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Haiti earthquake victim longs to become a nurse, return home to help

Ambre Pierre Louis, 19, survived Haiti’s earthquake and hopes to graduate Bloomingdale High this year.

Stephanie Wang | Times

Ambre Pierre Louis, 19, survived Haiti’s earthquake and hopes to graduate Bloomingdale High this year.

LITHIA

Ambre Pierre Louis fiddles nervously with a pendant around her throat, fingers covering the clear star inside a gold heart.

It's a necklace her father gave her — before he died of cancer, before the earthquake hit, before she had to come here. One of her only possessions that survived last year's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, safely clasped around her neck when she scrambled out of her collapsed house in Port-au-Prince.

Days after the disaster, 19-year-old Ambre moved in with her cousin in Lithia, bringing with her that necklace, her iPod, a single pair of clothes.

And hives from the dust that coated her body. Headaches from the stress. Flashbacks whenever she thought about that day.

Nearly a year after the Jan. 12, 2010, tragedy, she doesn't want to talk about it.

"When I don't talk about it, it's okay," said Ambre, who now attends Bloomingdale High School. "That's why I don't try to find out what happened. I just close my ears."

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated her country, killed at least two of her friends, destroyed her home and her mother's store.

• • •

So Ambre pours her focus into learning English. She takes English as a Second Language classes at school, where she's the only native French speaker among a sea of Spanish. She works with a tutor, attends a learning center and makes flash cards for all the bold words in her history textbooks.

Her English is fluid now, but still, she gives up sometimes — spending entire church classes in the bathroom when she can't understand what they're saying.

"It's not fun when you don't know the language," she explains through her cousin.

Or the culture. She cried on her first day of school when the bell rang, and the thunder of kids running through the halls felt like another earthquake.

Ambre prefers to stay in her room a lot of the time, where nobody makes fun of her English, where she can be kept company by her friends' photos on her wall.

They thought she was dead after the earthquake.

Their names are written in pink puff paint on her purple and black high-tops. Hers and her three best friends, their initials drawn together just above the white rubber toe.

Many of her friends are in the United States, too, but scattered. They're in New York, New Jersey, she says. Not Tampa.

All of this she tells in English, but when she tries to talk about the earthquake, the language fails her. She skims over details.

Her mom took her home from volleyball, "and then the thing happened," Ambre said. And then there was a lot of walking.

Ambre starts over, mostly in French this time, which her cousin translates.

It was near 5 p.m. on that day last January in Port-au-Prince, and she was in her room about to change out of her uniform to start a class project. Her mom had just gotten out of the shower.

When the earthquake hit, they didn't know what it was. They thought, maybe, it was a sinkhole opening in the street in front of them.

They went downstairs together, where a fallen wall and china cabinet protected them.

"She called God," Ambre said in English about her mother.

"You mean she prayed?" asked her cousin, Fadia Richardson, 58, a French teacher at Bloomingdale High.

"No, like she said, 'Jésus!' " Ambre said.

A neighbor later helped them crawl out of the house.

Words tumble out of Ambre's mouth in a stream of rapid French. Her eyes fix on a spot somewhere past the dining room table.

Only five people on her street survived, she said. Because the buildings collapsed, only the people outside stayed alive.

White dust covered everything. Trees had fallen, and people were everywhere. Blood was everywhere.

They ran past her school, past dead bodies in the street — don't look, her mother told her, just keep going — and slept in the street that night, awakened by frequent aftershocks. They walked what is normally a 45-minute drive to another cousin's house in the mountains.

• • •

This story is punctuated by Ambre's tears, which come suddenly and in waves. It sounds like she's out of breath, but then she stares at her lap, face reddening, and gets quiet. And stays quiet.

Her mother is still in Haiti, looking for a new job, sleeping on the floor of a relative's crowded house and wondering if the damp, hard surface will give her arthritis.

Ambre lives in the United States on a tourist visa from a vacation years ago. But the visa has to be renewed every six months, and the government has yet to approve her latest request to extend a Jan. 19 expiration date.

She wants to stay here, she says. She wants to go to college, become a nurse.

"The only goal," Ambre said, "is to study hard so you can go back. And then we can do something."

She breaks down and sobs. Between gulps of air, she says something in French.

"Put your heads together and try to help," Richardson translates, "to help the country."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Haiti earthquake victim longs to become a nurse, return home to help 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 3:30am]

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