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Inside 4 walls in Haiti, peace and uncertainty

Family, N.H. benefactor try to look beyond the hardships

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By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A warren of apartments, their walls rough-hewn concrete, perches at the crest of a pitted dirt road, just beyond a sundries store and lottery stand and barber shop. Inside the first home you come to, there are four plastic chairs, one bed, and a bare light bulb dangling and flickering.

For Rosemaine Cius and her daughters Reginette and Francesca Cinelien, the two-room home is a piece of heaven. Their piece of heaven.

They moved here in early March. Rent: roughly $500 for the whole year. For the previous 14 months, the only home they had known was a tent, one of almost 150 pitched on a soccer field after an earthquake nearly heaved Haiti’s capital into oblivion. Reginette lost a leg to the calamity.

The family competed for space in the tent with a score of other adults and children, not to mention roosters and mice. There was no privacy, no quiet. Sometimes, it rained so ferociously that Reginette’s prosthetic leg, made by limb builders in New Hampshire, got drenched.

“When we walked out of that tent for the last time, it was like freedom day,’’ Cius said one bright Saturday in her new home. “It was hell in that tent, too hot during the day, too cold at night.’’

Here, at least, the floor is concrete, the roof tin. The door bolts shut. They can be alone with their thoughts, even if those thoughts dwell on a murky future: Cius has no job. They never know where their next meal will come from.

Across Port-au-Prince, hundreds of thousands remain marooned in encampments that grow more woebegone with each passing day. Salvation, like a faraway mirage, exists in the form of a home, any home, any place that isn’t a tent or a lean-to. But liberation from that life often depends on luck as much as anything, and few commodities are in shorter supply here.

Reginette’s family found escape through the generosity of a Massachusetts woman who grew up poor herself. After learning of the family’s plight through an article in the Globe, the woman, wishing to remain anonymous, decided to donate $1,800 — enough to shelter Reginette’s family and two others.

But how could she get the money to a family mired in a tent? She turned to the man from New Hampshire who arranged for Reginette’s replacement leg.

Dennis Acton landed in Haiti last year with ambitions of providing limbs to dozens of grievously wounded quake survivors, enlisting New England Brace Co., a small prosthetics maker run by his wife’s family. The need across the ruined metropolis was unending. But ambition collided with reality. The plan — to evaluate patients in Haiti and build limbs in Manchester, N.H. — proved costly and logistically daunting. Donations to a foundation were paltry. The company endured a rocky financial patch, leaving few reserves for overseas aid. Resentment festered among some colleagues, who felt Acton should leave charity work to the experts.

Even friends and family thought his mission was the obsession of a man in his 40s craving meaning.

“Everyone was saying, ‘You’ve done enough, get out, stop going down.’ And when everyone is against you, at a certain point, you have to step back and say, ‘Am I wrong here, am I making a mistake?’ ’’

By last month, Dennis Acton was a man longing for redemption.

So he made his 12th trip to Haiti since the quake. A few hours after arriving, an unusually balmy breeze wafting, he found himself on Ruelle Demele, Reginette’s street. He’d heard about her new home, secured with the money he had wired to the family. But he wanted to see — had to see — for himself.

Cius appeared first in the door, shadowed by 14-year-old Reginette. Acton clambered up two stairs and poured his substantial frame into the front room.

“This is it, huh?’’ Acton asked, his tone tinged with dismay. The front room measures barely 8 feet by 7 feet, a rickety latticework of 2-by-4s bracing the humble roof.

“So, do you have a bathroom in here? Do you have any running water?’’ he asked Cius.

“I have a bathroom,’’ she said, “but I have to go outside to use it.’’

Water is hauled in, she explained, for a price.

What about a kitchen, Acton wondered. No, Cius explained, there is no kitchen.

“So all three of you sleep in here?’’ Acton asked, walking into the second room, only slightly larger than the front parlor.

Yes, the mother answered, never allowing that it is only Reginette who sleeps in the bed. Cius, who is 36, and 6-year-old Francesca drop a swatch of cardboard on the floor each night at 9. That is their bed. The only decoration is a picture frame with the image of a single rose that came with the frame.

But it did not seem to matter: It was location, not adornment, that counted most as Cius scoured the neighborhood adjacent to the tent camp for a home. She wanted to make sure her daughters remained within walking distance of a makeshift school that rose next to the camp.

“Are you happy with the place, for now, considering?’’ Acton said, shoulders slumping, his words enveloped in the soundtrack of Haiti — trucks belching, music blaring, merchants’ bells tinkling.

“Yes,’’ Cius said. “I am happy.’’

This is how it had been ever since Acton heeded a calling to come to Haiti — once more, he was forced to recalibrate expectations. He had abandoned hopes of healing dozens. Instead, it would be achievement enough to secure stable lives for some of the 12 patients who received prosthetics from New England Brace: “To not just come down, fit their legs, and leave. That would have been almost as bad as not coming at all.’’

