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A decade ago, a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, and shattered many lives. 

The human tragedy, and the will to rebuild, also influenced many who went to the Caribbean nation to help.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the devastating quake that killed at least 230,000 and displaced 2 million out of a population of 7 million, we spoke with New Yorkers whose lives were transformed by the disaster.

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‘I want to give back’

When Jovins-Lin Dorestan recalls the day that changed his life forever, he reflects a lot on the normalcy.

Dorestan had just finished his shift as a motorcycle cop — he loved riding motorcycles. He had returned to the house he shared with a few siblings in Port-au-Prince and had changed out of his uniform. It was 4:53 p.m. “At that exact moment, there was a lot of noise and the earth started shaking,” Dorestan said. “For me I thought it was the end of the world.”

The house started to collapse, Dorestan recalled. Homes were built close together. A concrete post from the house next door pinned his leg. First a couple neighbors tried to remove it. Then four. Then more. Finally they freed him.

“They put me in a car but couldn’t get further,” Dorestan said. “The road was clogged with debris and dead people.”

Next his rescuers tried to carry him to the hospital on the back of a motorcycle. The bike couldn’t navigate through the destruction either. Two men ended up carrying him on their backs to Hospital du Canape-Vert in Port-au-Prince. 

The hospital was damaged. “They put me out in the yard,” he recalled, with other patients.

He was then taken to a clinic in Petion-ville and his left leg was amputated. His recuperation took place in the front yard of a family friend’s home — people were still afraid to spend time inside unstable buildings.

He developed an infection.

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By then, about 10 days after the quake, American doctors had arrived to help out. A group of relief workers saw him, and his dangerous infection, as he played dominoes with friends in the yard.

This is one of the moments, Dorestan said, that his positive attitude helped others believe in him and go the extra mile to help. “I was smiling, laughing,” even though he was so sick and injured. “It impressed them,” he said. Amid so much need, he believes his rescuers had faith in him because he had such faith in himself.

He was taken back to a hospital where doctors had to remove more tissue from his leg to stem the infection.

One said he should go to the U.S. for treatment but worried that humanitarian visas would be tough to obtain amid the ongoing chaos at the American embassy.

But Dorestan didn’t need it. He had just been on vacation in Florida the month before, so his visitor’s visa was still active. 

One of the American doctors helped arrange for his transport and treatment to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern through Fran Gorsuch, who was the director of community initiatives at Good Sam.

“Sister Fran,” Dorestan reflected about Gorsuch, a member of the Order of the Sisters of Bon Secours. “She’s an angel.”

His initial goals were straightforward: “How I was going to go back to my feet,” Dorestan said. “Not figuratively, but literally, how was I going to walk again.”

Outpatient therapy at Helen Hayes Hospital, a top rehabilitation facility, allowed him to sign up for English as a Second Language classes at Rockland BOCES.

He knew it was time for that more metaphorical next step: Finding a new career.

He decided he would revisit his childhood career ambition to be an engineer.

Dorestan graduated from SUNY Rockland Community College in 2013 and then attended City College of New York. He graduated in 2018 with a civil engineering degree.

Amid his journey, Dorestan wed. He and his wife have a 14-month-old son and are expecting a baby girl in May.

While Dorestan received private-job offers, he decided he wanted to be a civil servant. He took a job with the City of New York. “When you work for the city, you like to feel like you’re helping people.”

He readily admits that his specialty — water and sewer infrastructure — can be the “most ungrateful part of civil engineering because nobody sees it,” he said. “They just get mad when you block the roads.”

He also hopes to use his skills to help Haiti sometime in the future. But he wants to do more in the U.S. first. “I know that the United States is doing a lot for me and I want to give back.”

Son enlists

Marie Valerie Placide and her son, Cleo-Antoni Geneste, came to Rockland less than two weeks after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake partially collapsed her house. Cleo was 8 and soon enrolled in St. Peter’s in Haverstraw.

Geneste is now 18 and preparing to head to basic military training in a few weeks. The 2019 Albertus Magnus High School grad enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in its delayed entry program. He also plans to pursue a college education.

“This is the best way for me to repay the country,” Geneste said. “I’m allowed opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

Geneste is an American citizen, which he applied for through his father.

Placide remains in the U.S. under TPS. She lives in Manhattan and works at a credit union for United Nation members and their families. She also is launching a website that will help Haitians sell their crafts, clothing and jewelry here. “I created a business and this is very important for me,” she said. “I am an ambassador for my country.”

