Miami Little Refuge For Haiti's Earthquake Survivors

Haitians who fled to Miami after last year's earthquake have found new sorrow. Used to working and being independent, refugees are now forced to accept welfare and relying on friends and relatives for help. State of the Re:Union host Al Letson explores their stories.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Miami is home to a vibrant Haitian community. Thousands of victims of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake fled to the city to be with friends and family. This week, the Obama administration granted them temporary protected status, which allows them to live and work legally in the U.S. for an additional 18 months.

Today, we're going to check in with some of those refugees through State of the Reunion. The program by NPR and PRX investigates issues that unite and divide communities. Al Letson is the host of the show and he has this report from Miami.

(Soundbite of kids talking)

AL LETSON: Classes are done for the day at the handsome campus of North Miami High School. Students dressed in uniforms of navy polo shirts and khaki pants and skirts make their way to school buses. But we've waylaid a few of them and wrangled them around a conference table in the principal's office.

Mr. GREGORY AZOR (Student, North Miami High School): I'm Gregory Azor, 17 years old.

Mr. SERGE COMEAU (Student, North Miami High School): I'm Serge Comeau. I'm 17 years old.

Ms. MODELINE MARCELUS (Student, North Miami High School): My name is Modeline Marcelus. I'm 16, too.

LETSON: Gregory, Serge and Modeline are among 79 quake survivors enrolled here. What was surprising to me was that these teenagers were middle class in Haiti. Now, my view of Haiti before talking to them was that there were just very poor people and a few well to do. But these kids set me straight, that there was definitely a middle class, and in their opinion, the schools they went to in Haiti were superior to American schools. This is Serge Comeau.

Mr. COMEAU: I was expecting, like, real tough stuff but then I got kindergarten stuff.

LETSON: There are other complaints - that people tend to lump all Haitians together, most thought they were all poor; that sounded familiar. But these students also said they felt safe here. And Modeline Marcelus praised the welcome she received in the U.S.

Ms. MARCELUS: They use to say that when you coming in America, they going to judge you, they going to talk back to you, they're going to beat you up -sorry. But when we came here, they was like, hi, my name is Zelda. I would like to help you. How you feel? Are you OK? It was OK. I like that. It feel like home.

LETSON: All the students, who are juniors and seniors, said they have plans to go to college, and then, when they're trained as engineers and teachers, to return to their homeland. Gregory Azor hopes to become a psychologist so he can help his people.

Mr. AZOR: Because they are my blood. After the earthquake, I think a lot of Haitians now they are very sick mentally. So, they need someone to talk with them. So, it's my mission. I give myself this mission to help them.

LETSON: But talking quake survivors isn't always this uplifting. At the North Miami Beach Medical Clinic, it doesn't take much to pierce the brave front put forward by many of these Haitians.

Can you explain to us what you went through?

Ms. MIRLENE FELIX CADET: (foreign language spoken)

Dr. MARIE DENIE-GERVAIS: It's going to be difficult for her. I know her. She lost her child during the earthquake and it's going be difficult for her to talk about it.

LETSON: Dr. Marie Denie-Gervais translates for us as we talk to Mirlene Felix Cadet in a meeting room at the clinic.

Ms. FELIX CADET: (foreign language spoken)

LETSON: Once Mirlene gets started, she doesn't stop - she can't stop. It seems this is something she must get out. She says she was home alone when the quake hit. Her two daughters were in school.

Ms. FELIX CADET: (through translator) At that point, I still didn't realize what was going on. But I have a cousin who works in L'Hopital General, the main hospital in Port-au-Prince, and she was running home screaming, saying, my God everything is destroyed. The hospital is destroyed, the bank is destroyed, everything is destroyed. But I'm still convinced that my husband is coming back with the two kids.

LETSON: But she never saw her eldest Chwee Na again. Her body was never positively identified. Prior to the earthquake, Mirlene says Chwee Na became adamant about going to church very early every morning.

Ms. FELIX CADET: (through translator) So when I saw all the spectacle of the school collapsed, you know, I'm saying to myself, Jesus, please remember that Chwee Na, she did everything that you wanted her to do. But now I realize that if God allowed her to go to church every morning, it was to prepare her spiritual self for what happened.

LETSON: As Mirlene struggles with the difficulties in her past, the outlook for her present and future is challenging as well. Like so many of the refugees we met - most of them women - Mirlene is here without her husband, who's back in Haiti working. In her homeland, she was a successful small business owner and an independent woman. But here in the States, until now, her visa status did not permit her to work and she has next to nothing.

Ms. FELIX CADET: (through translator) It's very difficult. I come from a country where I know that I'm supposed to work and take care of my children and I find it very difficult that I don't have the means to take care of them. I was a working woman all my life and now I have to ask everybody for something and it's very difficult.

LETSON: With this week's decision granting her temporary protected status, Mirlene will now at least be able to look for a job.

Marleine Bastien, the executive director of Center for Haitian Women of Miami, says working is the key for the refugees and their host families.

Ms. MARLEINE BASTIEN (Executive Director, Haitian Women of Miami): They don't want to remain, you know, dependent and then feel so insecure and hopeless. This is not the kind of people, you know, they are. They are very, strong, powerful, resilient hard-working folks. Most are them are living with family members, family member who didn't realize that they were going to be staying that long.

So, it is really creating a situation where people are so, so, so, so, so, so pressed because they cannot work and then they cannot contribute. So, we see an increase in frustrations, increase in domestic violence, an increase in problems not only with the family members but also with the host families and also with the children.

LETSON: These children, especially, have a lot to deal with but even with a new life to adapt to, what stuck with me was their resiliency. And that leaves us with one more earthquake survivor we'd like to introduce you to.

(Soundbite of banging)

LETSON: Ten-year-old Peterson Jean-Baptiste is popping wheelies on his red and silver razor scooter in front of the shelter where he lives with his mother just off the highway. They occupy a small room with a bunk bed sporting Scooby Doo sheets. His left ear is crumpled and his scalp is crisscrossed with scars from the 16 surgeries he's undergone in Miami - the result of being buried under rubble in Haiti for four days. His older brother died in the quake.

His nickname is the Little Mayor because he helps run things at the shelter and because of his language abilities.

Did you learn English when you got here from Haiti or did you already know English?

Mr. PETERSON JEAN-BAPTISTE: I didn't know English in Haiti.

LETSON: Wow. So, you just picked it up at school?

Mr. PETERSON: Because I go to school. She help me learn English. And sometime I say I don't know something, she give me a dictionary. I find it.

LETSON: The Little Mayor, with his translator there for moral support, tells us without hesitation that when he grows up he wants to be a doctor.

Why you want to be doctor?

Mr. PETERSON: Because I want to help my family. I want to help my doctor, too, because he help me a lot. He go to Orlando with us. He do everything with us.

Unidentified Man (Translator): He want to help that doctor too. He want to be a doctor like him because he help him. That's very nice. You know, when you're very grateful. That's very nice.

LETSON: The Little Mayor seems happy go lucky as jumps back on his scooter, but it's in the eyes of his mother where you can see the ghosts of lost loved ones. And while the physical scars on her son's body have healed, it'll take a lot longer for the collective wounds of Haitians at home and abroad to recover.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Al Letson is the host of the program State of the Reunion from NPR and PRX. You can hear their full hour on Miami on many of these NPR stations.

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