Haitian-Canadians scrambling for information following massive earthquake

Haitian-Canadians found themselves in a painfully familiar place Wednesday: scrambling for information about loved ones in their devastated homeland.

An injured child is tended to at the Hotel Villa Creole in Port-au-Prince

An injured child is tended to at the Hotel Villa Creole in Port-au-Prince

MONTREAL — The turmoil within Canada’s Haitian community is so severe that even people co-ordinating efforts to help earthquake victims have no idea where their own relatives are.

Frantz Benjamin is an example of the turmoil being felt by Canada’s 100,000 Haitians.

Benjamin says he’s trying to keep his mind squarely on the task at hand — raising money to help his earthquake-ravaged homeland.

But the poet and rookie Montreal city councillor is also wondering what has become of his family, including his 88-year-old father, a Canadian citizen who winters in the Carribean country.

“Its been a nightmare,” Benjamin said Wednesday after a news conference urging Quebecers to donate money through the Red Cross.

“I tried until 2 a.m. to get in touch with him. I called a couple of relatives (in the U.S.), neighbours (in Haiti) . . . but unfortunately, everyone is waiting to have some information.”

Haitian-Canadians found themselves in a painfully familiar place Wednesday: scrambling for information about loved ones in a homeland pounded by misfortune.

Images of Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean clutching a handkerchief provided a teary-eyed face to the pain felt in Canada by tens of thousands.

It was a similar refrain in thousands of households as people kept their eyes glued to television sets, listened in to community radio, and kept their finger on the redial button in the slim hope they might be able to get word from Haiti.

Their native country already having been crippled by a string of recent hurricanes, they were quickly numbed by the realization Wednesday that this disaster was the worst one yet.

Canada’s Haitians — about 90 per cent of whom live in Montreal — kept asking the same disheartening question.

“I’m wondering why? Why Haiti? Why again? There’s a sense of meaninglessness,” said Jean Wolff, a federal official at the National Capital Commission.

Asma Heurtelou, a community organizer and president of a Haitian-Canadian aid organization, said: “That’s the question everyone is asking.”

Routinely battered by hurricanes and tropical storms, Heurtelou said the poor country was beginning to show signs of recovery from previous hardships.

“We were told that Haiti was getting over this, and now this happens.”

Desperate phone calls flooded the switchboard of Montreal Haitian radio station CPAM, with people seeking or sharing news from the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Callers lit up the tiny station’s lines and recited street names and specific addresses in the hope someone had heard something.

Others called to reveal what they’d managed to learn themselves.

While Asma Heurtelou, also a radio host at the station, took to the airwaves, her daughter attempted to find other ways to reach family in Haiti.

Community members say it’s even harder to reach loved ones this time, in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake, than it was following the floods that buried swaths of the country in 2007.

Tuesday’s quake knocked out phone and power lines. Many people have cell phones in that country, rich and poor, but service is down, said Heurtelou’s daughter, Melissa.

“One provider appears to be keeping up, but the others are not.”

She also tried using Facebook and Twitter to reach cousins, without any initial success.

“It’s an unprecedented communication breakdown,” said Pierre Emanuelle, news director at the station.

It’s far from the only recent disaster to hit Haiti. In fact, large tracts of land were flooded, covered in mud, or wiped out by a crippling series of hurricanes two years ago.

At the time, bridges were knocked out and people slept for weeks on the roofs of their tin shacks.

But Emanuelle said that when disaster struck in the past, information flowed more readily.

“All the infrastructure is destroyed this time,” he said.

“In the past, we’ve maybe lost contact with one town, but not a general blackout involving the whole country.”

Radio host Robert Ismael worried about his own family while trying to reassure others and get information to the community.

“I don’t know what’s happened,” he said. “I don’t know if I have family who have died or not. I don’t know.”

At Maison Haiti, a Montreal organization where newcomers often congregate, Eline Occessite Francois said she tried in vain to get word on her two teenage children.

“I haven’t heard from my kids, I don’t know where they are, I don’t know how they are,” said Francois, 45, a former schoolteacher who fled Haiti last April after threats from gang members.

Francois said she spent a sleepless night waiting on a phone call that never arrived, and sent an e-mail in the hope she’d get some sort of reply.

“I’m very worried,” she said, lowering her head while fighting off tears.

Social networking websites became a desperate resort for those seeking information.

Facebook groups were quickly popping up with pictures of the missing affixed with pleas for news.

“Please let me know if anybody seen my mother in Haiti her name is Mirabelle Moise was in carrefour, Mahothiere…,” said one typical posting.

Others pledged money, cellphones and humanitarian help.

Wolff, the federal bureaucrat, tried most of Tuesday night to get in touch with close friends and relatives — to no avail.

He said he has watched closely over the years in frustration as aid efforts for his homeland have been driven by global politics rather than the everyday needs of the Haitian people.

Now, he hopes the catastrophe will shake the international aid community into working together to rebuild, rather than every agency and country acting on its own.

“My first though is that considering the scale of devastation that seems to be emerging, it would be useful for the Haitian people and the international community, that when we start moving beyond the initial recovery, that we have a coherent plan.”

Wolff’s cousin flew to Haiti earlier this week, carrying a few gifts from the Ottawa man for friends and relatives there. He has no news from his cousin, or any of his close friends.

“I’m having a lot of contradictory feelings, because I don’t have any information.”

Benjamin still hadn’t heard from his father Wednesday afternoon. He said he was a youthful 88-year-old, and was simply trying to escape the cold like many other Canadian seniors.

He swallowed hard when a reporter asked how he was coping.

“The time now is to work on mobilization, on solidarity, on generosity,” Benjamin said, adding that hundreds of other people like him also needed help.

“Regarding the feelings in our hearts, we’ll deal with that after.”