She said she came to the U.S. after the chaos of the quake because there were more opportunities for her son. “I was always homesick, but now I have made a second home here,” said Placide, 44, “and my son is now American. This is where he is going to be spending his life.”

Placide said she would like to find a path to U.S. citizenship. But if the Jan. 4, 2021, TPS deadline stands, she will repatriate because she will have no choice. ‘We’re waiting to see what the government would say about us.”

Geneste, though, is less resigned. “I want to be able to see my mom when I come home on leave,” he said. “I want to be able to hug her. That’s one thing the earthquake taught me … hold onto family.” 

Geneste said his future is bright because of his mother’s sacrifices after the earthquake. 

“My mom did not have to come here with me,” he said. “The noteworthy reason she came here was my education. She was looking at my future, not hers. She put aside her dreams and invested them in me. “

When Geneste first arrived in Rockland, the family lived in Haverstraw and he attended St. Peter’s school that was then located in the heart of the village. 

He knew no English. School was a struggle. But he received help from many, including Margaret Hamilton, who was principal at St. Peter’s, who helped him learn English and earn scholarships for St. Peter’s and Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia from the Archdiocese of New York. “She got me to the point where I could graduate.”

He knows so many others helped make it possible for him to stay and receive a quality education. “The gist of it is, when I have a task in front of me, I’m not doing that just for me,” Geneste said. “I owe a lot more to my angels. It’s not just me.”

Geneste said his life was shaped by the experience of immigrating to the U.S. after the trauma from the Haiti quake. It was a struggle, he said, “learning a language in the short amount of time, learning a culture in a short amount of time.”

But it also made him focused on his future. “I expect great things from myself,” he said. “I owe that family that passed away during the earthquake, all the sacrifices my mom has made, I owe them great success.”

He also believes he owes his country success. With an interest in cybersecurity, Geneste said “the Air Force offers great opportunities.”

“I’m paying it forward,” he said. “I’m upgrading myself so I can help others, immigrants all over the country.”

Meanwhile, he admits “it kind of hurts” that his mother may have to return to Haiti in a year. 

But Geneste is not worried for Placide’s future.

“Knowing my mom, she’s the strongest woman I know,” he said. “I’m not scared for her to go back.” 

His mother said she isn’t happy that she may have to go as her son stays. But she isn’t worried either. “I don’t want to say that my work is done here for him, but I think he’s on the right path.”

Finding her life’s work

Jacqueline Cassagnol grew up in Brooklyn and spent many a vacation in her parents’ native Haiti. 

“We would stay with grandparents, aunts, uncles,” she said of her school breaks spent in the greater Port-au-Prince region. Cassagnol and her brother stopped their sojourns to her parents’ homeland when they got busy with college, and life. 

In January 2010, Cassagnol, then a practical nurse, was pursing a master’s degree in nursing at Mercy College, participating in a study-abroad program in Israel.

“I turned on the TV and saw all those graphic things,” she recalled. She was filled with fear for family members — an uncle was missing for a while but miraculously, everyone was found safe. 

Soon, back in the U.S., Cassagnol said she looked for a project to get involved with as a way to help.

She decided to make her own. She developed a first aid and first-responder training course and within weeks she was headed to Grand Goave, an area west of the quake’s epicenter that was badly impacted. 

“Just because it happened yesterday doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow,” Cassagnol said. 

The importance of such training became instantly clear. “When I was doing a session, a student said, ‘if only we knew what you are teaching us now, fewer people would have died,’ ” Cassagnol said. “That statement took me where I am today.”

She soon was running a nonprofit, Worldwide Community First Responder, Inc. Spring Valley-based WCFR continues to offer training mainly in the U.S. and Haiti, but she’s done courses in China, South Africa and other locales.

The training focuses on very basic emergency techniques, from how to set a splint, how to put pressure on a wound to stop bleeding, how to perform hands-only CPR. 

Cassagnol has earned various honors for her work, including a Volunteer New York! “safe community” award and a March of Dimes New York “nurse of the year.” The U.S. Haitian Chamber of Commerce named her a Haitian American Young Citizen of the Year in 2019. In June, she was one of 10 nominees for the Yankees’ “Nurse Hero.” 

She’s gone on to earn her master’s degree in nursing and teaches a two-week course each year at a nursing school in Haiti. Cassagnol is now finishing up a doctorate at Pace University in Pleasantville. Her area of focus is in disaster preparedness. “It’s my life’s work.”

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