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Many in local Haitian community caught in emotional waiting game

All Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Roberthe Antoine had been calling and e-mailing her relatives in Haiti and in this country, hoping for some word about the fate of family members living in the island nation.

Finally, at 4 a.m. Wednesday, Antoine got the call she'd been both hoping for and dreading.

Her cousin, Hetzelle Dorismond, reached Antoine by cell phone to say that five of their family members died when their home in Port-au-Prince collapsed during Tuesday's massive earthquake.

Killed were Antoine's uncle and aunt, Erverne and Bernadette Laguerre, both 70; her cousin, Emannelle Laguerre, 30; and Laguerre's two elementary-school-aged children.

Antoine had last seen her uncle a year ago when he visited her and her husband, Alix, and their three children at their spacious old home in Norwichtown.

That's how Wednesday progressed for many Haitian families in southeastern Connecticut. The adults stayed home from work to call and call again. Children were sent to school, where principals and social workers offered what comfort and diversions they could. One girl at Kelly Middle School learned that her aunt had died in the earthquake. She went home to be with her family, school officials said.

Antoine was still waiting Wednesday evening for word of her father, sisters, brothers and in-laws, all of whom live in and around the capital city. Antoine and her husband immigrated to the United States 19 years ago and have raised their three sons here. She keeps in frequent contact by e-mail and phone, and her husband returns every year, she said.

"We have so many family there," Antoine said during an interview at her home Wednesday over the sounds of a television newscast from the earthquake scene in an adjacent room. "The worst thing is the waiting. We'll just keep on calling. We know we have a lot of people who have died, a lot of people we know. I don't know what to do."

Dorismond, Antoine said, described a scene of utter devastation and chaos, and screamed in her grief.

Dorismond and her family have been sleeping on the street since the earthquake, Antoine said. She told Antoine how a doctor, bleeding from his own wounds, was still giving care to the injured.

From her cousin's accounts, Antoine said, it seems "the people are on their own" and getting little help from the Haitian government. Many other Haitians in this country, she said, are trying to find a way to get to Haiti to find out about their loved ones.

Houses gone,
families unaccounted for

Pastor Olivio Aubin worked two phones at the same time in his tiny office at the rear of the First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich Wednesday morning. Two fellow church leaders pressed the numbers on their own phones over and over again.

But the only results were frustration and more worry. Any response on the other end abruptly stopped all conversation in the room. Brother Estime Jozile called someone in Florida to ask about relatives and friends in Haiti.

"We're still trying to get information here," he said into the phone. "No, nothing yet. We're still getting pictures of buildings collapsed, but no information."

Some snippets of news brought more uncertainty.

Josie Paul, who lives in Norwich with her three children, learned that her house in Haiti had collapsed. But no one knows whether her husband was inside, Jozile said.

In Taftville, the pastor's wife, Rose Merant Aubin, sat with Yolande Dauphin, who is visiting from Haiti. They, too, worked the phone. Aubin knew that the home where five of her deceased sister's children lived was destroyed, but has yet to learn the fate of her nieces and nephews.

Dauphin mixed conversation with sobs and chants of prayer and song. She learned that many homes in her neighborhood outside Port-au-Prince had collapsed. She didn't know if her husband and two children survived.

"We don't know the amount of the damage," Dauphin said, with Rose Aubin translating. "We don't know how many people died."

She cried aloud when her thoughts turned to her neighbor, Lisson Adonis, and her 10 children, who lived in a concrete-block house at the edge of a ravine. The house collapsed, but she didn't know whether the family survived.

Dauphin had planned to spend four months in Norwich to raise money for her church in Haiti. Now she doesn't know how long she will stay.

Gathering in schools

In Haiti, only about half the population is literate, and many children don't go to school. On Wednesday in southeastern Connecticut, Haitian students - children and adults - went to school.

Cheryl Egan, coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages, said most of the 80 daytime Haitian adult education students came to school Wednesday.

"When they first came in, some were crying," Egan said. "We just really sat with them. After 45 minutes to an hour, more came and we started to talk. … It was sobering for us to just kind of be there with them."

School officials set up a TV tuned to CNN and a laptop to an Internet Creole-language newscast.

"They were glued to that," Egan said.

English-language tutor Shirley Cherenfant went to Kelly Middle School to help comfort Haitian students.

"I found the children very, very distraught - crying, sad," Cherenfant said. "They just wanted to know how their relatives were doing in Haiti. Their parents couldn't make contact. They're watching the TV and seeing dead bodies, and they want to know, 'What about my relatives?'"

Cherenfant knows those emotions and questions. She and her husband, Pastor Angenio Cherenfant, have many extended family members in Haiti they haven't been able to reach.

Thirty Haitian students made "Help Haiti" posters to hang throughout the school, urging schoolmates to donate to a "Pennies for Haiti" drive established Wednesday by the Norwich public schools.

At Norwich Free Academy, Student Affairs Director John Iovino said Haitian students were told they could spend the day in Diversity Director Leo Butler's classroom. Midterm exams start today at NFA, and Iovino said teachers are aware that students might not be able to concentrate.

The New London public school system had its social workers and psychologists check in with affected students and made counseling available. High school principal Tommy Thompson, who as a child survived the 1980 Irpinia earthquake that killed 2,900 people in southern Italy, also talked with students.

"I know how it can be to not reach your family," Thompson said.

New London schools will collect money for international phone cards so families can call Haiti when communications are restored.

New London High is considering postponing mid-term examinations, scheduled to start Friday, for students affected by the earthquake.

"It'll be on a case-by-case basis," Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer said. "This has been an immense tragedy for many of our students."

New London Adult Education Director Maria Pukas said about 12 Haitian students watched television news reports and attempted to make phone calls to Haiti. No one got through.

"It was very somber," Pukas said. "We've been meeting families and trying to support them."

Port-au-Prince native Roger Desir, a tutor who has family there, has been helping students attempt to contact family and friends.

"There's no communication," Desir said. "Families just don't know what's happening. With this, no news is not good news."

Haiti-Norwich connection

Southeastern Connecticut has been home to a Haitian immigrant community for at least the past 30 years. Many came first for jobs at Franklin Mushroom Farm and the Kofkoff Egg Farm. When those dried up, Haitians turned to the region's two casinos for employment.

Foxwoods Resort Casino offered Haitian employees flex time, accrued vacation leave and personal bereavement leaves of absence Wednesday, a spokesman said.

Two long-established organizations have contributed to the connection between the Norwich area and Haiti.

The Haitian Health Foundation was founded in 1982 by Norwich dentist Jeremiah Lowney, who worked closely with the Diocese of Norwich and its contacts in Haiti. The foundation established a clinic, recruited medical volunteers to provide the most basic care and raised money for homes, livestock and food sources.

The diocese established its Haitian Ministries and opened a mission house in Haiti in 1987 after a visit there by former Norwich Bishop Daniel P. Reilly. "Twin" parishes in Connecticut send volunteers and aid to Haiti throughout the year.

Rose Merant Aubin hopes that her neighbors in Norwich remember these close ties once again as Haiti faces yet another disaster.

"We know that Americans have been so generous in the past in helping Haiti, and we're hoping that people donate again to help," she said.

Roberthe Antoine, who is newly trained to work in the medical records field, is volunteering at The William W. Backus Hospital while she looks for a job. Her husband, a Foxwoods employee, sometimes talks about moving back to Haiti one day.

"He wants to go back home so bad," she said, "but where is the home to go to? There is nothing."

She asked for prayers both for her home country and for those here awaiting word on their loved ones.

"Pray for us," she said. "We don't know what to do, what to think."


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