dinner when Franklin, married three days earlier, came home.
Judith ran downstairs to greet him; Patrick, heading upstairs to iron clothes, heard them laugh. He grabbed his mother as ceilings and walls fell. They called into what remained of the ground floor. Silence.
With neighbors, Ms. Grandoit’s sons-in-law tunneled under the wobbly wreckage. They found nine bodies. They loaded them into a pickup truck and sedan and drove to a relative’s land. They sprinkled holy water on the corpses, buried them, and scratched their names in the hard, sand-colored earth.
These days, Jean Vilvet Charles, a son-in-law who buried his wife and a son, reminds his surviving son, Boris, that “life is not over.”
“It’s a blessing if we’re still alive, if we can keep going,” he said.
In Queens, Ms. Vieux peered at new photos from Port-au-Prince. They allayed some worries — Ms. Grandoit looked healthy — but inspired others. Mr. Charles had lost weight, and Ms. Vieux wondered, “Do they have enough to eat every day?”
Jobless in Haiti, and Queens
“You see, I’m living in a place like this,” Venante Elize Vertus said, apologizing. “I cannot say, please, sit down, have a cup of coffee.”
“This” is a chain of makeshift shelters — a canvas tent and huts made of scrap wood, metal, tarps and tree branches, where she lives with her daughter, Gertrude Beni, and Ms. Beni’s seven children in the muddy, buggy lot where their house once stood. Waiting for a lifeline that may never come, they imagine living this way forever.
They live in La Colline, 90 minutes west of Port-au-Prince. The main road is flanked by concrete houses that sank when landfill turned to jelly. A dirt trail leads suddenly to leafy countryside. Children bathe in a cloudy runoff canal. Men here say they have never had jobs besides cultivating small patches of land, and they imagine working for a boss and a salary.
Ms. Beni has no job either, but she is always busy. One evening, she loaded handfuls of popcorn into small bags, to sell for pennies. She has gathered a chest-high pile of stones for rebuilding when she has the money — whenever that is.
“We depend on one person and this person is not working,” she said.
She meant her brother Jean.
Eleven years ago, he went on tour to New York with Septan Trional, an old-school jazz band famous enough to be painted on one of Port-au-Prince’s colorful buses. When the band left, he stayed. He sings in the choir at the church in Queens, SS. Joachim and Anne.
But Jean Beni’s version of the immigrant narrative has yet to find a happy ending — and proves that a relative overseas is no surefire solution.
Because he stayed illegally, he was unable to find reliable work. He gets the occasional paid gig, but sings mainly “for God,” as his mother puts it.
“We wish one day that God is going to change his life, and change our life,” Ms. Vertus said.
Mr. Beni, 45, has not seen his family since he left. He knows they are alive and living outdoors. That is about all he knows.
His mother keeps the details from him. She is afraid of putting pressure on him.
“I couldn’t tell him a lot of things” — for instance, sometimes their only food is fruit they find on trees — “because I know he’s not working,” she said.
So she never calls.
His sister is less sympathetic. “If I was in Jean Beni’s place I would have sent for my mom a long time ago,” Ms. Beni said.
If she could go abroad, she says, she would do anything — baby-sitting, cleaning. She shows where she hurt her wrists washing other people’s clothes.
Ms. Vertus dug out pictures of her son looking like a disco star in an open shirt, crooning into a microphone. “Sometimes I just take them out and take a look,” she said out of her daughter’s earshot.
Singing at a New York wedding three years ago, Mr. Beni met a Haitian-American medical technician. They married. He got a green card last December, the first step toward getting visas for his mother and someday his sister. But first, he needs a job. He recently got a license to work as a lab technician, but he has not told his mother. He is afraid of letting her down.
Discouraging a Dream
Gisele Prinvil is an entrepreneurial sort. That may be why her aunt once urged her to move to Brooklyn, and why she imagined doing it, or joining a cousin, the Rev. Jean Moise Delva, one of the priests at the church in Queens.
Before the earthquake, she was a fritay seller, cooking griot (fried spiced pork) over charcoal on the street. Each Saturday, she bought a pig and butchered it. Each week she made enough for basic needs and the next pig. She thought of saving for a plane ticket and a visa.
But as she searched for her four children after the quake, someone made off with her capital — meat, money, pots, the tin stand that sheltered it all from the sun.
Her misfortune, relatively small by earthquake standards, may well prevent her from becoming the newest arrival to her cousin’s Queens parish. Convinced the disaster has made immigration harder, Father Delva — who grew up with her but moved to New York as a teenager — finds himself discouraging that dream.
Ms. Prinvil’s husband gets occasional work dismantling rubble. With her father, sister and children, they share a homemade shack with three small beds. Some sleep on the dirt; in the rain, it turns to mud.
In her neighborhood in Léogâne, two hours west of the capital, many houses collapsed. Neighbors share undamaged bathrooms, cook together, light their way at night with cellphone screens. But the air smells of excrement and trash. Ms. Prinvil’s toddler, Chamaelle, constantly has diarrhea.
Ms. Prinvil, 34, has organized neighbors to clear rubble, and has lobbied aid groups for water and was promised a better shelter, but is frustrated by delays.
So in June she phoned the priest she calls Jean-Jean with some modest requests: money for sheet metal to replace her shack’s leaky tarp. And less than $200 to restart her business.
Father Delva, 35, promised to send cash. From the day of the earthquake, he has felt compelled to witness it, and to take action.
In May, he visited and saw the sights he had craved and dreaded: his cousin in a shack, his childhood haunts in ruins. He will spend August on a diocesan mission to Haiti, ministering to people in tent cities.
But he sighs when his cousin talks of emigration. “It’s not easy nowadays,” he said.
He has seen the consequences in the parish. He counsels people who arrived after the earthquake on emergency visas but now struggle because they cannot work. Getting tourist visas is harder since the quake, and if she got one, what then — stay illegally?
“It’s better to stay back home and take care of her kids,” he said. “And whatever we can do we will send to her.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Prinvil has no mental picture of her cousin’s world. Asked what she sees herself doing in New York, she admits with a shy smile that she has no idea; maybe set up a fritay grill on the street.
“The first thing is to know about the life there,” she said. “Maybe I can’t do fritay.”
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