Solid Ground

Crushed under a house and left for dead after the Haiti earthquake, Roovens Monchil survived with help from strangers. Months later, they found each other again in Atlanta.

It’s late summer and Hurricane Irene is blowing, counterclockwise, toward the United States. Roovens Monchil is sitting in a hot, dingy Valley Place Apartments unit near Stone Mountain Highway. The door hangs open, but there’s no breeze. Roovens is far enough from the Atlantic coast, which Irene is expected to slam with 100-mile-an-hour winds. The thirteen-year-old watches the news on a donated television, digesting information in a new language. Someone stole his Nintendo Wii two weeks ago. It was a gift from the nurse.

According to the man on the TV, the hurricane will hit Haiti before reaching the United States. Haiti is where Roovens’s mother lives, where he spent his first decade. It’s also where he lay in a courtyard by the street almost two years ago, presumed dead.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

If asked, he’ll display the seven-inch scar along his right thigh, and point to the one beside his right ear. American metal is in him now. It helps him stand, and move. But don’t be fooled: His strength comes from somewhere else.

Roovens can’t remember the last time he spoke to his mother. A few months ago, he guesses. He hasn’t seen her since he left. He worries about her in his silent way, his big eyes tracing something on the floor. He picks at a thread hanging from his white basketball shoes as the news anchor describes what could happen to his country, a plagued Caribbean island the size of Massachusetts. He looks up and leans closer to the screen.

Haitians are being evacuated to emergency centers . . . a possible resurgence of the cholera epidemic unleashed last October . . . devastating landslides . . . fields destroyed . . . tent camps washed away. It goes on. Roovens processes the words. Some he knows, some he doesn’t. But he understands.

Hurricanes, like political upheaval and extreme poverty, are normal to Haitians. They talk about hurricanes the way we talk about heat waves. Along Haiti’s coast, as Irene approaches, people nail down the tarps and scraps of sheet metal that are their homes. Birth certificates and holy books are wrapped in plastic. Oil and water are stockpiled. Shanties become bunkers. Their occupants hunker down.

Optimism surfaces in small observations. For instance, a sheet metal shanty can be better than a cinder block house: A house can crush you. Roovens Monchil learned this when the earth gave way at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, killing 230,000 Haitians and leaving more than a million homeless. Or rather, he learned this later, when it was told to him.

Another boy from Haiti, a twelve-year-old who lives with his own father in this same Decatur apartment, passes between Roovens and the TV. A rope of saliva hangs from the boy’s lower lip. He survived the earthquake too, though not so well. He walks into the bathroom and comes out with a beetle, holding it up for inspection. Roovens’s father shakes his head. Their home in Haiti was cleaner than this place. Fortunately, this is their last day here. They’re moving to another apartment, one that isn’t dark, crowded, decomposing. Where a Nintendo is safe, and stuffed animals are free of mildew. It will have its own problems, but none of these, they hope.

The news anchor is still talking. The USNS Comfort, an 894-foot Navy hospital vessel, intermittently docked off Haiti’s west coast since the earthquake, has suspended operations due to Irene. People as far away as New York City are boarding up windows, heading inland. It’s predicted to be the largest hurricane to hit the East Coast of the United States in seventy years. Roovens turns from the TV, looking at his possessions packed in a corner, wondering why disaster has followed him here; why storms get names, but earthquakes don’t.

The USNS Comfort is the ship that carried him back from a place he can only imagine. A resting place, you could say. He can’t remember the ship, or the man who took him there. Or the man who found him in the rubble, or the one who laid him among the bodies. Or the falling house before all that. He just remembers a cartoon, a helicopter, and then this place: Atlanta.

The mind is funny, the way it blocks out pain. It’s a survival mechanism, but it’s still strange to him that he can’t remember. Everyone else seems to know his story. They tell him what happened. They tell him that he was very brave.

The headquarters of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta are in Decatur, three and a half miles south of Valley Place Apartments. The wood-and-stone facade, built in the 1970s, has a resilient look. Inside, thirty-two employees, who speak twenty-four languages among them, attempt to forge new lives for their clients. One of six such nonprofit agencies in Atlanta, RRISA helps resettle roughly 525 of the 3,000 refugees and displaced people who arrive in Georgia each year: Iraqi war refugees, Somali civil war survivors, victims of Congolese violence. In 2010 Georgia received the sixth most refugees of any state.

With federal funding distributed by the international humanitarian group Church World Service, the agency provided housing, transportation, and access to medical care to the sixty-nine Haitians evacuated to Atlanta in early 2010. The evacuees were sent to nineteen different hospitals across the metro area, and as far away as Warm Springs and Athens. Eventually they were moved to extended-stay motels, and finally apartments—most in DeKalb County, whose schools, hospitals, apartments, and employers are relatively prepared for them. Sixteen percent of DeKalb’s residents were foreign-born in 2009, compared to 9 percent for Georgia as a whole.

