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Haitian-Americans Search for Loved Ones

Thousands of Americans of Haitian descent and others with friends and relatives in Haiti have been incessantly calling, impatiently waiting, and deeply worrying as they try to connect with their loved ones who might have survived the devastating earthquake.  Lack of electricity to charge cell phones and the sheer magnitude of destruction, and ensuing chaos, has made this process extremely difficult.

Even when someone is finally able to connect with a surviving loved one, a new type of worry sets in--how to care for surviving family members and friends who have lost everything.

Florida resident and Haiti native Mirlene Raymond (pictured right) is one American facing just this situation.  She was picking up a few essentials at a convenience store near her home in Temple Pines, when she glanced up at the television screen.  CNN was broadcasting with the sound off.

When a newsflash ran across the screen, Mirlene barely registered it until she saw the words "Haiti," "earthquake," and "7.0" pop up.  She asked the store clerk to turn up the volume.  Only then did she realize the gravity  of the tragic event that was enfolding before her eyes.

Mirlene quickly reached for her cell phone and dialed her mother's number in Port-au-Prince.  No answer.  Then she called her family in the United States, including her sister, her cousin, and her aunt.  "I asked them if they saw the news and they were like, 'What? What's going on?'" remembered Mirlene.  "All of us had heard that there was an earthquake of 7.0, but we didn't quite understand what was happening."

It wasn't until 15 minutes had passed that she and her family realized that something very bad took place in their home country.  After several failed attempts at calling her mother, Mirlene started to worry that her mother's house in the Delmas district of the Haitian capital was affected by the damage.  She tried reaching her mother's next-door neighbor in the hopes of getting some news.  Again, no luck.  Her worry turned to panic.

"I was shaking," said Mirlene.  "All I could think about was 'Where's my mom?'"  She started to blame herself.  Her mother had spent the summer with her in Florida before going back to Haiti for the winter.  "I shouldn't have let her go back," Mirlene was reprimanding herself, thinking that if something had happened to her mother she couldn’t forgive herself. "I should have made her stay with me."

The day of the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince passed without news from her mother.  Two more days went by and still no word on her whereabouts.  Finally, on Friday, Mirlene was able to get a hold of a friend who screamed out, 'I'm alive,' as he answered the phone.  He and his wife and son--who happened to be in Haiti for a visit--had to sleep in their car because their house was in shambles.

Mirlene's friend found her mother, Anne Mary Philippe, in the yard of her destroyed house and put her on the phone. "When I heard her voice, I started screaming, 'Mommy!' I was crying," Mirlene recalled.  Anne Mary at first refused to leave the ruins of her home and seek a safer shelter. In the end, her daughter convinced her to stay with her cousin, whose house in the mountains was spared.

As the days went by, more news--good and bad--started to trickle in.  Even though Mirlene has lived in Florida with her Haitian-born husband and 8-year-old daughter for the past 11 years, she has kept close touch with friends and family in Haiti.  She learned that two of her good friends and their two children survived the disaster--but lost their youngest, an 11-year-old boy.  They found his body in the rubble and buried him the yard of their house.

Without electricity, phones are dying, and fewer and fewer calls have been coming through.  That Friday was the first and the last time Mirlene and her mother spoke since the earthquake.  Though relieved that her mother is alive and safe, Mirlene is worried that she, like most people in Haiti, were running out of water.

For now, Mirlene's primary concern is to bring her mother to Florida. She wants to fly to Haiti and pick her up herself.  According to the latest reports, airlines are scheduled to start operating commercial flights to Haiti on January 25 and Mirlene won't rest until she gets on the first available plane.

"Even if I have to wait in line for hours at the airport, I will," she said.  "All I want is to go to Haiti and get my mom."

Mirlene Raymond works at Youth Co-Op in Palm Beach, a member of USCRI's Network, assisting Haitian refugees.  Immediately following the earthquake, she and fellow staffers were on call at the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Orlando airports to help reunite arriving Haitians holding U.S. citizenship with their families living in the United States.

You can help protect the rights of vulnerable Haitians. Support USCRI's work in Haiti >>

For more information on the post-earthquake developments, check out our team’s reports from the ground in Haiti >>

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