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Haitian home away from home plunged into sadness

Published:Monday | January 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM


At a money-transfer booth tucked into a dusty TV repair shop, Haitians carrying thin envelopes of five and $10 bills clamoured to send funds to their devastated families back home. But, the computer connection to the earthquake-stricken Haitian capital was down again.

"We are trying to help as best we can, but now it won't go through," said Guerline Aden, who lost a 19-year-old niece in the January 12 quake and still doesn't know the fate of several other relatives.

It seems almost every Haitian in this village north of New York City, which is one-third Haitian, one of the largest percentages in any town in the country, has lost a loved one in the earthquake.

"Passing through Spring Valley you can feel the sadness, the quietness," said Mayor Noramie Jasmin, whose husband was missing for the first two days.

At the Caribbean Village restaurant, Arinks Homicile said his wife lost seven relatives and didn't know about it for five or six days.

"It is all we talk about now in Spring Valley," he said. "What we see on the TV about the earthquake, and what we hear about people's families."

'Praying for Haiti'

But signs of support are everywhere. Cases of bottled water and cans of soup and stew are piled outside the entrance to the police department. Inside, a big plastic jug holds folded currency stuffed in by the cops themselves. The Salvation Army building displays a sign that says, 'Praying for Haiti'.

The village's deputy mayor, Joseph Desmaret, is in Haiti with a team of 15 area residents, including nurses and firefighters, dealing with the emergency. They got a ride on a military plane, but had to raise about $3,000 to get to Chicago to meet it. The money was raised from Spring Valley merchants, most of them Hasidic Jews, said Aron Wieder, administrative assistant to the mayor.

The area's Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews have not always meshed with other ethnic groups. There is some resentment of the fact that Orthodox Jews dominate the school board, although most don't send their children to public school.

Wieder, who is Hasidic, said, "It's unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like this to bring us together. You know, we have a lot of communities with different cultures. The Haitians have their culture and the Hasidim, especially, tend to be insular. But we are together on this. We are interacting like I've never seen before."

Tense for days

Mayor Jasmin, who took office last month, is Haitian-American and her husband was in Port-au-Prince when the quake struck. For two tense days she did not know his fate.

"It was a miracle from God when I heard he was alive," she said. "Thank God he's OK. A lot of my neighbours tell me they still can't find their loved ones."

The mayor said she believes the cooperation and sympathy prompted by the disaster will be a silver lining.

"This will stick," she said. "We won't need a disaster to bring us together."

"Everyone here is grieving because they lost a family member," said the Reverend Dessier Predelus, a Haiti-born priest at St Joseph's Catholic Church.

Predelus said he was touched to find an envelope containing $275 for Haiti from Spanish-speaking parishioners, most of them poor.

New York Archbishop, Timothy Dolan, joined Predelus at a special Creole Mass on Thursday night for earthquake victims, getting raucous cheers from more than 600 people jamming the church and an adjoining gymnasium.

"The language God, our Father, understands best is the language of tears," the archbishop told the congregation.

Predelus said he fears one of the results of the earthquake is the loss of a lifetime dream for some Haitians in the US.

"A lot of Haitians come here with the hope of working, gathering money, and going back to Haiti," he said.

"But now that hope has been taken away from them. I don't think they will be able to go back to a life there, not in their lifetimes."