Frantic calls to families unanswered

Staff WriterJanuary 14, 2010 

Karl-Henry Saint Jean of Raleigh last returned to Haiti in 2008 for the funeral of his younger brother, who died in the flooding caused by two successive hurricanes.

Because the storms had so devastated the family's hometown of Gonaïves, Saint Jean's brother was buried in Port-au-Prince, which is also where his mother decided to resettle.

"Now I don't know if she's alive," said Saint Jean, who owns his own taxi business in Raleigh. He hasn't heard from his six brothers and sisters, either.

As relief workers scramble to help hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims, Haitians around the Triangle are struggling to communicate with relatives back home. Whenever Saint Jean calls, the phone rings and rings, but no one picks up.

Nadine Faustin-Parker, an assistant track-and-field coach at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a three-time Olympian who ran the 100-meter hurdles for Haiti. News reports of the disaster left her feeling powerless.

"It's a feeling that I don't wish on anybody," said Faustin-Parker, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Haiti. "It brought me to me knees in prayer."

Faustin-Parker's parents live in New York, but some of Faustin-Parker's cousins staying in a family home in Haiti have not been heard from. Faustin-Parker also has an aunt in Haiti. Wednesday morning, Faustin-Parker's mother heard from a friend of a friend that her sister was OK.

"God had mercy on our family," Faustin-Parker said.

Decades of political and economic problems have driven many Haitians to seek new lives elsewhere, mostly in the United States. About one of every eight Haitians lives abroad, according to the U.S. State Department.

During a time of sporadic phone and Internet connections, expatriate Haitians depend on a loose network of friends and family to keep abreast of news from home, said Jean Elade Eloi, a native Haitian who lives in Cary. He knows Haitians in places as varied as Montreal, Miami and France. Whenever one receives a bit of news, it is passed along to everyone else.

Eloi, who works as a mission director for Hope Community Church in Cary, was just in Haiti in December, working to bring clean water to a small village. He had planned to take nearly 40 people to Haiti at the end of this month to set up a three-day clinic for people who lack basic medical care.

Now he's planning a trip, perhaps flying by himself, as soon as possible.

"I want to be there yesterday," he said.

Spirit survives; heartache lingers

He has heard from some family members and friends. A cousin called Wednesday to tell him that she and her family were OK. The earthquake destroyed their home, but the family was outside in the yard when the house collapsed.

Though Haiti may be ravaged by poverty, malnutrition and natural disasters, Eloi does not believe this will destroy the country.

"The spirit of Haiti will survive," he said.

Saint Jean, the cab driver, had planned to travel to Haiti in late January to set up a bus company to ferry people the 90 miles between Gonaïves and Port-au-Prince. He purchased two surplus school buses to start the enterprise and had started saving the money to ship them.

Now Saint Jean does not know who in his family is dead and who is alive, who has a home and who does not. He may need to spend that money another way.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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