Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Josette still feels the earth move beneath her

Tetchena Bellange says that following the Haitian earthquake, it was as if the world stopped for several days.

At the time of the cataclysmic event, the documentary film director’s aunt Josette, 71, was in Haiti, taking care of her son who had been ill. The family heard from her, then lost touch. “Watching the news, I felt like dying,” Bellange said. “It was awful, a feeling in your belly pinching everywhere. We couldn’t eat or sleep.” In an act of inspiration and desperation, she sent an email to everyone, individuals and any media she found on the Net, pleading for news of Tante Josette.

“The images seen on TV are terrifying, some powerful Haitian symbols just collapsed. Is it at last the end of the Haitian people’s suffering? I hope so with all my heart. And I do my best to believe that my aunt and her son are safe and sound. I stay near the phone in case they call.”

Tante Josette arrives safely in Montreal

After four days, CNN reporter Gary Tuchman called to tell Bellange that Tante Josette was with him. Tuchman was one of several people, including members of the media and the military, who guided Josette to safety, battling the crowds to get her through the embassy doors and taking her to Montreal on a Canadian military airplane.

“It was heartbreaking – at first, when the CNN reporter and the Canadian army came to pick her up, she stayed. She didn’t want to leave her son. The following Monday, she had no choice but to go since her health was deteriorating.”

Josette is still reliving the horror, Bellange says. “It was a nightmare. She says she never saw anything like it before, surrounded by death everywhere. She says she still feels like the earth is moving beneath her.” Because she knew to stand in the doorframe of a house, Josette escaped death. “She went to the entrance, the more solid part of the house, made of metal. The house fell, but the door remained standing.”

Bellange describes the atmosphere at the Wyndham Airport Hotel, where refugees were taken when they arrived in Montreal, as surreal.

“People didn’t talk to each other. Everyone stayed with their own families and a weird silence took over. We were in a state of shock, except for kids, who were running everywhere. Some came off the plane in shorts and sandals and the Red Cross gave them blankets right away.”

Sun Youth is partnering with Red Cross and several other organizations to provide immediate relief to new arrivals.

“We’ve been at the airport since the beginning,” Sun Youth executive director Sid Stephens says. “We’ve helped more than 3,000 people. For some it’s a stopover before going to other cities, but they all come here first and we have to put them in a hotel and provide proper clothing.

“They’re very touched and emotionally drained,” he says. “There are kids – one- or two-week-old kids newly born – coming off the plane. It’s very sad, very heart breaking. Of all the fires and other tragedies we’ve covered, nothing comes close to this.”

While Sun Youth is appealing primarily to manufacturers for new clothing and supplies, individuals may help as well.

“We are in need of hygiene products, diapers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, toilet paper and other hygiene products, if individuals want to make a difference.”

Used coats may be dropped off at any Bellingham Cleaners, which, with Manteaux Manteaux, is collecting, sorting and dry-cleaning them. This is the beginning of a massive long-term relief effort, Bellange believes. “Some say it may take 25 years to rebuild.”

Everyone in the Haitian diaspora seems to have been affected, Bellange says.

“There are cousins we know are alive but lost everything. We know friends who are dead. Everybody knows of a story where people lost a whole family, where someone is dead or missing.”

To find a Bellingham Cleaners near you, call 514 733-4444. Sun Youth: 514 842-6822.

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