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In U.S., Haitian Expats Relying on Each Other for Support

January 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez takes a look at Haitians living in the United States and how they are coping with the devastating earthquake, which has made contacting loved ones on the island nearly impossible.

RAY SUAREZ: Flatbush, in Brooklyn, is home to some of the largest West Indian immigrant communities in the world outside the Caribbean. It’s the heart of the quarter-million-strong Haitian presence in New York.

Radio Soleil D’Haiti brings Haiti to Brooklyn, and, in a crisis like this, becomes not only a clearinghouse for news, but a place to find other people who know what you’re going through.

FABIENNE JEAN: They all three are American citizens that went on vacation, and they were supposed to return very soon to the States.

RAY SUAREZ: Fabienne Jean was already plenty worried before the quake. Her father, visiting Haiti from Brooklyn, was shot, treated in a hospital, and released just before the ground began to shake.

FABIENNE JEAN: But my real most concern was — is my dad, who was already injured. That same day he went to Haiti on the 29th, was released from the hospital that — on Tuesday, the same day of the earthquake. We know he made it home to Carrefour, but we have never heard anything from him.

RAY SUAREZ: She’s looking for a brother, a cousin, an aunt, and anyone who knows what happened to her father.

Brooklyn-born Felipe Doussou hasn’t been able to find out anything about family members. It’s been rough on his Haitian-born parents.

FELIPE DOUSSOU: It’s been very difficult for my parents. My parents have stayed up for 24 hours waiting for some feedback.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, Radio Soleil has been broadcasting the signal from a sister station in Haiti, bringing hour after hour of news from the streets of Port-au-Prince to a Brooklyn hungry for information.

Sitting calmly in the center of the chaos is Radio Soleil’s Ricot Dupuy, his cell phone ringing constantly. Dupuy says the relief efforts in Brooklyn have been slow to get started.

RICOT DUPUY, Radio Soleil D’Haiti: I should be honest and say the — the Haitian community is still in shock, and I think that shock has interfered with the proper organization of the relief efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: As civic, church, and government forces link up and get organized, Mathieu Eugene is likely to be in the middle of it all. He’s the first Haitian-born member elected to New York’s City Council.

MATHIEU EUGENE: It is my moral obligation, not only to serve as the New York City Council, but also to use everything in my power to empower the community.

RAY SUAREZ: While Brooklyn’s Haitians anxiously wait for word to trickle out and pull together the aid to head in, another major American Haitian community is waiting for word and getting to work 1,100 miles to the south, in Florida.

More than 200,000 Haitians and Haitian-Americans live in Florida. Many call the Orlando area home.

One of the point men for coordinating a response is Laurent Prosper, the chief of mission at the Haitian Consulate in Orlando.

LAURENT PROSPER: To have the central area be destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: But not only is the scale of the challenge daunting; the location of the disaster means it touches everyone in the community.

LAURENT PROSPER: It’s in Port-au-Prince, which means that everybody has somebody in Port-au-Prince, at least. We need all the help from the friends of Haiti to come together, the communities to come together, and assist us, because this is going to take a very long time. Like we say in Haiti, our motto is, with unity, we are strong.

WOMAN: Yes, we’re taking donations for Haiti’s earthquake disaster.

RAY SUAREZ: But it is not only the Haitian community that is assisting in the effort. Harvest Time International, a Christian aid group, has faced similar challenges before, and its warehouse hummed, as palettes filled with everything from bottled water to Wheaties were readied for transport.

Here’s Lena Smolensky of Harvest Time.

LENA SMOLENSKY, Harvest Time International: It’s definitely needed. All the products are definitely needed. It doesn’t matter how much it is. If it’s only one piece, or like a whole truckload, we can definitely use it and send it to the people over there in need.

RAY SUAREZ: Their next job, finding a flight south.

CAROL GROSSHANS, principal, The First Academy Middle School: We have heard from others that are there that she is safe.

RAY SUAREZ: But finding a flight north is what school principal Carol Grosshans is hoping for. Her 15-year-old daughter was part of the school-run aid mission to Haiti when the earthquake struck. The group in Haiti continued its work, distributing food. But amid the disaster came a meeting long awaited for her daughter Faith.

CAROL GROSSHANS: We have sponsored a child in Haiti for about 10 years. She met Evelyn in the midst of an earthquake and was able to spend the night together, sleeping together on a tarp under the stars in Haiti, waiting to see what morning was going to bring.

RAY SUAREZ: Outside Atlanta, others gathered at the Blood Price Church of the Nazarene in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

WOMAN: I’m so worried. I’m worried about not only my mom, but for the rest of the family members.

RAY SUAREZ: The 144 members of the close-knit community pray under a sign that says, “It’s God who changes time and circumstances.”

But Pastor Will Verneret says there are other factors at work.

WILL VERNERET: Economic problem and political chaos in Haiti, also. And the worst is that we can’t communicate with anyone in Haiti. We don’t know exactly how many people died.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in New York, for Councilman Eugene, pulling together aid in desperate times is drearily familiar.

MATHIEU EUGENE: Haiti has zero capacity to receive anything. I know — and I’m very grateful, and I’m very grateful to everybody, and I know that people of goodwill, good intention, they want to contribute. They want to collaborate, send stuff to Haiti.

RAY SUAREZ: This immigrant politician wants his adopted home to craft a long-term response to the agonies of his native land.