Many of the evacuees now speak English and hold jobs. They work at a chicken-processing factory, a recycling plant, and as housekeepers at hotels, making around $10 an hour. They pay rent, send their kids to schools, ride MARTA, eat fast food, and wonder about the giant faces carved into Stone Mountain.

Three of the sixty-nine evacuees are now dead. Three returned to Haiti. Five joined relatives in other states. The remaining fifty-eight still live in Atlanta. One of them is Roovens Monchil, who just got home from Druid Hills Middle School, where he is in eighth grade.

Roovens is tall for his age, but not gangly. He’s gained back the weight he lost after the earthquake, plus a few American pounds. He often wears three colored plastic bracelets on his wrist. One says, “Kids Doing Good.” Another says, “Reading is awesome.” He has a Facebook account. He loves soccer and Ronaldinho, the magical Brazilian. He listened to Justin Bieber when he first got here but now prefers Chris Brown. His gait is slightly off—from what happened—but it’s easily mistaken for an adolescent swagger. Girls like Roovens, and not just because he speaks French.

Roovens and his father, Richardson, thirty-eight, arrived in the United States under humanitarian parole, which is used to temporarily provide emergency refuge to someone who is otherwise inadmissible to the United States. In late August, they received temporary protected status. Since much of Haiti is still destroyed, they’ll be able to stay here through at least 2012. After that, they can keep trying to extend this status, which lasts around eighteen months. But there is no paperwork path to citizenship. Unless something extraordinary happens—a marriage or an act of Congress—they will eventually have to return to Haiti. A much different Haiti than they knew.

Nonetheless, on a Friday in August, nineteen months into their lives in Atlanta, they look at a Highland Forest Apartment Homes unit near Stone Mountain Industrial Boulevard. They will be the first evacuees to leave Valley Place for a better home. Richardson will pay for a new apartment with his salary as a housekeeper at an airport hotel. The Monchils’ half of the place—a three-bedroom that they plan to share with an evacuated mother and her two-year-old son, born not long before the earthquake and christened with a three-inch scar across his skull—will cost around $300 a month. Richardson is proud to have earned it.

From the outside, Highland Forest looks pleasant. There’s a security gate, a pool, a playground, and a clean leasing office. But the apartment isn’t available anymore. They’re shown another one. Inspecting it, they find that the AC is broken, the carpet needs to be replaced, the countertops are scratched, the oven contains bits of old food, and the whole place smells moldy.

Roovens has forgotten much, but he still remembers home: the smell of fried plantains, and a cartoon on the television.

Roovens Monchil
grew up in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But he was not one of the poorest there. He lived in a busy, middle-class Port-au-Prince suburb called Delmas. It was safe, for Haiti. Men played dominoes on the edges of the half-paved streets, which buzzed with children kicking balls and vendors selling Prestige beer and frita, a fried mix of plantains, pork, and hot cabbage. Roovens played around his father’s duplex on Rue Delmas 33, exploring his neighborhood on the occasions he was able to roam.

His parents had split up, but they both had good jobs: Richardson, born to farmers, was well educated and ran a music store; his mother, who married a police officer, leaving the boy with his father, worked as a seamstress.

But his mother came back into his life eventually. And so it was that Roovens was at his mother’s home, on the first of three floors, just back from school, watching Tom and Jerry when it happened. He was a skinny eleven-year-old boy then. To an American, he looked maybe eight. His stepfather’s brother had been there moments before, but he’d gone to see a friend. As Roovens sat on a chair, the earth began to throw things: the TV from its perch, dishes from the counter, juice from his hand. He had just enough time to get up and run for the shaking door. There was screaming of a kind he’d never heard. He made it just past the threshold, picturing Jerry running from Tom.

Then the house was upon him.

Richardson was in a taxi, heading to a meeting, when the car lurched and buildings began to fall. The ground below jumped up and fell back again for what seemed to be minutes, like a living thing. The streets were always chaotic, but now people were reaching for the heavens, praying to God, yelling “Jesus!,” and making sounds worse than words. He saw children with gruesome injuries, carried by adults who seemed to be weeping blood. Was this the end? Some awful reckoning? Would they be saved? And Roovens. He was at his mother’s house, wasn’t he? Richardson didn’t know where, exactly, she lived. Not that her neighborhood would be recognizable now.

There are no real building codes in Port-au-Prince, and most everything is made from cinder block, little more than compressed ash. Looking around, it was hard to believe any of it had ever stood. Phones were down too—the city’s tenuous infrastructure was destroyed. Roovens was his only child.

