Desperation and Hope in Haiti

News Feature Web Exclusive
January 2010

Text and photo by Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — On an ordinary day, the mustachioed Jim Roberts, 46, tends to his Evanston consulting office, which doubles as a grocery stand selling everything from Doritos chips to phone cards. Thursday afternoon is anything but. It has been 48 hours since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. Robert’s faint smile and the cache of silver-and-gold jewelries clinging to his hands could not obscure the anxiety in his eyes. Earlier, he learned that two relatives and seven family friends have perished. As the clock ticks, phone lines to Port-au-Prince remain dead, adding to the strain in his sagging shoulders. “If I could be able to at least find a way of communicating to one family member, that would at least ease the worry that I have now,” he says.

According to news reports from the Caribbean island, 200,000 people are feared dead as a result of the calamity. So far, more than 50,000 bodies have been recovered, the country’s Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime was quoted as saying. The city of three million people is also facing the nightmare of dealing with homeless survivors who are growing desperate by the day.

Each news report from the motherland only brings more frown lines on Robert’s face. As the French-speaking Concorde Radio of Boston blares in the background, he asks a compatriot for updates. But Bernard Geto, 41, could only manage a deep sigh, shaking his head in frustration. Slumping on a double pressback chair at the back of the store, Geto  clutches a flip phone in one hand, and a piece of paper with phone numbers in another. He stares blankly in space as he invariably dials his mobile device. “I don’t know what to say. It’s crazy. My mind is somewhere else.” Geto’s immediate concern are his mother, his three brothers and three sisters who live in Carrefour, a poor district in the capital badly-hit by the disaster. Even the psychedelic display inside Robert’s shop could not lift his spirit.

As the two men confer, Robert’s niece Mimi Celeste rushes in with her two pre-school children, to bring more worrying news. Only the children’s laughter and excitement over the macaroni cheese and ice cream broke the unease. Celeste says that she is relieved to hear from her family, but “torn” because her husband Joel’s family is still unaccounted for. “There’s no more home to return to,” she says recounting a story how an adjacent five-story building collapsed and buried their house in Petion-Ville.

The Haitian American Community Association in Chicago appears as stunned and helpless. “I was in total shock,” says Marie Henry, director of the organization in Rogers Park. Henry says that calls to her office are referred to large organizations like the Red Cross, which can handle the infrastructure better. Jacque Leblanc, treasurer of the group, appeals for financial help. “This is the only thing that we can do for the moment,” Leblanc said. Two of his cousins and a nephew were also killed.

Meanwhile, Celeste is still trying to secure a flight to the former French colony. “We would have gone. You have to. If there’s no way for you to find out, where’s your family, somebody has to go.” For now, she’s dispatching her husband first, saying, “I am not that strong.”

Amidst the desperation, Geto finally receives some good news two days after. All his family members survived the disaster.

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