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With hope and help, Haitian earthquake survivors forge new lives in Tampa Bay area

TAMPA

Most of the time, Magdala Joseph stays in the bedroom of her South Tampa apartment with the blinds closed, listening to music and reading books in French about raising a healthy baby. She is quick to tell you she knows she needs to get out, but the Haiti earthquake paralyzed her.

"Both my legs and my mind," she says in English.

Joseph, 29, and her husband, a hospital administrator, were living just outside Port-au-Prince, near the epicenter of the quake. On the afternoon of Jan. 12 she was nursing her month-old son when the walls caved in.

"I tried to shield him, but he was knocked out of my arms," she says.

A few days later, she awoke in a Port-au-Prince hospital with four crushed vertebrae and a bad infection in her right leg. Two weeks later, with her dead child still entombed in the rubble, she was flown to Tampa General Hospital. Her leg had been amputated below the knee and she was paralyzed from the waist down.

Magdala Joseph is one of 74 Haitian earthquake victims who were flown from Port-au-Prince to local hospitals as part of a U.S. relief program. After weeks of care they were released, and 58 of them were installed, one by one, at the Pelican Pointe apartment complex south of Gandy Boulevard.

The youngest is almost a year old, the oldest 84. Some, like Joseph, who is an accountant, are university-educated professionals; others can't read or write. They've lost arms, legs, organs and chunks of skull. They've gained steel implants, skin grafts and prosthetics. At any time of day, you'll see them moving about the apartment complex on walkers and in wheelchairs. A few, like Joseph, are afraid to venture out, while others are so jittery, they can't bear to be inside.

They have one thing in common: They do not want to return to Haiti.

"To do what — sleep outside on the roadway?" Joseph asks.

Luis Rodriguez, a former discrimination claims investigator in St. Petersburg, runs the Catholic Charities Haiti Relief Effort in Tampa and St. Petersburg. His clients — on top of the 58 in Tampa, he has another 16 in St. Petersburg — were granted a year of humanitarian parole by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Rodriguez's goal is to help these refugees become self-sufficient to increase their chances of staying. Bending back his fingers, he lists steps: They need to be healthy and fearless enough to get out and about. They need to learn enough English to ride public buses. They need basic jobs. They need to budget for cars so they have access to better jobs.

He concedes that complete financial independence is a tall order for most of them because of their injuries and the language barrier. But he has hope.

"Some will come close," he says.

• • •

In her apartment bedroom, Magdala Joseph looks through papers — her university degree, her marriage certificate, her dead baby's birth certificate — while singing along with a CD: "When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high."

She likes this American song, she says, because it is very Haitian to hold your head up high, no matter how great the pain.

"I still am leaking milk for my baby," she says. "That is the only tears I can't hold back."

Joseph is not clear why she dreads going outside and moving toward independence, as Rodriguez urges. Something to do with "feeling embarrassed and out of place out there," she says.

The earthquake victims at Pelican Pointe live four to an apartment. Catholic Charities supplied a sofa, tables, chairs and beds with sheets for each apartment. The tenants supply habits from home.

Their apartments are immaculate, often smelling faintly of chicken stock, cooked onions and thyme. Usually, a bowl of bananas and other tropical fruit tops a colorful, crocheted doily on the dining room table. A side bureau is often covered with stuffed animals and empty pastel bottles for decoration. The twin beds — two in each room — are made with crisply ironed sheets, meticulously creased in what are called "hotel corners" in Haiti. There is always a Creole Bible somewhere in the apartment.

On an afternoon in mid September, Joseph's bedroom door flies open and a toddler in a flowered sundress marches in. She is missing an arm, and the right side of her face is crushed.

"Hello Kitty," she announces, running into Joseph's open arms.

"Beautiful child," whispers Joseph.

When her home caved in on Jan. 12, Fritzcar Pierre, then 20 months old, was buried under chunks of concrete with her 22-year-old mother. The mother was found dead. Fritzcar, who fell farther down in the rubble, was believed dead. But on the fifth day, an uncle with a shovel saw something move. It was Fritzcar's foot.

"My miracle child," says her father, Fritznel Pierre, who follows her into Joseph's apartment.

