Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haitian Canadians Frantic for News of Loved Ones

MONTREAL – Finally, a telephone connection that lasted only seconds. But it was long enough for Feeld Jean to learn that his brother, holding his young boy, had jumped to safety out of a collapsing building.

But the thin connection to the earthquake zone in Port au Prince vanished before he could learn whether his mother, father, sister and cousins survived.

“I’m really worried. The only news we had is that the building they lived in collapsed,” Jean said yesterday. “People are saying that tall buildings collapsed, government buildings collapsed, schools collapsed. You’re watching TV, seeing crumbled blocks and you don’t know if your family is underneath.”

As the death toll climbs, Montreal’s 130,000-strong Haitian community is desperate for news of their loved ones. The earthquake severed most lines of communication with the island, making it hard to determine the damage and virtually impossible to reach relatives and friends.


Frantic Haitians across Montreal are meeting at community centres and tuning in to CPAM, the radio station that has become the hub of efforts to mobilize aid and get news from the quake zone.

“CPAM bonjour. We have no news about St. Marc (City). Please continue listening to the radio,” businesswoman Peggy Malval told a caller. She couldn’t stomach going to work yesterday, and volunteered as a receptionist.

People are calling with questions about regions, cities and neighborhoods. “Sometimes they give us a specific address,” Malval said.

Suddenly, a direct call from Haiti. Malval jumped from her seat to get a radio host.

Earlier, the station asked Montreal expats like Jean who have been able to reach family or friends, however briefly, to share their scraps of news, whether by phone, text messaging or internet.

Lots of information is coming in, said radio host Jean-Robert Boulin.

“We’ve become a relay station, but we can’t verify if it’s true or not,” said Boulin, who usually hosts a morning French music show. Regular programming was bumped for call-ins for Haitian expatriates worried about survivors after the magnitude-7 quake flattened much of the capital of 2 million people.

“The situation is catastrophic, everyone is in shock,” said station manager Jean-Ernest Pierre, who managed to speak to a cousin before the line was cut off.

The station also urged listeners to go to Haiti to help in the reconstruction. For nurse Marie Maude Labbé and dental assistant Marianne St. Louis, who dropped by the station for information about flights and community aide, that made perfect sense.

“I’m feeling so impotent here, at least in Haiti we could give medication, change bandages, hand out water,” St. Louis said.


Earlier, members of the Haitian community scrambled to organize a “crisis cell” to channel financial aide to Haiti through such recognized organizations as the Red Cross.

Quebec has always been very generous to Haiti, said municipal councillor for St. Michel district Frantz Benjamin, who tried in vain until early morning to reach his father, who is 80, in Port au Prince.

“But unfortunately there is no response. It’s very difficult. But hundreds are seeking help. The time now is to work or mobilization, solidarity, generosity.”

By the end of the day, those who wanted to help, or exchange news, or simply “be with their people” in hope and grief gathered at La Perle Retrouvée in the heart of St.Michel.


A former church basement turned Haitian community centre, it is now the unofficial disaster relief headquarters for Montreal’s Haitian community. As hundreds of people sat watching a big-screen television for news from back home, still more kept streaming in, hoping to hear something good amid all the bad.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much good to be heard.

“I don’t know what to do, I feel so helpless,” said Patrice Duval, who had been trying to reach his mother and his aunt in Haiti since Tuesday night.

The only news he had received is that a friend who lives on the same street as his mother was hurt in the earthquake. “We have to have faith because it’s all we have.”

His mother, who suffers from dementia, had been in Montreal until August, when the family thought it best for her to go back to Haiti and live with her sister. “She was very sick so we brought her back, hoping she would get better,” Duval said. “I just want to go and get her and help the people there.”


Ducarmel Cyrius tried calling one of his employees for 20 hours before he finally reached him last night. He and his family were safe. But Cyrius’s properties – and whoever was living in them – were not. Cyrius, who owns a popular Haitian restaurant in the neighborhood, came to La Perle Retrouvée to lend his support, whichever way he can.

“The first thing they need right now is money, but it has to go through a recognized organization, like the Red Cross,” said Cyrius, who helped mobilize support the last time his country was struck by disaster, with the flooding and landslides of Gonaives in 2004, and again in 2008.

“The community here always gives money for Haiti, but it doesn’t always get there.”


Joassaint Émile, a former employee of the Ministry of Environment in Haiti, was hoping to hear from friends or family about his own relatives in Pétionvlile, a suburb of the capital of Port-au Prince. “My mother, my brothers, my sisters, my friends, the whole lot of them are in Haiti,” said Émile. “The earthquake hit the hospital and it also hit the biggest prison in the country. Lots of prisoners escaped. That won’t help.”

He said in the capital even such prestigious – and well-constructed – buildings as the Presidential Palace were destroyed. “Those buildings have names. But what about all the nameless buildings in the shantytowns of Port au Prince that don’t even have addresses? So many people will have died.”

Emile’s wife, Marie-Chantal Guillaume, whose family is in Carrefour, sat silently next to him, transfixed in front of the television, tears running down her cheek. “I spent all night on the telephone. I haven’t heard anything. We’ve been listening to the radio. But they haven’t been able to contact anyone either. The little we can see on television is all we have.”

Catherine Solyom of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette


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