Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

From Haiti to America -- and back? Quake survivor caught in between

By Moni Basu, CNN
Click to play
Haitian mom's new life in U.S.
  • Mother flees Haiti to get medical help for injured child
  • She works hard to find new life in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Humanitarian parole is running out and she may have to return to Haiti
  • Her family says only poverty and squalor await her there

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Dady Jean's new third-floor apartment lacks clues about her life. She likes it that way. Besides, she has no possessions from the home she left behind.

She doesn't need reminders of what happened in Haiti.

All she has to do is look at the cotton-candy pink helmet on her baby girl's head. Her name -- Shnaika -- is spelled out in rainbow colors across the front. Underneath are the deep scars Jean caresses every day.

They tell a story of survival. Of hope. And renewed fear -- this time of life alone in America with a critically injured child.

Shnaika surely would have died if she had stayed in Haiti after the massive January earthquake pulverized parts of the nation. But she was among a lucky group of 50 Haitians brought to Atlanta, Georgia, for medical treatment.

Life had been a struggle in her impoverished homeland, even before the earthquake. But Jean did not anticipate the kind of new challenges she would face in the world's richest nation.

She lies awake at night, watches her daughter sleep in a crib next to her bed and worries about how she will ensure a decent future.

She made a new home amid a vast housing complex in Atlanta, occupied primarily by people from around the world who have fled disasters and violence.

But little is spoken of the past. Jean says she can't move forward if she dwells on what happened January 12.

Seeking help across the water

On that wretched evening, Jean's common-law husband was in their rented two-bedroom house with her three children. When the earth began convulsing, the house came tumbling down. Jean doesn't know if her husband's body was ever found.

Her children, Stephanie, 8, and Steve, 4, survived, as did 18-month old Shnaika. But the little one suffered a severe head injury.

Jean raced madly through the streets of Port-au-Prince, past bodies and rubble, frantic to find medical care for Shnaika.

The hospitals and clinics were heavily damaged. The ones that were open had few doctors -- let alone the capacity to provide the kind of complex surgery her daughter needed.

Nine days later, she stumbled upon American doctors, who transported mother and child to the state-of-the-art medical ship USNS Comfort, where they operated on Shnaika's fractured skull and were able to save her life by controlling the cranial hemorrhaging.

Jean had nothing with her. Clothed in a doctor's lab coat, floating on the waters of the Caribbean, she could see Port-au-Prince in the distance. She pondered the fate of her family still on land.

On board the massive ship, a 10-year-old boy with a broken leg, Hugues Larose, gave Jean a copy of a pencil drawing he made for the doctor who treated him.

Jean held onto the chilling sketch of naked bodies crushed by steel bars and chunks of concrete. It was among the few things in her bag when she arrived in Atlanta on February 2.

She had fully expected to be returned to Port-au-Prince. But the United States allowed her to enter on humanitarian parole so that Shnaika could receive the follow-up care she needed at a pediatric hospital.

In Atlanta, doctors diagnosed Shnaika with traumatic brain injury, speech and lung deficits and developmental delays. She also did not have full use of her left leg. Jean could tell her daughter was not the same. She stopped smiling and laughing. She had lost her bounce.

But Jean felt incredibly lucky.

The earthquake killed more than 200,000 people. So many mothers were grieving. It displaced 1.5 million people. So many mothers were eking out an existence in tents, barely managing to feed their children.

Jean had survived. Shnaika had survived. It was God's way of telling her that life was starting again. She couldn't let the opportunity slip.

Finding solace at Atlanta church

After several weeks spent in an extended-stay hotel room near the hospital, Jean and two other Haitian women with critically injured children -- Yvetta Villedrouin and Minouche Savoir -- found a new home through the Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta.

The ranch-style house -- with hardwood floors, three neat bedrooms and a dishwasher in the kitchen -- was donated by the church next door.

It was heaven compared to what Jean had in Haiti. But the real comfort was in the company of the other women. Each had a child who had come close to death. Each had lost everything else.

In that house, Jean tried to learn again to live within concrete walls and vibrations in the floor without fearing they might come crashing down at any moment.

She gussied herself up with donated clothes -- skinny jeans and bright T-shirts.

She started attending services at Mitspa Haitian Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. The church helped her with groceries, laundry and all the chores that had become enormous tasks in a new country.

Dady Jean has recently made a profession of faith. Her journey has been long.
--Rev. Seneque Saintil

Jean found a snow-white dress to wear. She sat in the pews, Shnaika by her side, and lifted her arms skyward. "I feel so much better since I laid my burden down," she sang in Creole. "Glory, Glory Hallelujah!"

She found solace at the church and asked the Rev. Seneque Saintil to baptize her. Saintil recognized her in front of the whole congregation at a service in March.

"Dady Jean has recently made a profession of faith," he said. "Her journey has been long."

With her daughter's prognosis improving, Jean slowly began to find herself again. She would make it in America, she thought, no matter how alien her surroundings felt.

She learned to shop at American groceries and asked Haitian community volunteers to take her to stores where she could find green plantains and the kind of fish she was used to eating.

She had cooked on the streets of Port-au-Prince, one of thousands of women who served up barbecued meat, rice and fried plantains for a pittance. She never learned to read and write but she worked hard to earn a living. She wanted to do the same in America.

One afternoon, she opened a can of coconut cream for the jackfish stew simmering on the stove. No more charcoals out under a searing tropical sun. The electric stove was fancy; the kitchen, air-conditioned.

She sliced green peppers and onions with the precision of a trained chef, even with a dull paring knife.

Villedrouin reached for the peppers to put into the pot.

"No, not yet," Jean said, adjusting her Haiti baseball cap. "They will get too soft."