Like all of the refugees at Pelican Pointe, Pierre, 31, worries about the future. He spends hours every day taking care of his daughter and studying English, hoping it will lead to a job and the magic word preached by the Catholic Charities staff: "self-sufficiency."

"What we need to stay," he says.

Two nights a week for three hours a night, Pierre and about 30 other earthquake victims take English classes at St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Recently, they learned how to order at a diner: "Hello, how do you do? I would like a chicken salad sandwich for $6.95, please."

There is word from the office that Walmart will hire a few of the refugees as stockers. (With their one-year visas, they received temporary work papers.) Pierre and his apartment mate, who was a French teacher at a private school in the capital before the earthquake, hope to be among the lucky ones.

"Most of us would do anything to have a small income and a sense of purpose," says the roommate, Moise Pierre, who cares for his 84-year-old mother in a wheelchair.

Evans Muncie, who lives across the parking lot, is not yet in the running for a job. Muncie, 28, was repeatedly called "a miracle" on international TV when his ashen, skeletal frame was pulled from the rubble after 27 days. But things have not gone well since.

• • •

On this day in late September, Muncie sits on the steps outside his apartment, staring into space. He does not want to be a zombie, he says in a monotone. But he feels dead to this world.

"I am under the rubble and can't get out," he explains in Creole through a translator.

His screams in the night wake the neighbors. His screams in the day scare the children. Every few days an ambulance takes him back to the hospital, and a van brings him home a week later. Sometimes it's his ankles, other times his stomach. Always, it's his mind.

Maybe, he says, he will learn to ride a bike and that will help him calm down inside. Maybe, he says, he'll sleep in a big grassy field where nothing can fall on him. Maybe, seeing his mother in Haiti would reassure him. Or a soccer match might distract him.

"I need something to bring me into this world and keep me here," he says.

Which on a more practical level is exactly what the Catholic Charities staffers want for all of their Haitian clients: to help them fit in, and stay here.

"They didn't ask for the earthquake and all of this injury and loss. How can we turn our backs on them?" asks Rodriguez.

To overcome the daily frustrations of shrinking funds, shaky immigration status and uncertainty, Rodriguez and the case workers remind one another of the small victories: Milaine, who arrived in the United States in a coma, graduated from a walker to a cane a few days ago. Esperanta, who never learned to read in the Cité Soleil slum where she grew up, just wrote her name for the first time. Jean-Marie, whose leg injury has healed, rode a bicycle to Sweetbay. Celina, who cooked on an open fire before she arrived here, heats leftovers in the microwave.

And then there are the children: Fritzcar blurts out whole sentences in English. Rutha walks home from ninth grade on her artificial leg and doesn't even limp. She and classmate Jhovany speak to each other in English more than Creole and will soon be placed in mainstream classes at school. The arm and leg of Shnayder, 13, have healed enough for him to play soccer.

And, the big news: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just voted to keep paying rent for the earthquake victims, which makes it more likely that their temporary U.S. visas will be extended, giving them more time to recover and become independent.

"When the help stops, I can't bear to think," says Rodriguez.

• • •

On a balmy morning a few days ago, he was walking around Pelican Pointe when he saw something that took him aback. A city bus had stopped in front of the apartment complex and an electronic lift was raising Magdala Joseph in her wheelchair. The same Magdala Joseph whose grief is so consuming that she can't bear to go outside.

"It made me so happy I wanted to shout," Rodriguez said.

In her apartment that evening, while she tore lettuce for salad and her husband stirred a pot of onions and peppers, Joseph talked about her first outing.

She and her husband took the bus downtown to Tampa General Hospital so she could ask how to get physical and psychological therapy. They didn't understand everything they were told, but enough to start paperwork.

"That means something," she says.

On the way back, they caught the wrong bus and meandered around Tampa, lost and afraid for several hours. It was not a good experience, she said.

"But I tried, and will try again."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

on the web

Images of new lives

To see more photos, go to tampabay.com/
features.

Learn more

For more information on Catholic Charities Haiti Relief Effort, call Luis Rodriguez at (813) 415-3291 or write Haiti Relief Effort, 1213 16th St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33705.

With hope and help, Haitian earthquake survivors forge new lives in Tampa Bay area 09/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 26, 2010 1:42pm]

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