Since Feb. 25, she has not been able to contact her husband or daughters. She does not know whether they are safe, or what has become of her sister’s five children.
“I don’t have the words for how I feel,” said Jean-Baptiste, 54, a cafeteria worker who immigrated to Boston in 1999. “The days keep getting longer and longer. What can anyone do for me?”
Worry creased Jean-Baptiste’s brow, and as she spoke, she slapped one palm against the other in a gesture of hopelessness. There, in the deep weariness of one Haitian immigrant, lay all the pain of a country in chaos.
That undercurrent of fear, uncertainty, and helplessness has been coursing through the region’s sizable Haitian enclave since Feb. 5, when rebel forces in that country began a bloody push for power.
More than 70,000 Haitian immigrants have settled in the Boston area, making it the third-largest Haitian community in the country. Most immigrated within the last 15 years. Nearly all have close relatives in Haiti: parents and grandparents, husbands and wives, children and cousins.
In a community where family unity is paramount, and immigrants here often work two or three jobs to help support loved ones back home, homeland ties are immediate, not historic — and each blow suffered by Haiti reverberates here.
“For Haitians, our family is not just a blood connection,” said Carline Desire, executive director of the Association of Haitian Women. “Our family is not just our mothers, daughters, children, and sisters. It goes beyond our aunties and onto all our loved ones. We worry for all of them.”
“No matter how long we have been here, we are just like a tree. We will always have branches back in Haiti,” added Paul Billon, 35, a car salesman who has lived in Boston since 1986. “This is affecting all of us in the Haitian community.”
With phone lines down and power disrupted in many parts of Haiti, many immigrants here have not been able to communicate with family and friends back home, sometimes for weeks at a time. During those stretches of silence, many begin to imagine the worst.
Sleep no longer comes easily for Adelina Melviel, 62, whose 97-year-old mother, four sons, and nine grandchildren are in Petit-Goave, a part of Haiti ravaged during the uprising. She spends her nights seeking solace in the gospel music and prayer hours broadcast on Haitian radio.
Unlike other immigrants who scramble to find every nugget of news about the situation in Haiti, Melviel says she shields herself from reports. It is simply too painful to see towns like Petit-Goave mottled by fires and rioting.
The last time Melviel spoke with her children — several days before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country — she begged them to sleep on the floor, out of the path of stray gunfire.
“I am heartbroken. They are there, where people are dying,” said Melviel, who spoke through an interpreter.
Over and over, Haitian immigrants echoed Melviel’s fears for the safety of loved ones they cannot talk to, much less help or protect.
“There is no way you can have a normal life over here. When you look at the US, you see everything is in order, and your country is in chaos. Your body is here, but everything else is there,” said Jeanne Marie St.-Til, 70. “It’s your country, and everything is being destroyed there. Here, we have food. There, they cannot even eat.”
For days, banks in Haiti have been shut down, leaving money transfer agencies unable to deliver funds or goods. The Haitian economy, like many countries with a large migrant flow, depends heavily on funds sent by expatriates.
Many banks were scheduled to reopen on Thursday, clearing the way for money transfers, said James McIntosh, general manager of operations and training for CAM, the largest Haitian money transfer agency in this country. However, with deliveries several days behind schedule, it could still take time for money to reach the right hands, he said.
Michel Taunisma, 33, a radio show host who recently returned from Haiti, was among a slow stream of Haitian immigrants who passed through CAM’s Mattapan office on Thursday. He was trying to speed a money transfer that had been stalled for days.
“It’s very hard for people here,” Taunisma said. “Family is family, and their families depend on the money they send.”
Marie Jean, 48, came to Boston four years ago to take care of her husband, who was left paralyzed by an accident. She was forced to leave seven adopted children behind in Croix-Bouquet. Most of her $120-a-week paycheck usually goes to her family in Haiti.
But, for several weeks, Jean has not been able to get money to her children. What little they had has long run out, she said.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Jean, her shoulders drooping beneath a loose maroon sweatshirt. “I cannot eat. I have a headache all the time.”
Even after the violence in Haiti ebbs, the worries for Haitian immigrants here will remain. Their families, they say, will still face empty shelves and shortages of medical supplies. Their country will still face a long climb back to normalcy.
“I’m not just talking about myself, but about every citizen in Haiti, my family, my neighbors, everyone,” Jean-Baptiste said. “They cannot eat when they are hungry. They cannot work in safety. I am concerned for everyone in my country.”