Jean was feeling more confident as the days rolled by. Natasha Bouloute, a Haitian-American radiology technician at the hospital where Shnaika is being treated, said she was instantly attracted to Jean because of her will to move forward.

Shnaika was faring better, too. She learned to laugh and smile, and play with toys again.

If only Jean could see her other two children left behind in Haiti. Stephanie and Steve were too young to be without their mama.

In April, she got word that they had moved to Jean's mother's house in Anse-a-Veau, many miles west of Port-au-Prince.

"It's very difficult. I worry about them every day," she said, speaking through an interpreter.

In all the time she spent with CNN, Jean never shed a tear. She speaks always with the hardness of a survivor.

Some of the community volunteers who have been helping her believe it is a defense mechanism. If she began showing emotions, they might take her down.

In solitary moments, she breaks.

"Some days I cook, but I can't eat. I think about my family," she said.

The challenge of learning to read and write

"A, B, C, D," Jean slowly repeated after teacher Michelle Hulme-Lippert.

In the back room of an Atlanta church, Jean strained to learn English.

"Where are you from?" Hulme-Lippert asked.

Jean picked up her pen. "P-o-t-p-s," she scribbled on a piece of paper.

In Haiti, I won't have money to help my family. I won't be able to pay for Shnaika's medical treatment.
--Dady Jean

Frustration abounded. After everything she had been through, after escaping life's toughness in Haiti, she again faced a harsh reality. This time it was in the land where she thought life would be easier.

In her mind, New York, Miami and Atlanta were places where Haitians started life anew. This was the land of plenty, where she could have things that were unattainable dreams in Haiti.

She knew that English, as unfamiliar to her as Georgia's soaring pines, was part of her ticket out of a hard existence. But it was difficult facing this kind of humiliation -- of being a 27-year-old woman who does not know how to read or write.

"Don't be embarrassed," said Kareen Cavalier, one of the Haitian-American community volunteers helping Jean adjust to her new life.

Jean leaked a smile, then repeated after her teacher. "My name is Dady."

These days, Jean is also learning how to traverse the streets of Atlanta by bus and subway.

The refugee agency helping Jean resettle thought it would be better if she were surrounded by Haitians.

In the summer, she and her roommates were moved to a vast apartment complex that houses immigrants from all over the world, including some of the Haitians who were on the Comfort with her.

Eight of the injured Haitians who came to Atlanta are still in nursing facilities, said Leanne Rubenstein, development director of the Atlanta refugee agency. Three did not survive their injuries.

But Rubenstein said Jean was faring well.

Shnaika has learned to walk again; her helmet protects her head from falls. A speech therapist is helping her learn to talk.

Jean is determined more than ever to learn English. Language was the one thing, she felt, that was holding her back from a job, from a normal life.

"I don't feel free here because of that," she said.

The refugee agency provides cash assistance of $235 a month to Jean, but only for the first eight months, Rubenstein said. Jean also receives about $350 every month in food stamps.

Soon, she has to make it on her own.

She wants desperately to work, because her most fervent hope is to remain in the United States.

Though she has been on the same track as most refugees who arrive in the United States -- learning English, learning to assimilate -- there's a catch for Jean. She and her two roommates were granted special humanitarian parole status to enter the United States because of the medical attention needed by their children.

A Department of Homeland Security official said about 1,100 Haitians entered the United States on this special status after the earthquake. They were given a year. After that, they are expected to return to Haiti.

The official said Jean could apply for extensions to remain in the United States. The decision will be left to the discretion of the immigration officer handling her case, but ultimately, humanitarian parole is granted with the intention that a person return home. It is not designed as a step toward permanent residency.

Jean dreads the phone call that will inform her she will be sent back to Port-au-Prince. Perhaps it will come in January.

What are her options in Haiti? Without a house. Without a husband. Without anything.

"In Haiti, I won't have money to help my family," she said. "I won't be able to pay for Shnaika's medical treatment.

"I know how to cook well. If they allow me to stay I would like to do that again," she said. "But I will do any job. My family in Haiti is counting on me."

Her sister, Yolette Oderville, doesn't want Jean to come back, either.

When CNN visited her in May, she was sitting in the darkness of a makeshift tent in the Fontamara neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, where she once had a house. Asked about her sister, she said "We miss her but she is better off in America.

"If Dady comes back, she will live like this," Oderville said, pointing to the squalor surrounding her.

The uncertainty of the future makes it too bleak to think about -- in a still-ravaged Haiti, and in Atlanta.

All Jean knows is that God saved her once and is watching over her still.

God knows how bad it is back home, she said, her eyes falling to the carpeted floor of the bedroom she shares with Shnaika. He will decide their fate.

Part of complete coverage on
Haitians cope with wretched memories
They filled the grounds in front of the collapsed cathedral in Haiti's capital Wednesday. To remember. To cope. To pray.
Why U.S. aid workers refuse to give up
Can-Do founder Eric Klein spent most of 2010 in Haiti helping people recover from the devastating earthquake.
Haiti adoption; a new chance
What kind of parents would put their children in an orphanage?
Review of vote completed
A much-awaited review of Haiti's disputed presidential election has been completed but not yet been handed over to the president.
20,000 new jobs promised
Haiti's economy is getting a boost thanks to a venture with one of Korea's largest companies that promises to bring in 20,000 jobs.
Baby reunited with doctor
Nadine Devilme has thanked God countless times for saving her baby and has wanted to thank the doctor who treated the child after the earthquake.
To recover, Haiti needs leaders
What Haiti needs now is leadership from its sovereign government.
Bitter, displaced, Haitians wait in limbo
Amy Wilentz says a year after the earthquake, much of the funding to rebuild is stalled as aid organizations wait for the election crisis to be resolved.