In the wake of Haiti’s devastating January earthquake, Haitian-Canadian Gérard Étienne immediately stepped in to mobilize help for his homeland. But though he has helped hundreds, the plight of one particular little boy stands out
By Judy Trinh
Shad Benoit is a tall, thin boy with the sad, knowing eyes of a child who has already seen too much. At the time of the earthquake that devastated Haiti last year, five-year-old Shad was already well acquainted with violence. In October 2009, as a preschooler, he had been the target of a botched kidnapping by one of Port-au-Prince’s notorious street gangs. After that he lived in hiding, moving from house to house and forced to stay inside, out of sight of the preying eyes of potential abductors.
But last January 12, the sounds of happy laughter proved just too irresistible, and Shad ran outside to join the neighbourhood children in chasing the afternoon sun. The day’s playtime would come to an end with a deafening crash. Just before 5 p.m., the ground started to shake. Right in front of Shad’s eyes, the houses that lined the street collapsed within moments.
And what does a small child do when his world falls down? Shad tried to outrun the earthquake. But no matter how fast or how far he ran, there was no escaping the devastation. In the blink of an eye, Shad lost his sole caregiver — his great aunt was crushed by falling debris. But he was not orphaned. Shad’s mother was alive, although she was thousands of miles away.
Scheida Prince had fled to Canada just two months earlier. In 1997, her father, a military man, had been gunned down by thugs. She had lived in fear ever since, and after the attempted kidnapping of her son, Prince resolved to seek refuge in Canada for herself and young Shad. She left Shad in the care of her aunt and promised to send for him as soon as she could.
I met Scheida Prince a few weeks after the earthquake hit. The 32-year-old woman was a mother on the brink, torn up by guilt and helplessness. She had a photo of Shad with her and wanted desperately to tell his story. Yet once she started to talk, her words were swallowed up by tears. Prince had been unable to reach any family members since the earthquake. All she could do was pray as she watched the horror unfold on television, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of her son on the news. For five long days, she waited in limbo. And then she received a phone call that made her fall down with joy. The voice on the other end of the line was that of a man she had once worked with at the airport in Port-au-Prince. He told her that Shad was alive and that he had stumbled upon the boy while searching for his own children. He found Shad living on the street, scrounging for food and shelter with other lost and orphaned children.
When he put her son on the phone, Shad asked only one thing of his mother. “He said: ‘I’m alive. Come, come get me. I need you here.’ ” Prince recalls that her relief was almost immediately overshadowed by a sense of helplessness. His was a simple plea that she could not fulfill.
“He thought I could just come the next day and get him.” But that was impossible for a woman in political limbo. Prince was a refugee claimant, a woman without status and without any rights in Canada. If she were to leave the country, she wouldn’t be allowed back in and her struggle for a better life would have been for nothing. All Prince could offer in consolation was a promise. “I said: ‘Baby, I love you. I can’t come get you now, but I will pray to God to give us a way.’ ” Fourteen days later Prince would meet a man who would profoundly understand her despair.
Gérard Étienne is a director general at Health Canada. He is also a Haitian-Canadian. He is the type of man who believes every minute of his day should be put to use. After the earthquake, he asked his staff to help him assist local Haitians in filling out sponsorship claims to bring family members to Canada. Dozens of his co-workers volunteered their weekends and evenings to help out. Étienne hoped that his team would be able to triage the most critical cases and bring them to the attention of refugee officials.
At a small café in Vanier during one of the many help sessions Étienne organized, he was introduced to Prince. He calls the late January encounter one of the defining moments of his life. When Prince showed him the photograph of her son, it brought Étienne face to face with a reflection he had not seen in years. “I saw myself in Shad.”
More than 40 years ago, Étienne was a seven-year-old boy also waiting on a street corner in Port-au-Prince for his mother to come home. His father was a political exile, so Étienne was raised by a single mother. He describes himself as “the wrong shade of black” — a combination of political, parental, and physical attributes that, when combined, could yield only a bleak future in Haiti. So when his mother, Gladys Roumer, found a Canadian family willing to sponsor her, she seized the opportunity to chart a new destiny for her son and daughter. It was a destiny that could be rewritten only by leaving them. She came to Ottawa about four decades ago and immediately began working double shifts cleaning houses and hotels. It took her four years to save enough money to bring her children over.
“When I saw the picture of Shad, I could see the agonies of days passing by for him,” says Étienne. “He’s on the street living with strangers. There’s no way he could understand why his mother was not there.” After hearing Prince’s story, Étienne pledged to reunite mother and son, even if he had to travel to Haiti to bring the boy here. His first challenge was to get Prince out of limbo by securing her status as a refugee. Only then could she begin the sponsoring process to bring Shad to Canada. But navigating Canada’s immigration system can be a labyrinthine journey. It can take up to 18 months to get a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board. And once the board grants a person refugee status, it can take another three years to process a family sponsorship claim. With a child’s life on the line, there was no way Étienne was going to accept due process. He reached out to his peers for help and was granted an audience with the deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration. “I told them: ‘Don’t give me policy. Don’t give me rules. It’s a mother and a child.’ ”
It was a simple plea that was heard. A bureaucracy that’s often criticized for moving at a glacial pace cut through its own red tape to help. The swift action confirmed Étienne’s faith in the federal public service. “It had nothing to do with politicians, but the public officials — they bent over backwards.” It was also vindication for Étienne — he was instrumental in sparing another boy from enduring the prolonged separation from his mother that he had suffered as a child.
