x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In America, Haitians grieve for families

As they anxiously wait for news, mourners are told cash is most important to help victims, but some are wary it will not reach the right hands.

A women is comforted as she prays at St Jerome's Church in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York.
A women is comforted as she prays at St Jerome's Church in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York.

NEW YORK // "We have a community of sisters whose convent has collapsed and 20 or 30 sisters are still buried there in Haiti," said the Haitian-born Bishop Guy Sansaricq of the St Gregory Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn. "We've called Catholic Relief Services to try to get them to send their men on the ground to check on them, but we've heard nothing so far."

He told his story calmly and quietly to Nazli Parvizi, New York's commissioner for community affairs, who toured Brooklyn's "Little Haiti" neighbourhood to deliver expressions of support from the city to community and church leaders on Friday. Bishop Sansaricq has had little time to nurse his personal grief as he has been attending to hundreds of Haitian-Americans who have flocked to his and other churches for solace and comfort. He was a friend of Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, whose body was found under the rubble of his church's office after the magnitude-7.0 quake struck on Tuesday.

New York is home to more than 100,000 Haitian-Americans and Ms Parvizi, who was born in Iran, is long used to reaching out to this community and dozens of others that create the city's famed diversity. "Whenever an event hits somewhere in the world, we always feel it here in the city," she said. She had an important message for Haitian-Americans, many of whom were hit hard by the recession and were already struggling to send money to support family back home. "We would really appreciate it if you can tell your parishioners that if they want to do something, they should send cash," she told Bishop Sansaricq. "They're already having a tough time and they should keep their food, blankets and clothes because there's no shortage of supplies, but it's really tough getting them into Haiti right now. The situation will change in the next month or so but right now, cash is king."

Over at the Erasmus Neighbourhood Foundation, which dispenses advice on immigration and housing, Yeneika Puran, the director of community organising, noted that many Haitian-Americans were wary of giving cash for fear it would not reach its intended recipients. "A lot of people don't want to give money," she said. Haitian-Americans have welcomed the Obama administration's announcement that it would extend a special immigration status to Haitians living illegally in the United States, protecting them from deportation and allowing them to work for 18 months. Officials said it would cover at least 100,000 Haitians living here without documentation and 30,000 Haitians who had been ordered deported.

However, in a bid to discourage Haitians from trying to enter the United States by boat, any who entered after this week would be sent back to Haiti. "Attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation," said Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security. The fact that more Haitians will be able to work and send money home will help in the longer term, but many are still absorbing the shock of losing so many loved ones and trying to comprehend the full extent of the disaster.

Haitian-Americans spoke of seeing their compatriots collapse on the pavement after receiving a telephone call or text message saying a relative had been killed. Complete strangers would attempt to give comfort in the streets of Flatbush, which is dominated by storefront churches, hair salons and Caribbean food outlets. Just a few doors away from the Erasmus Neighbourhood Foundation is the studio for Radyo Pa Nou, a Creole-language pirate radio station that has been broadcasting around the clock in an attempt to reunite families.

"We've had about 30 guys running around on motorbikes in Haiti who send us texts when they find somebody who was missing," said Jude Joseph, the station's general manager. "But they're overwhelmed and running out of gas. They're even sleeping at the gas station." Gaspard Lynch, a presenter for the station, said he had lost six family members while the sports club he had built for underprivileged children had been destroyed.

"I want to go there now, but I have to wait for flights to start up. I've only been sleeping a few hours a night. The community is working hard to pull together." sdevi@thenational.ae