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Allô Monsieur David? Ça va?

01/12/2015 07:12 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT
Every couple of weeks I pick up my phone and call Port-au-Prince.

I did it this morning, the fifth anniversary of ‘Goudou Goudou’ — the name Haitians have given the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and profoundly scarred so many others.

“Allô, Bonjour Monsieur David, merci, comment tu vas? Et la famille?”

That’s Madsen Merisier. He tells me that he is walking up through Delma 56, his inner-city neighbourhood, heading for work.

“You have work?”

Yes, he says, just a small tiling job on a bathroom. One day’s work that will pay him a couple of dollars, enough for this evening’s meal of rice, beans and bread for the twelve people living at home.

It is the first paid work Madsen he has had in weeks.

Madsen’s feeling good, Grâce au bon Dieu,” he says, thanks to God.

We have known each other for more than a decade. We are both in our 50s, about the same height and weight. We joke about being brothers in another life.

Anita, Madsen’s sister lives in Montreal.

Back in 2000, Anita was working in a factory in the east-end, sewing duvets and pillowcases. Every payday she would take the bus to a strip-mall, and go into a business called Unitransfer. Anita would count out $100: one quarter of what she earned. She was buying rice, cooking oil, pasta and meat for Madsen and his family back in Port-au-Prince. Unitransfer has a chain of warehouses across Haiti. Anita paid Unitransfer in Montreal — the next day a delivery man would show up at Madsen’s house.

I did a radio story where I followed the process: From the factory where Anita made minimum wage to Madsen’s home in Delma. I was there when the delivery man knocked on the metal door. Nadine, Madsen’s wife, divided up the food among family members — a kilo of rice here, a chicken here, beans to a sister with mental health issues.

The next day I followed Madsen to work laying tiles in new homes. He was making a few dollars a day, but with Anita’s food help it was enough to pay for school for the eight children, buy some cement blocks to build a second story on the house and Sunday dresses for Nadine and the girls. Any money left over was dropped into the donation basket at the evangelical church the family attended.

After I left Haiti, we stayed in touch. Those phone calls, “Allô, Bonjour Monsieur David, merci, comment tu vas? Et la famille?”

Five years ago when the earthquake hit I tried to get in touch with Madsen.

No signal.

A week after that I was in Port-au-Prince, wandering through the rubble with my microphone, telling stories about the horror and the humanity that I saw. You have seen the pictures of rubble, of the children who lost limbs, of the the kilometre-long lineups as the American military carrying machine guns doled out rice and surgeons and nurses ran field hospitals.

One day cellphones started working again.

I called Madsen.

“Allô, Bonjour Monsieur David, merci, comment tu vas? Et la famille?”

When the earthquake struck the children were at home. The house shook and one wall cracked. They ran into the street as their world collapsed around them. Madsen had been at work, Nadine had been out shopping. No one had been injured.

All 12 of them were living in one of hundreds of tents set up by the Red Cross on an empty lot. Trucks were delivering water. Aid groups were delivering food.

Madson had helped dig the toilets: six holes in the ground.

I asked if I could stay over for a couple of nights so that I could report on how the Merisier family was coping.

We slept on the earth lined up like sardines. Nadine cooked rice over a charcoal fire. The girls cried because they had friends who were dead, because they didn’t want to go to go to the bathroom over a hole, because they were hungry. In the evening after the sun went down we sat around a candle and Mama Boss tried to teach me how to sing gospel songs in Creole.

I talked about my life back in Montreal. I gave them my theories about how Haitians had to take control over their own future, about how the time had come for a new start after so many failed attempts at democracy. Madsen and Nadine listened and nodded and laughed and looked skeptical.

We saw each other a few more times before I left.

I saw them a year later too, Madsen had fixed up the cracks in  cement blocks and the Merisiers were all back home during the day. They were still too  frightened to sleep there at night, in case the constant aftershocks turned into Goudou ​Goudou all over again.

Today Madsen and the family sleep at home. The tent village where they lived has been torn down and international aid organizations are no longer delivering water, food and medical supplies.

Five years after the quake there is no money for school for the teenages, no money to buy the medicine that Nadine needs for her weak heart. Madsen still goes out every day going from construction site to construction site looking for work as a tile layer.

Back in Montreal Anita is one long-term disability, she cannot send money the way she used to.

​“Allô, Bonjour Monsieur David, merci, comment tu vas? Et la famille?”

And how are you and your family Madsen?

“Ca va, Grâce à Dieu.”

“We are okay,” says Madsen, “thanks to God.”

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