News & Events

Haitians in U.S. Double Up to Take In Their Own

Librado Romero/The New York Times
Olivia Benoit with Max Oliver Erlusse, 6, and Enridchell Emile, 11, her grandnephews from Haiti, who are now in New York.

By ANNE BARNARD  Published: March 5, 2010

Carmelle Lajoie shared her house in Queens with her husband, their four children, her brother and her mother. That was before she took in her 11-year-old niece, an American citizen who was airlifted from Haiti after the earthquake in January.

Librado Romero/The New York Times

Before her grandnephews arrived, Olivia Benoit was struggling to support her sister and brother-in-law, recent immigrants.

Even now she is urging her siblings there to send their other young children — five of them — if and when they get visas.

A few blocks south, Olivia Benoit, a medical technician who recently lost her job, has taken in her pregnant niece — who narrowly escaped from a collapsing building in Port-au-Prince — and two grandnephews. The boys are captivated by snow. But they keep thinking that the stairs are shaking, that the earth will heave again.

Even the women’s church, SS. Joachim & Anne, has a resident refugee: a priest who was marooned in Queens, where he was visiting siblings, after the earthquake flattened his apartment. He moved into the rectory in Queens Village, where he earns his keep, in a sense, holding Creole memorial services for the earthquake dead.

From the outside, the neat middle-class houses of southeast Queens look the same as ever. But inside, dozens of households are vibrating with relief, worry and claustrophobia as Haitians take refuge with relatives in the United States. These scenes are being repeated from the most familiar Haitian destinations, like Miami, to cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Boston, where one family welcomed 12 Haitian relatives.

These families are alive, and their reunions are joyous. But they show up without plans, with few possessions and fewer winter coats. Many lack permission to work.

“This earthquake, in less than one minute, it just shakes down our whole life,” said Madeline Erlusse, Ms. Benoit’s niece. Ms. Erlusse’s visa expires in July, a month before her baby is due.

Those who make it here are the privileged ones: They had families established here. They had visas or passports or green cards. If they were not American citizens entitled to airlifts, they had enough cash to get to the Dominican Republic and onto a plane. Still, they bear the marks of trauma — a hopeless shrug when asked about the future, a forced cheeriness.
For every Haitian who arrives, there are many more desperate to come. A recent poll found that 59 percent of Haitian-Americans lost a loved one in the earthquake, which killed an estimated quarter-million people. Nearly every Haitian-American seems to have relatives who are homeless, jobless or simply afraid.

No one knows how many refugees are living with relatives, but a few numbers hint at the magnitude: By the end of February, 6,942 noncitizens had arrived in the United States from Haiti since the quake on Jan. 12, 1,300 of them on tourist visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security. New York City public schools have taken in 219 Haitian students, and parochial schools have taken in dozens more.

In Haiti recently, Yolaine Milfort, a community liaison at the Haitian Consulate in New York, said she saw a tour company loading 200 Haitians a day onto buses to the Dominican Republic; most riders were bound for Miami or New York.

“It’s an exodus,” she said.

More will come as Haitian banks reopen and families get access to cash. One Queens community group, Haitian-Americans United for Progress, helps to process up to 40 visa petitions daily.

“There’s going to be some stress on the welcoming families,” said Jocelyn McCalla, an adviser to Haiti’s special envoy to the United Nations, adding that it raises the question of “how long the welcome is going to last.”

Particular strains have emerged for some families in which only the children are American citizens. Relatives were granted visas to accompany them, but not to work, so they have no means of support. The Department of Homeland Security said it was reviewing requests to extend or modify visas case by case, “consistent with the humanitarian response taken since the earthquake.”

The earthquake has overlaid new stress onto lives already complicated by the financial and emotional strains of immigrant life. Children who speak only Creole and French are struggling in school. Some, raised in Haiti by relatives, have joined working parents here. Now, parents are scrambling for child care, and children are adjusting to mothers or fathers they barely know.

One child’s wails echoed one recent afternoon through Sacred Heart Roman Catholic School, in Cambria Heights, Queens. The child, 4, raised by her grandparents in Haiti, had come to stay with her mother, who dropped her at prekindergarten and went to work. The child seemed comfortable in the school, not unlike her Catholic school back home. But when her mother came to pick her up, the girl bawled in terror.

“She doesn’t know Mommy,” said the principal, Yvonne Smith. “Mommy,” she added, “was heartbroken.”
A Haitian-American teacher, Danael Couloute, said 12 of her relatives were staying with a cousin in Boston. Her uncle has moved his wife and two children from Haiti to his mother’s house in Hollis, Queens.

Jacques and Alice Ambroise had a precarious balance before the earthquake: She lived in Cambria Heights, working at a nursing home; he and their sons, Clifford, 7, and Emanuel, 9, lived in Haiti, where he taught school. Now, they cram into her small apartment. With her shifts cut because of the recession, she is not sure how to feed them. Mr. Ambroise could barely talk about the earthquake, which crumbled his school before his eyes, killing many students.

“I would like to work,” he said. But he speaks little English and has no green card. He has been waiting for years.
New in school that day, along with the Ambroise boys, were Ann-Esther and Edel Anderson Delva, 10-year-old twins now living with their aunt, Marie Armand. They were born in the United States. Their mother, Carmite Bretous Delva, has a green card. But their father, without papers, had to stay behind.

At Mrs. Armand’s house in Rosedale, Queens, the other day, Mrs. Delva was reminiscing about Sunday dinners “en famille” — fish with red beans and rice — when her cellphone buzzed. It was her husband, texting, “Everything OK.”
Ann-Esther typed back, “I love you. Come, I begging you.”

In neighboring Laurelton, at Ms. Benoit’s house, Ms. Erlusse’s son, Max Oliver, 6, danced hyperactively, throwing himself to the tile floor to show how the quake had knocked him down. He said he did not like New York much because of the cold — and the static cling.

Before they arrived, Ms. Benoit had been struggling to support her sister and brother-in-law, recent immigrants. Two more relatives, including Max’s father, arrived on Friday. Ms. Benoit has canceled her cellphone to save money. Neighbors donate food and clothing. Her parish school, SS. Joachim & Anne, took the boys at reduced tuition.
Ms. Erlusse hopes schools in Haiti will open by September. “But,” she said, “I know that it’s just me dreaming.”

The Lajoie house is full of contrasting moods. Mrs. Lajoie, 53, a registered nurse, obsesses about the earthquake; her niece Laetitia Leonidas tires of describing it to curious new classmates at SS. Joachim & Anne. Playing “Assassin’s Creed II” with her cousins, Laetitia speaks in bright, short sentences: Does she want to go home? “I think I’ll stay here.” Will Haiti recover? “Maybe.”

Mrs. Lajoie and her husband, who was a doctor in Haiti but works as a nurse here, told relatives in Haiti not to worry about money: Send the children and they would take care of the rest. That means Catholic school and college. Mrs. Lajoie is determined to treat them the same as her children.

She expects something in return, and she has a new threat to enforce it. “If you aren’t first in your class,” she tells Laetitia, “I’m going to send you to Haiti.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 6, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.