Within a month of Étienne’s meeting with the deputy minister, Prince was given an emergency hearing in front of the refugee board and granted refugee status. And on April 21, she travelled from Ottawa to Montreal to wait for her son’s arrival. Seven months later, Scheida’s face still lights up at the memory. “My heart was beating so hard, like [I was] meeting a fiancé for the first time.”
Shad’s flight was late, so she wandered through the gift shop wondering what to buy. She finally settled on a teddy bear and a helium balloon emblazoned with Diego: Animal Rescuer. After 30 more minutes of pacing, she saw a skinny, wide-eyed boy walk out of the arrivals gate tightly gripping the hand of a flight attendant. Prince nearly dropped the gifts as she rushed to take her son in her arms.
Shad was among the first post-earthquake refugees the Canadian government accepted from Haiti in 2010. Étienne went on to use Shad’s fast-tracked application as a template for other emergency refugee claims. Since the disaster, he has intervened on behalf of 191 refugees and recommended their cases to the Immigration and Refugee Board for approval. Étienne knows he is helping people jump the immigration queue, but he believes all the fast-tracked claims are justifiable, because he has met with each and every applicant. “I need to see your eyes and have a feel for you. It’s my name. I’m as good as the last case I recommend,” he says simply.
Because he is a public servant who adheres to a code of ethics, Étienne has purposely set the bar very high in deciding whom to help. All the claims he has recommended for approval involve children under the age of 13 and girls under the age of 19 — a group he considers most at risk in a lawless disaster zone. His goal to remain beyond reproach has even put him at loggerheads with his own sister, who has implored Étienne to bring their four adopted teenage siblings out of Haiti. (After Étienne’s mother retired, each time she returned to visit Haiti she adopted another child and supported him or her.) “I could have made a case for them. But their house is still standing.” Étienne refused to help his siblings, because he didn’t want his efforts tainted by even a whiff of nepotism. “We can still send them money.”
Not a day goes by that Prince doesn’t give thanks for Shad and for her new life. It’s a life that fits into a cozy two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa’s east end. And it’s a life furnished with odds and ends, many of them given to her by strangers turned friends — among them, several of Étienne’s Health Canada colleagues. They have lavished Shad with toys and clothes, but the most important things they have given are not material. They coach Prince on how to find a job, they drive her to the immigration centre to fill out forms, and they helped her register her son for school. They have become her guides in her new country and given her a sense of calm.
“She’s lucky. Most of the others [I have helped] don’t have that,” Étienne says with frustration. He has been successful in paving the way for the refugees to come to Canada but is now facing roadblocks in his efforts to smooth their transition. The newcomers are under immense emotional, physical, and financial stress. Many are barely subsisting on social-assistance payments and cannot afford the fees to apply for landed-immigrant status. If they don’t apply by the deadline, they are putting their future in Canada at risk. Étienne had hoped to raise $500 for each refugee family from within the local Haitian community to pay the fees. But he says that almost all the people he called, from church leaders to business leaders, turned him down. Étienne doesn’t hold back when asked what he thinks of their decision. “Shameful. Haitians are focused on rebuilding Haiti, but they are shutting their eyes to their own here.”
Étienne realizes that Haitians are not a coherent group and that they are polarized by politics. But he says he had expected the diaspora to embrace the opportunity to make a tangible and immediate difference in a refugee’s life right here in Ottawa. “They need to be reminded. The fall of one is the fall of all.”
It has been months since I last saw Prince. She greets me in English and gives me a huge hug before ushering me into her home. Her English has improved dramatically thanks to the ESL classes she’s taking at a nearby school. She immediately calls for Shad. She wants to show him off. He comes out of the bedroom and whispers a shy “Bonjour.” He’s taller, still skinny, but no longer gaunt. Prince quickly urges Shad off the sofa with a wave of her hand. “Go get your prizes from school.”
He comes back with four NHL mini-mugs: Flames, Maple Leafs, Blackhawks, and Senators. I ask him what he got the awards for. “J’écoute le professeur, et j’ai fait tous mes devoirs,” Shad says quietly with a little smile. Just in case I didn’t hear him, Prince jumps in to amplify the point. “He’s a very good student!” We both start laughing at her obvious pride.
Then I ask how she’s doing. She says she’s thinking about training to be a nurse. As I look from mother to son, an old adage creeps into my mind: It takes a village to raise a child. As I return my attention to Prince, I realize that children aren’t the only ones who benefit from a caring village.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Ottawa Magazine. Scheida Prince is taking part in the Ottawa Public Library Human Library project on Saturday, Jan. 28. Find out more about this event here.
PLUS: Read about the photo shoot for this piece in this web exclusive by photographer David Kawai.