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Area Haitians begin to learn fate of loved ones

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A search and rescue team from Fairfax, Virginia, is on the ground in quake-stricken Haiti, helping in the search for survivors and victims. The team, along with their dogs, have been at the site of the U.N. headquarters in Haiti.

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By Tara Bahrampour, William Wan and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 3:39 PM

While the agonizing wait for news of their loved ones continued Thursday for many Washington-area Haitian immigrants, Arielle Jean-Baptiste finally heard from her relatives in Port-au-Prince. But the news they passed on was not what she wanted to hear.

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The Maryland woman learned Thursday that 15 people she knew in Haiti had died in Tuesday's devastating earthquake. Among them was her son's mother-in-law, a 58-year-old accountant who was in her office when the earthquake struck. The building collapsed.

"Her daughter found her body," said Jean-Baptiste, 50, who lives in Silver Spring and was still trying to absorb the magnitude of the losses.

"The news is starting to come in," she said. "It is unraveling now. There's no time right now for the dead. It's time to look for the living. We'll mourn them for years to come. For years."

An uncle and a close friend are still unaccounted for, said Jean-Baptiste, who fears the death toll among her relatives, friends and acquaintances will climb in the coming days.

In Northern Virginia, a day of anguished waiting ended for Cindy Aronoff when she learned that her son, Michael, 21, had survived the quake, which struck while he and three other members of an outreach program from Blue Ridge Community College were helping villagers set up a rabbit cooperative southwest of the Haitian capital. But a school run by nuns in Rivière Froide and an adjacent convent guesthouse where they were staying did not escape the tragedy.

"The school collapsed on the school children," an American volunteer in Haiti, Myrian Kaplan-Pasternak, wrote in an e-mail to her organization, explaining that the Blue Ridge group was with her in the tiny town of Signeau. "We had a long night, but luckily we arrived a bit late and were not in the guest house, which also collapsed."

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.

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.

After the quake, Delson 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!"

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.


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