BU Today

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When Haiti Hits Home

Reaching Out: BU and BMC help earthquake victims in Massachusetts


This week, BU Today presents “Reaching Out,” a five-part series on the many ways that the Boston University community works to ease the hardships of immigrants and refugees in the Boston area.

Lisa Eloi’s relatives experienced more tragedy in one day than most people do in a lifetime. An aunt, a cousin, and a schoolmate were all lost in last year’s earthquake that devastated Haiti. Another family member anxiously waited for three hours as volunteers dug her mother from the rubble of their collapsed home. Eloi’s family watched as their homeland was reduced to a disaster zone.

Shortly after the quake, Eloi and her husband, Jean, welcomed five relatives—a sister-in-law, a nephew, and three nieces—into their Stoughton, Mass., home, where they lived with four children of their own. Every day since has been an intricate dance—from 5 a.m. to lights out—of school, chores, homework, medical appointments, and trips to the Laundromat. Space is tight. Bills pile up. And the phone doesn’t stop ringing, with other Haitian relatives on the line pleading, “Don’t forget about us.”

“You don’t have time to mourn,” says Eloi, choosing her words carefully, her eyes wide and face set like stone. “You don’t have time to do anything. You just keep going. You just do what you have to do.”

That’s the mantra for the many Haitian families living in Massachusetts who continue to host family and friends left destitute by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010. Their newfound charges, some of whom came on tourist visas, do not qualify as refugees or for most forms of state and federal aid, and the families have few options for finding help.

One of the places that offers assistance to all, regardless of ability to pay or immigration status, is Boston Medical Center (BMC), the teaching hospital of BU’s School of Medicine.

Eloi wasted little time. Within days of her relatives’ arrival, she was seated across from Erin Joyce, a BMC clinical social worker. “Lisa had basic needs,” recalls Joyce. “She needed winter clothes, coats, food, beds. She was a little overwhelmed.”

During that initial visit, Joyce was able to help Eloi get bedding and clothing. She also helped expedite physical examinations for Eloi’s nephew and nieces so that they could enroll in public school, and she provided referrals to a local food pantry and other support services.

Eloi is hardly alone in her dependence on BMC. Within two weeks after the quake, the center’s Haitian Health Institute fielded thousands of calls and emails from people in the local Haitian community who were frantically trying to find loved ones. Institute codirector Michele David, a MED associate professor of medicine, says dozens of newly arrived Haitians also flooded the emergency room.

Institute founder and codirector Nicole Prudent, a MED clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, says at least 500 Haitian children—some coming with family, others with strangers—have been cared for in the pediatrics department. They have been treated for anemia, skin problems, and more severe injuries like broken bones.

But medical attention, says Prudent, is usually just one of the survivors’ many needs. “The demands are overwhelming,” she says. “People don’t have money, they have no place to live, some are in shelters. One woman told me, ‘I left one earthquake and I came to another earthquake.’”

Renee Boynton-Jarrett, a MED assistant professor of pediatrics and a practicing physician, sent an email to colleagues requesting a meeting to talk strategy. More than a dozen people, from social workers to ER doctors and pediatricians, showed up. It quickly became clear that the hospital already provided many of the services that Haitians required, but coordination was lacking.

Thus was born the Haitian Earthquake Long-term Pediatric Support (HELPS) team, organized under the department of pediatrics and drawing expertise and services from hospital programs ranging from grief counseling to legal advice and social services. Organizers launched a 24-hour paging system to help doctors direct patients to resources to fit their immediate needs, which for most families was food, shelter, and winter clothing.

Many did not speak English. They could not legally work. Their children had to adjust to new schools. There was also the emotional strain of being thousands of miles from Haiti, where bodies of relatives and friends decayed under collapsed buildings and chaos reigned.

“Everyone who has come from the earthquake has been traumatized in some way,” Joyce says.

Eloi says that even now, her relatives cringe when they hear cars rumble through a parking ramp, fearing a quake is imminent. Some of the children wet the bed at night. All miss family and friends.

Parents or guardians of Haitian children coping with post-traumatic stress and grief are directed to the Family Support Assessment Clinic, where they speak with specially trained pediatricians about their children’s symptoms.

Maria Trozzi, a MED assistant professor of pediatrics, who works in the clinic and directs BMC’s Good Grief program, which helps stressed and traumatized children, assures parents and guardians that their children’s reactions are normal. She and colleague Marilyn Augustyn, a MED associate professor of pediatrics, give parents strategies to minimize the effects of trauma.

Prudent would like to see BMC go further in helping Haitian patients. She says more Creole-speaking mental health professionals and pediatricians are needed to meet the growing demand. She estimates that 30 percent of children and 20 percent of adolescents who come to the pediatrics department are of Haitian descent. When it comes to helping children deal with the terrors they have seen, she says, interpreters can do only so much,

“Many of them have lost close family members, parents, siblings, and school friends,” says Prudent, who saw patients’ psychological problems emerge several months after they arrived. “It was a different dimension to what I usually see in newcomer Haitian patients.”

Rebuilding minds and bodies is BMC’s focus; granting immigration status is not. For that, the hospital staff turns to another component of HELPS, Medical-Legal Partnership Boston (MLP). The program, founded by MED’s Joel and Barbara Alpert Professor of Pediatrics Barry Zuckerman, BMC chief of pediatrics and chair of MED’s pediatrics department, provides free legal advice to patients who can’t afford a lawyer. There, legal aides explain the vagaries of immigration law, which grants temporary protected status to Haitians who arrived here before the earthquake struck and denies refugee status to those who came after the event.

“You have to prove that you have a reasonable fear of persecution by your home country’s government” to qualify as a refugee, explains MLP Boston staff attorney Cristina Dacchille. “Natural disasters, while tragic, don’t meet the asylum requirements.”

MLP does what it can to steer them to security.

“One thing the U.S. government made clear is that it’s not going to deport people as undocumented until Haiti is ready to handle them,” Dacchille says. “Haitians may get deportation orders, but they’ll be stayed until Haiti can take them back.”

BMC sees hundred of displaced Haitian families, with more arriving each week. Many must travel long distances, since the medical center is the only place where they can receive free medical care. Affordable housing, always in short supply, remains scarce and is unavailable to many of the Haitian families because of their visa status.

And, says Joyce, the mental stress facing both the new arrivals and the families who have taken them in continues to be a problem more than a year after the disaster. “The parents who have Tarrived are feeling they can’t provide for their own children,” she says, “and the families who have taken in relatives are feeling overwhelmed because the situation hasn’t improved in a year.”

The Eloi family still relies on BMC for support. Last fall, Joyce helped Eloi secure winter clothing again for her growing nieces and nephew. And when two of the children needed expensive graphing calculators, Joyce sent an email to staff asking if anyone could help. Two of the devices appeared just days later.

Eloi’s Haitian relatives continue to adjust to their lives in America. Her eldest niece, Tahira Peralta, went to her high school prom last spring, and the extended family recently celebrated their first Christmas together. The children’s English is improving petit à petit.

“I can only ask people to just open their hearts and to understand that the need is still there,” Eloi says.

Tomorrow, part three focuses on the School of Social Work’s BRIDGE (Building Refugee and Immigrant Degrees for Graduate Education) program, which offers a master’s in social work designed to help recent immigrants serve their own communities in this country.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu. Nicolae Ciorogan can be reached at ciorogan@bu.edu.


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