Haunted Haiti struggles back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In 2010, Daphne Joseph, a slim, shy teenager, took a pounding from life.

She watched with horror as her mother’s mangled body was carted off in a wheelbarrow after the January 12 earthquake. She fell in with a ragtag group of orphans taken under the wing of a well-meaning but ill-equipped community group. She left them unwillingly when a self-proclaimed relative took her away to use her as a servant.

And then last fall, not long before her 15th birthday, Daphne found herself in an actual home, reunited with the other orphans stranded after the disaster they all call “goudou-goudou” for the terrible sound of the ground shaking. She wore a party dress; she blew out candles; she smiled.

“I believe that Daphne was a fragile, sensitive girl even before ‘goudou-goudou,”’ said Pierre Joseph, a psychologist who counsels her. “After, she was like a glass that got filled to the brim and then overflowed. You could say she is still in shock. But she is finding her equilibrium.”

After a year of almost unfathomable hardship in Haiti, there is little reason to be hopeful now. More than 1 million displaced people still live under tents and tarpaulins. Reconstruction of the build-back-better kind envisioned in March has barely begun.

Yet despite this gloomy backdrop, many Haitians, like Daphne, have started to find some equilibrium – to heal, to rebuild or simply to readjust their sights. A dancer whose leg was amputated is walking on a new limb. A pastor whose church was devastated is revelling in a congregation doubled in size. A businessman, stubbornly loyal to Haiti, is opening an earthquake-proof factory where his old one collapsed.

Here, haunting and hopeful, are some of their stories.

Fabienne Jean, the dancer who lost a leg in the earthquake, smiled so radiantly and expressed such courage that everybody who met or read about her wanted to help. Doctors, prosthetists, choreographers, dancers with disabilities, charitable groups – they all aspired to adopt Jean.

By early spring, Jean was struggling with conflicting offers to be fitted here for a prosthetic limb by a New Hampshire nonprofit group or to fly to New York, where Mount Sinai Medical Center would provide corrective surgery, rehabilitation and a stay of months in the city. The foreigners’ attention was overwhelming. After a period of agonizing indecision, Jean chose to stay in Haiti, where she felt at home. The New Yorkers were proposing a second operation to strengthen her stump. That, Jean said, was a deal-breaker.

“I didn’t want another operation,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose any more of my leg.”

Jean said that she did not want to be a drain on her family, which had always expected her, the oldest child and the most talented, to support them. Her father, she said, was scared after the earthquake that she would end up “in a corner, like a handicapped person.”

But that is not going to happen, she said.

“There are some disabled people who think that life is over, who are ashamed,” she said, before jauntily swinging her prosthesis over her shoulder during a photo shoot. “I’m not like that. Except for the fact that I lost a part of myself on January 12, I’m still Fabienne.”


As if he had not budged since the earthquake, the Rev. Enso Sylvert sat one recent morning on the same metal chair under the same tarpaulin, now ripped, where he held court after the disaster.

In the shadow of his collapsed church on Avenue Poupelard, Sylvert was still sporting a blazing orange shirt and wrinkled yellow tie, still preaching about the end of times.

But his vow to rebuild in 2010 had been tempered by reality. The bank recently foreclosed on the property after he fell behind on loan payments because his parishioners could not afford donations. Any day now, he said, the bank will be seizing what remains of the church.

Still, the pastor insisted, just as his chorus narrowly escaped death when the church fell, just as his daughter was spared when she stood to answer a teacher’s question while the girl who slid into her seat was killed by a concrete block, so, too, would “a miracle” keep the Evangelical Church of Grace alive. “I am certain – certain! – that we will rise again on Avenue Poupelard,” he said. “The events of January 12 destroyed hundreds of church buildings. But did they kill our churches? Ah, no. Au contraire. We don’t need roofs to pray. God is our cover.”