Canada's Haitians reach out

After Haiti was leveled by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and more than 200,000 of its people perished, aftershocks trembled across the country's terrain for days, toppling the already devastated infrastructure, homes and, in some cases, spirits. In Montreal, about 100,000 Haitians watched and listened, stunned. At the same time, they got to planning. Sway found three Haitian Montrealers, each contributing in a different way.

BY: Saada Branker

Reuniting families
The waiting left Fabienne Colas breathless with fear for her family. She says on Jan. 12 she sat in her Montreal home for hours, after learning an earthquake tore apart her native country. "At first, I couldn't get a hold of them at all," says Colas, whose calls to her father wouldn't connect. "That was a hard night. I couldn't sleep because I kept dialing." The next day at 5 am, she found him. "I was in such shock that I asked him, ‘Oh, Daddy, are you alive?'"

Colas' father and stepmother were unharmed, as were her mother and sister. An aunt and an uncle were not as fortunate. They died when their home collapsed. Colas' family survived for days with no food or shelter, until her husband travelled to Haiti with food. He promised he'd do his best to return with everyone. "He ended up coming with them all. It was not easy, but they're here and it's a dream come true because secretly I hoped we'd all be together," says Colas.

In interviews, Colas, 30, was one of the first people to publicly petition the Quebec government to speed up the reunification of families. That petition would help to increase the rate at which Haitians, already being sponsored, were allowed to leave the devastated island. "We're not really asking them for a special favour because those people would come anyways in the next five years," Colas says.

Six years ago, before coming to Canada, Colas was a popular actress in Haiti. Today, she is the president of the Foundation Fabienne Colas, which promotes Haitian arts, cinema and culture through film festivals and summer showcases in Montreal. The former Miss Haiti explains that she also approached Quebec's cable and long-distance company, Videotron, to appeal for one week of free calls from Montreal to the Caribbean country. Two days after the quake, Videotron announced free calls to Haiti for its subscribers for an entire month. By early February, Quebec's immigration minister announced that the province would relax rules for extended family members so they could emigrate from Haiti. It wasn't the first time Quebec came through for Haitians. In the late 1960s it was the first province ever to have a special immigration agreement with the federal government in a bid to increase its French-speaking population through immigration. "I was impressed," says an appreciative Colas of the government's relaxed rules. "We're desperate, we need help. I put so much belief that someone will listen and hear me."

Calling on the media
Luck Mervil saw the images of Haiti hours after the earth shuddered and he knew. People had little idea of how big the earthquake was says the Haiti-born singer, who is familiar with Port-au-Prince. But he knew the caved-in state of the presidential palace was a bad sign. Mervil told people, "This palace should not fall down. It's a huge bunker. If it's down then everything is down."

Mervil is one of Quebec's best-known Haitian artists. For eight years the singer-songwriter has travelled the world as the spokesperson for the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI). He's touched down in about 15 developing countries, such as India, Nepal, Senegal and Haiti, assisting with humanitarian aid.

Mervil had an idea to hold a telethon on several media networks for Haiti. He says he studied in Canada most of his life and had come to realize that "one of the greatest powers of our time is not legal or political, but the media." Encouragement came from Pierre Karl Peladeau, CEO of media giant Quebecor. In meetings with the heads of television networks and radio stations, Mervil told everyone his goal was simple: "We raise as much money as we can, as fast as we can, to save as many lives as we can. If that's what you want to do with me, let's go." Six days after the quake, the telethon ran for two and a half hours on several Quebec television networks, and simultaneously on at least five radio stations. More than $6.5-million was raised. Mervil, 42, said it was essential his team remained positive and didn't inundate people with negative images. "The 2004 tsunami was one of the events where the whole world was there. Haiti was the second one," he says. "Let Haiti become the first worldwide capital of humanity."

Returning with shelter
Sandra Mathieu travelled to Haiti on Jan. 23 with the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad (AMHE). Born in Montreal, Mathieu had never visited her parents' birthplace. Upon her arrival, she worked at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. "That first ride to the hospital was hard," she recalls. Mathieu says the suffering around her was such that she had trouble focusing during the first couple of days, as she helped to distribute food and water.

"Two days before I left, I met a lot of people," says Mathieu. "One was Rony. He was a translator for the International Medical Corps." Rony approached Mathieu, asking where he could find a tent for his family. Mathieu didn't know. Back in Canada, she pondered her time spent in Haiti. "I have to go back, but this time for one month," she says. "I wondered how [else] I could help."

The next time Mathieu spoke to Rony it was by telephone. Both of them knew Haiti's rainy season was starting. "Still after one month, he had no tent. He told me, ‘I'm not even one of the people who is wounded or an amputee.'"

Mathieu, 26, decided to organize a campaign to donate 500 tents, which, with the help of an airline company, she'll send to Port-au-Prince. "I can go and give the tents and help the government with the logistics," says Mathieu, who recently left a research and development position in IT so she could donate more time to Haiti's recovery. She appealed to her church, River's Edge, and to her university, gathering enough support to secure 10 tents (most made to hold five people). She needs more.

Mathieu says there is opportunity for more hands to join in rebuilding. "Now is the time for the Haitian Diaspora to come back, take their skills and put them towards their home country." She remarks on the country's beauty, but laments its longstanding state of disrepair. "I'm thinking of planting new trees in Port-au-Prince and cleaning up the garbage. Whatever I can do." Before the earthquake, Mathieu says, she was questioning if she was meant to be working in IT. Now she's preparing for Haiti, and for a career in filmmaking. "It took an earthquake for me to take this step and go."


Toronto's helping hands for Haiti

1 Ariel Deluy: President of Makaya Group, a management consulting company (makayagroup.com)

In late January, Ariel Deluy, an engineer, travelled to Haiti with a team of four other engineers, a project manager and a business manager. Makaya Group secured 25 hectares of land to build 300 to 400 homes in Mirebalais and Lascahobas, north of the capital.

"We're trying to launch a massive online campaign to [get people to] donate money to the homes or donate construction equipment," says Deluy. "We're physically rebuilding homes, but we're also rebuilding lives and the communities."

2 Jean Carlo Rouzier: Co-founder of Groupe Professional Haïtien de Toronto (gpht.ca)

GPHT developed a three-prong approach in its fundraising for Haiti, which reached $50,000. The first prong is working with UNICEF: "We collaborated with them for Haiti's hurricane relief last year," says Jean Carlo Rouzier. Second, is GPHT's individual fundraising drive: "We unleashed a small army of volunteers to collect pledges for UNICEF. I raised $1,500 alone from my workplace," he says. Third, the group organized cultural fundraising events to showcase Haiti's rich culture. So far, GPHT has held a silent auction, sold a music compilation entitled Haiti-Cherie and sold paintings by Haitian artists David Vasquez and Philippe Dodard.

3 Dr. Eric Pierre: Dentist and president of Pierspective Entraide Humanitaire and Haiti's honourary consul in Toronto (haitiaide.ca)

Dr. Eric Pierre's organization of volunteers has a history of assisting Haiti with donations over the years. This time, Pierre says about five containers of goods are waiting for clearance to go to Haiti's port. "Now we have shifted our focus to education. Our goal is to build a school and community centre," says Pierre. Children of refugees are the most deserving of such attention, he reasons. The dedicated dentist believes that rebuilding is possible for Haitians. "Give them hope to face the challenges ahead."

For information on how to donate to the Sway Scholarship Fund for Haitian refugees, contact Haiti Consul General Dr. Pierre at 416-538-3282.