Washington area Haitians pray, wait for news after quake

By William Wan and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010; A01

For years, Elsie Delson has worried about the 10-year-old son she left behind in Haiti -- the son she couldn't afford to bring along as her family fled to the United States. Now, that decision weighs heavily on her soul.

In the wake of Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti, Delson has frantically tried to call her parents, who care for her son in Port-au-Prince. Like many of the estimated 20,000 Haitian immigrants in the Washington area, she stayed up the night after the earthquake crying, praying and crying some more.

"I ask God what has happened, but I do not know. Nobody knows what happened, who is alive and who is not," she whispered in French at a prayer meeting Wednesday in Silver Spring. As she spoke, women around her cried out with loud Creole hymns and fervent prayers: "Protect them, God! O God who saves us. Protect them all!"

Across the Washington region and the country, from small enclaves of Haitians in Alexandria and Adelphi to huge communities in Miami and New York, similar stories of distress and uncertainty played out in churches, living rooms and offices.

Two priests -- the Rev. Arsene Jasmin, who heads Haitian outreach for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and one of his predecessors, the Rev. Andre Pierre, who lives in Haiti -- had not been heard from since the quake, the archdiocese said.

Jasmin, who conducts Creole masses at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights, St. Camillus in Silver Spring and Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park, had flown to Haiti on Monday for a retreat.

On Wednesday, Haitian immigrants spent hours trying to call loved ones. That's how Rudolph Chandler, a Haitian-born international health economist in Northwest Washington, heard that an elderly aunt whose house had collapsed around her was pulled from the wreckage alive.

But no word yet, Chandler said, about his cousin's wife, who works at the United Nations headquarters, which collapsed. Nor had he heard anything about another cousin, who is a surgeon in Port-au-Prince. The doctor is adept at using mobile communications, Facebook and Twitter, which has made his silence all the more unnerving, Chandler said.

For some, when news finally arrived, it was grim.

"A friend called. Her mom was stuck in the rubble. Her mom just died," said Arielle Jean-Baptiste, 50, of Silver Spring, who received text messages from Haiti early Wednesday. "The son of a friend, he was at the funeral parlor he worked in. He didn't make it."

All day, hope mixed with fear at Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire in Adelphi, one of the largest Haitian churches in Washington's suburbs.

Kneeling on the ground, Maude Cassamajor asked God to watch over her father, brother, sister and friends. Overnight, she had tried to reach them, burning through almost all of her calling cards -- expensive treats usually reserved for short calls three times a week.

Most of the calls never went through. Worse were the few times the phone rang but no one picked up. "You start thinking what may have happened. Your imagination takes over, and it becomes too much to bear," Cassamajor said.

All she could think about was her last conversation Monday with her brother in Haiti. He was worried about the cost and hung up quickly, telling her, "We'll talk more tomorrow."

"But tomorrow never came. I haven't heard from him since," she said.

Those who reached relatives shared what they had gleaned. Most of it seemed too enormous to comprehend. Port-au-Prince's main cathedral had collapsed. So had the presidential palace. The biggest grocery store in Haiti was flattened at an hour when it would have been full of shoppers.

For many immigrants, the quake adds to an already complicated relationship with their native country. Delson fled eight years ago with her eldest son and husband to escape starvation, poverty and a desolate future.

She left her youngest child, Pastra, then 2, with her mother and father and has not been able to see him since. Her husband died almost as soon as the family arrived in the United States. With his death, any hope that she could afford to bring her son to the United States perished as well.

"I pray for him. I think about him. That's all I can do now," Delson said.

James Mompoint, 30, who left Haiti with his family when he was 10, tried to explain his feelings of pain and longing. With every visit home, he said, come guilt, anger, powerlessness and hurt: "You hear about the unemployment, the starvation and hurricanes. You see how there is not even working electricity, running water. Then, you come home and see the fridge in your kitchen, making ice. It makes your heart hurt."

Mompoint has sent money and aid back home for years. His mother and others at his church were planning to leave next week for a mission trip and had sent food and supplies to distribute to the needy. Now, it's unclear whether that trip will happen. The building they were supposed to work out of was reported to be cracked in half. Some said it had collapsed entirely. Regardless of the logistics, the church will be mobilizing for a substantially larger mission, Mompoint said.

"The main question now is how we'll get the aid there, and how soon."

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