The trips to Haiti, layovers spent curled on the cold airport terrazzo, were drawing to an end. His wife is expecting their firstborn in June. And the prosthetics company — where he is the IT guru — sorely needs him, as became evident on the March trip, when the servers in New Hampshire crashed even as his flight touched down in Haiti.

Acton is relinquishing his Haiti duties to an amputee named Fabienne Jean, who will become the liaison to Reginette, coordinating medical care and being vigilant that the family does not take a bad turn. Jean was the first earthquake survivor Acton promised to help.

“It’s easy for me to take that responsibility because I know what they are going through,’’ the 32-year-old said. “I am one of them.’’

Still, on this last trip, Acton remained very much a man with a mission. A native New Englander, he was determined to leave Cius with a hefty helping of Yankee up-by-the-bootstraps work ethos.

Before the earthquake, like so many Haitians, she sustained her family as a street vendor. The earthquake ended that: Crammed into a tent, their belongings dumped in a cardboard box, they had little hope of eking out a subsistence, and Cius risked losing what little she had if it was left unattended for too long.

The camp where they lived is gone now, struck for good in March. The neighborhood had clamored for the return of soccer matches, and the president of the soccer league feared that, one day, the owner of the land would summarily order a mass eviction. By late February, only 75 families remained where once more than 1,500 people lived. A nun who runs a Catholic mission next door received a donation that she handed to camp leaders, who divided it equally among the remaining families upon their departure. Within days, nearly everyone had left.

Now, Acton lectured Cius, it is time for you to make your own way — “so that you’re independent and not relying on other people.’’

“Will you help me?’’ Cius pleaded. Acton vowed to raise money so she could start a business.

The mother and daughter exchanged glances. Cius explained that she hoped to peddle clothing; later, she mentioned house wares. Acton pressed her on how she would find goods to sell. Cius told him she would hop aboard a jitney and ride to the seaport to make purchases.

“Then you’ll make your own money,’’ Acton said, “and you won’t have to wait for anyone else to help you.’’

When they parted that afternoon, it felt like a benediction. It was one year and nine days since Acton first saw Reginette totter on crutches at the encampment.

Acton tried to reassure Reginette and her mother that, one day, he will return, maybe even bringing the daughter his wife is carrying. As he spoke, he stared into the distance, as if seeking a revelation.

Cius wondered when, if ever, they would see him again.

“He’s been part of our lives since the quake,’’ she said. “He never gave up on us.’’

Reginette watched, face blank, as Acton walked away. She could scarcely imagine the tumult in her life since Jan. 12, 2010, the day the earth convulsed. Her 9-year-old sister died in the earthquake, and her father disappeared, presumed to be among the dead.

Like so many Haitians, she had encountered plenty of promises from foreigners — and plenty of broken promises, too. But when the men from New Hampshire told her they would build her a new leg, they meant it.

At first, she regarded the prosthetic limb warily. Soon enough, she was wearing it every day. By November, though, she had begun walking with a stutter step. Later, on one of his trips, Acton took Reginette for adjustments so the leg would fit better.

Last month, both her legs throbbed, especially when she navigated stairs. Acton promised to arrange for a health worker to see her but, in the meantime, he advised Cius to apply ice, a measure that appeared to relieve the pain.

It is true, they are a family with a home now. But in many other ways, their lives embody the privation afflicting most Haitians. By the middle of one afternoon, all Reginette had eaten was half a meat pie purchased with 50 cents from an aunt. She gave the other half to her sister.

When they were in the medical tent, the Catholic mission prepared meals. Now they rely on handouts from friends, who invite them for dinner or toss a few coins their way.

“Twice a week,’’ Reginette said, her voice even, “I don’t get food. If I don’t, I just wait for tomorrow.’’

On days when food is scarce, it is hard to pay attention during school, Reginette confessed.

Hardship has been her constant companion since the earthquake, so perhaps it is no surprise that she approaches hunger with the same resolve that sustained her during more than a year under a tent. If anything, Reginette has begun to find her voice, once not much more than a whisper. Her words are firmer, her eyes focused. She does not wring her fingers nearly as much.

She talks of becoming a doctor. “I would be able to help a lot of people,’’ she said, “even myself.’’

She beseeches her mother for a TV, but there is no money for such luxuries. The family can barely afford the $2.50 a month for electricity, which they pay the landlord, who is said to be pirating the power from the city. Their concerns remain legion: Reginette’s school may close for good in June, and there is no money for a new one. And how will they afford rent next year?

Reginette spends most of her time inside the house. There, she studies her school lessons and amuses herself with fairy tales, which she refers to as “miracle stories.’’

“I don’t believe in miracles,’’ she said. “But it’s good to hear them.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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