Sadness from afar

Valerie Placide, left, and her son Cleo Antoni Geneste, 9, pose for a picture near their home in Spring Valley, N.Y., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. This week, Placide and other Haitians will mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that tore their country apart. And some days after that, Placide will reach the one-year anniversary of the day she left her homeland, 9-year-old son in tow, desperate to keep him safe but hopeful the day she could return for a visit or perhaps permanently wasn't too many years away. (AP)

Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 5:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 5:28 p.m.

NEW YORK — Valerie Placide's heart is heavy as she sits 1,500 miles from Haiti, preparing to mark the first anniversary of the earthquake that tore her homeland apart.

She left Haiti with her 9-year-old son in the days after the quake on Jan. 12, 2010. Now in Spring Valley, N.Y., north of New York City, the 35-year-old Placide has watched as recovery efforts floundered, cholera killed more than 3,600 people and political unrest turned to riots in a heavily criticized election.

"You've spent a year hoping that everything would be better," Placide said. Instead, she said, "I'm not hopeful at all."

For some of those who left Haiti after the earthquake, the passage of a year with little progress to show for it has meant adjusting to a different kind of aftershock: The reality that going home again could take a lot longer than they initially thought.

"There's no way for me to go back in two or five years because there's nothing going there," Placide said.

Jean-Claude Jeanty, 38, left Haiti in November and is now living with his brother in Brooklyn.

"The future is uncertain; you can't say you're going back soon or tomorrow, one or two years or 10 years, you don't know," he said. him, the months after the earthquake were so bad and the future outlook so grim that now he doesn't think going back is an option.

"The place where you were born, it's not good for you, you have to move on," he said.

The Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people and left more than a million homeless. While there has been no mass exodus to places like the United States, there have been new arrivals — Haitian children adopted by American families, and Haitians escaping the aftermath by joining relatives and friends in places like New York City and Spring Valley, as well as Haitian communities in Florida and elsewhere.

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, the embassy in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, issued 15,706 immigrant visas and 19,286 non-immigrant visas from October 2009 to September 2010.

Immigrant visas are issued to people looking for permanent residence in the U.S., while non-immigrant visas means someone can stay for a limited time and for a reason like studying or visiting. Last year saw an increase in immigrant visas from the year before, but a decrease in non-immigrant visas, meaning more visas went to people looking to move here and fewer to people coming under short-term categories.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, hundreds of new faces were seen in the Haitian community in New York City, said Elsie St. Louis-Accilien, executive director of Haitian-Americans United for Progress, a community-based organization in Queens.

Some were coming here permanently, but others had come with the idea that it would be temporary, that they'd escape the horrors of the immediate earthquake aftermath with the intention of returning to Haiti at some point.

For them, she said, it's been a double whammy: the shock and disruption of the earthquake now being followed by the shock of the reality that going back is nowhere near a viable option.

"The loss of being uprooted and having the ground pulled from under you is very difficult," she said.

Some of them may be here on visas that prevent them from working, or staying with family members who didn't anticipate having extra mouths to feed and house for a long-term period.

"Now they have to readjust to living here," she said. "These are people who did not plan on doing this."

Still, some say, no matter how their plans may have to be readjusted to deal with realities on the ground, Haiti and its future will be part of theirs.

Prior to the quake, Jovins Dorestan said he never thought about leaving Haiti. The 26-year-old worked a police officer, and lost part of a leg when his house collapsed.

Now in the New York town of Haverstraw, he's in what he calls his "second life." He's been fitted with a prosthetic leg, and wants to go to school here for civil engineering, a degree he wants to put to use in Haiti.

He had hoped the situation there would be better by now, but it doesn't change his overall plans that it's not.

"I love my country," he said. "I'm Haitian. If Haiti needs my help, I have to bring it."

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