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New York's Haitian Americans Grieve, Worry and Wait


Shamir Henri's aunt and her family are homeless; he is doing what he can for all the victims through prayer and volunteering.

Shamir Henri's aunt and her family are homeless; he is doing what he can for all the victims through prayer and volunteering.

Daily life continues as the immigrant community struggles to cope with the overwhelming tragedy in the island nation.


It was sunny in New York on Wednesday where business remained brisk in Brooklyn's Flatbush district, home to many of the city's hundreds of thousands of Haitian-Americans. However, for most residents here, life changed forever on January 12, when a massive earthquake hit their homeland. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives, were wounded or became homeless.

Ruth Lucie lost 17 family members in the quake, including two grandchildren

Ruth Lucie lost 17 family members in the quake, including two grandchildren

"This is a tragedy," said Ruth Lucie, who lost 17 relatives that day. When asked how she copes with her enormous loss, she praises, rather than blames, God. "The Lord knows why He let that happen. I don't know. I have a lot of hope in God. That's why I can stand in front of you." Without faith, Lucie said she might literally die from sadness.

At the Bedford Haitian Community Center, one of dozens of grassroots groups across the city that is collecting donations of food, water, clothing and medical supplies for earthquake victims, 28-year-old volunteer Shamir Henri is still digesting the recent news that his aunt, uncle and their children are homeless as a result of the quake. "As for everyone else, we don't know. It's chaotic over there. It's crazy."

Shamir is a Catholic who advocates prayer but he wonders whether he will ever understand God's role in the catastrophe. "We could ask all we want, but we won't get answers."

Like many Americans who have contributed money to charity and aid organizations like the Red Cross in the past week, Alex Pierre also wrote a check. But he yearns to do something more "hands-on" and personal. He said that being so far away from the scene is difficult for him.

Alex Pierre, who has lived in the U.S. for 19 years, is deeply frustrated that he cannot do more to help.

Alex Pierre, who has lived in the U.S. for 19 years, is deeply frustrated that he cannot do more to help.

"If I was in Haiti when the earthquake happened, I could go and help somebody that's injured, somebody that's passed away, take them to the cemetery. And, here I sit in my living room and there is nothing that I can do and that's killing me inside."

A morbid cast hangs over Rincer's Multi Services, a storefront office run by Haitian-Americans that helps clients with translation, tutoring, immigration paperwork and other tasks. Worker Andree La Fleur said she's received many calls from clients canceling visa applications for their relatives in Haiti because they've been killed. Last week's disaster became very personal for her as well when she learned that her six-year-old nephew had died.

La Fleur often thinks about children who died anonymously in the streets of Port au Prince, Haiti's capital, where the earthquake was centered. She knows many bodies were buried in mass graves for public health reasons. "Their parents don't know where they are." Le Fleur feels for the mothers and fathers who might want to go to the cemetery to grieve for their children. "You can't do it because you don't know where they are. Nobody in Haiti is going to forget this day."

Terrel Nicholls, 10, feels for his many school friends whose families hail from Haiti

Terrel Nicholls, 10, feels for his many school friends whose families hail from Haiti


Children have been deeply affected by the tragedy. Ten-year-old Terrel Nicholls is not Haitian-American, but many of his schoolmates are. He said he feels bad for people down in Haiti. "We have everything, all the stores and all the food here. And down there, they hardly have anything." When asked what he would wish for them, he answers without hesitation, "I hope they feel better and I hope it don't happen again."

Whether the strong aftershock that Haiti experienced Wednesday will bring more in its wake, or whether its beleaguered residents will have the time to grieve and rebuild, is an open question. Meanwhile, Haitians, both at home and abroad, watch, wait and do what they can.

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