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Miracle in Haiti : ‘Orphan Jonatha’ — actually Lovely — rejoins her family - By Catherine Porter,

mardi 27 avril 2010 par William Toussaint

FERMATHE, HAITI—Her name is not Jonatha — that’s the first surprise. It’s Lovely.

The second surprise, and this is the big one, is that the 2-year-old girl plucked from the rubble of her home six days after the earthquake is not an orphan. She has a big family — a mother, a father, aunts and uncles, cousins, and a little brother whom she likes to tickle and sing to, unless he’s trying to grab her red marker.

His name is Jonathan.

International aid workers who huddled over her at their makeshift clinic set up near the Port-au-Prince airport thought she was saying her name. Turns out she was calling for her brother.

“I thought she was dead,” says her mother, Rosemene Meristil, cuddling Lovely and her 1-year-old brother up in the mountains where they are staying with her sister’s family. “I was praying for a miracle.”

That was the word I used the last time I met Lovely, two weeks after a 7.0-earthquake had flattened most of Port-au-Prince, killing up to 300,000 and damaging the homes of more than 1 million. She had survived six days under the rubble of her two-storey apartment building. How does a toddler survive under crushing concrete alone for six whole days, with no food, no water, no one to sing her songs of solace ?

That was one miracle.

The other is that her parents survived the quake, too, and then were able to find her amid the rubble, overflowing hospitals and 500-plus camps scattered over every open space in the city.

Lovely didn’t speak for the first week after she showed up in the back of a search-and-rescue vehicle, aide workers told me. She lay curled in the fetal position, crying. When she finally did speak, she called for her mother. Where did you live little girl ? What was your mother’s name ? Think about your own 2-year-old. Can she answer those questions ? Mine has only just begun speaking.

It turns out it didn’t take a miracle for her desperate family to find her. It took faith, love, and perseverance.

“We went to the hospitals, to the embassy, to radio stations, looking for her and putting out her description,” says her uncle, Elistan Deluise.

Returning two months later to Haiti, I was overjoyed to see Lovely again. During my earlier visit I had gone to see her three times, watching her eat macaroni — she had a huge appetite — and race after chickens, her pink skirt sliding down her backside. The girl, quiet and serious, is just a little older than my son. How would she have fared in one of Haiti’s miserable, understaffed orphanages ? Would someone have loved her the way the aid workers did — brushing her hair, taking her hand, singing to her softly ?

The details of Lovely’s lost and found story are foggy. But here’s what I could piece together after a few hours with her family.

The afternoon of the earthquake, Lovely’s mother, 31-year-old Meristil, was nursing a stomach ache. After feeding and bathing her kids, she set them before the television with two of the neighbours’ kids and went to lie down. Jonathan was crawling towards the door of the four-room apartment they shared with a big extended family, and Meristil was getting up to fetch him when she heard what sounded like the roar of a passing truck. The ground below her bucked, pitching her to her knees. Dust clouded her eyes. She looked up to grab Jonathan, and rushed outside. Then, the building collapsed behind her.

Thinking Lovely dead, Meristil was hysterical. She raced through the streets, Jonathan on her hip, searching frantically for her husband, a sugar cane vendor. She found him two hours later.

For days, the family and neighbours searched for Lovely and her two friends beneath the rubble. Meristil took Jonathan up here, to the safety of her sister’s farmhouse, and spent her days crying and praying.

Then, word came from the city that someone had found her daughter alive from the rubble and taken her somewhere — no one knew where. According to some reports, search dogs had sniffed her out.

After days of searching, a neighbour saw Lovely at the make-shift clinic. Meristil rushed there the next morning.

“I saw my kid in a crowd of people,” she recalls. “She said, ‘Look at my mama.’ ”

“I didn’t believe she was still alive. I was waving my arms in the air, calling ‘Glory to God.’ ”

To say everyone working at the clinic was surprised would be an understatement, says John Bopp, a fourth-year political science student from Massachusetts who dropped his courses to fly here to help.

“We thought the worst. We’d convinced ourselves this kid was an orphan and she had nothing. Then, to have this woman show up who was her spitting image — it was a shock.”

But still, they wanted proof. An American church group had just been caught at the border with 33 Haitian children — many of whom weren’t orphans at all.

UNICEF had opened a file on the girl and assigned a caseworker with U.S. human rights group Heartland Alliance to search for her family.

The family’s home was crushed, along with all their identification and family photos. How could Meristil prove she was the mother ?

She sent her husband to her childhood home near Jacmel to search for old photos. In the meantime, Meristil made the two-hour trip down to the city every other day, cradling Jonathan on the back of trucks, to see her daughter.

Her husband found some photos.

“I was planning on doing a DNA test,” says Ralph Charles, a Haitian-American medical student now working here as a child protection officer. “But it was clear she was her mother.”

So, about six weeks after the earthquake, Meristil left the clinic with both of her children. It was a happy day.

Watching them play up in mountains southeast of city, I am overcome with mixed emotions. Just this morning, I met a midwife who hadn’t worked for three months, wracked with grief over losing both her son and husband.

Lovely and her family are the lucky ones. They are together. They are alive.

But they lost everything in the quake and are now living in a squalid, one-room tin hut Deluise built after the earthquake cracked his two room stone house, crumbling part of one wall.

There is just enough room for two beds inside, one a mattress on the floor. It’s dark, the size of a janitor’s closet. Lovely, who turns 3 on April 27, grabs my pens and starts scribbling on my pad as I write notes. “Comme ça,” she says. “Comme ça.” Her mother says Lovely’s 4-year-old friend Gaelle used to teach her what she’d learned in school every day. Her daughter loves to draw and write, Meristil says. Gaelle died watching television beside Lovely that day.

For two months before the quake, Meristil tucked $4 U.S. into a tin every day for Lovely’s education and planned to enroll her in school in January. She had big hopes for her daughter. The girl is smart enough to be a government minister one day, she says.

The tin is gone, along with all their other possessions.

“We can’t afford to send her to school,” says Meristil, who herself didn’t make it through primary school.

In a country where most live on less than $2 a day, destitution seems to be Lovely’s fate. She survived hell to live in misery, I think.

Does Lovely talk about the earthquake, I ask ?

“She says she was under the concrete for so long,” says her mother. “And someone helped her, bringing her food and water.”

Who exactly, Lovely can’t say. As far as anyone knows, there was no such help.

But her mother thinks it was a guardian spirit.

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