His stepuncle found Roovens
in what remained of his mother’s home in Delmas, surrounded by fragments of cinder block and broken furniture. Phone lines snaked across the ground, between smashed cars, across cracked pavement and bodies becoming still. The air was choked with dust, not yet decay.

Strangely, almost all the trees were still standing.

A local man with a working truck drove the unconscious boy, bleeding from his head, to a medical clinic. Roovens’s step-uncle came too. The clinic was full of people, but no doctors. They were elsewhere, tending to themselves or their own. The uncle got out and ran to find the boy’s parents. The driver wrapped Roovens up and left him in the clinic’s courtyard, near the street, where the bodies were accumulating.

When his mother and stepfather returned late that night, with his stepuncle, Roovens was not where he had been.

The driver thought the boy was dead. He didn’t move, didn’t seem to breathe. The man assumed Roovens had suffered the same fate as all the others—an archbishop in one office, a United Nations special envoy in another. The workers piled beside the workplaces. The children piled beside the schools. The entire families arrayed before their former homes. Roovens was just one of an estimated 110,000 injured children.

What could be done? Before anything else, you must separate the living from the dead. Roovens looked dead. So, with the driver’s help, the boy joined them. For a long time afterward, the fetid heaps and rows, full of children, were the only things in Haiti that seemed to grow.

That night, when they returned, Roovens’s mother and stepfather saw bits of his clothing. Then his face, crusted with dirt and blood. They picked him up and put him in the stepfather’s car. They drove to another clinic—this one barely functioning—where his head was hastily bandaged, then back to his mother’s neighborhood, where they remained. They washed and nourished him as best they could. They watched him there, as he lay half-dead.

Richardson found them like that two days later. He’d been looking for Roovens since he’d opened the taxi’s doors into a new world full of many bodies that were not his son. He kissed the boy’s warm lips. Then, all together, they took him to a hospital where doctors had returned. And they waited.

It wasn’t until fifteen days after the earthquake that Roovens finally spoke from his cot. Or rather, he sang. It was a song he’d learned as a younger boy, when songs were just sound. The refrain goes, “Christ has a surprise for you.”

When Dr. Alan Larsen
first saw Roovens, the boy had a pin through his right leg. It was attached to a rope hanging off his cot. The rope, in turn, was tied around a brick. This setup was supposed to reduce pain and realign his broken limb. For almost two weeks, Roovens had lain this way in a hot, dusty room. It was about ten by ten feet, built for one. Two other patients, young boys with their own families, lay next to him. Since finding his son, Richardson hadn’t left his side.

It was early February, a month after the earthquake. They were at the Haitian Community Hospital in Pétionville, a hillside district where diplomats and wealthy Haitians live. It was one of the better hospitals in Haiti, but that wasn’t saying much. Roovens was glassy-eyed. His femur was broken, he had a deep, open wound in his right thigh (likely caused by the falling house), a deep gash on his head, and a fever of 102. He was conscious, but lifeless. Soon he would be headed for the hospital’s intensive care unit, where most went to die.

Larsen, fifty-three, is a plastic surgeon. His office is on Roswell Road, in Sandy Springs. He does a lot of breast reconstructions and is skilled at skin grafting. He’s a confident man, a workhorse, but sensitive. After the earthquake, he told everyone in his office that he was taking time off to help. There’d been another disaster a few years before—he can’t remember which one, but he hadn’t gone to help, and that bothered him.

He wanted to go with a group. So he tried the Red Cross. They didn’t respond. He tried Doctors Without Borders. Same. Finally he tried the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. That was on a Tuesday. He was packed and aboard a plane to Port-au-Prince on Saturday, arriving just before the one-month anniversary of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.

For the next week he worked twelve- to fourteen-hour days at the hospital in Pétionville, eating rice and Pop-Tarts, sleeping in a local home.

Larsen had never been to Haiti. The hospital, he discovered, was half-built. It had a cramped operating room with an old ventilator and anesthesia machine. There was minimal blood supply. Little food. There was no air-conditioning, one small nurse station, and a grim intensive care unit. There was only one blood pressure monitoring unit there; no separate rooms, or even curtains. Just stretchers. Families washed and bathed and wheeled around their own. The rest of the hospital was basically an open courtyard.

The strongest medication Larsen could give, other than a diluted narcotic before operating, was Tylenol. People with broken legs got Tylenol. Hands that were crushed? Tylenol. If you had internal injuries, you got morphine—but you probably died. Doctors in the hospital performed many amputations. They simply didn’t have the equipment, the surgeons, or the ICU to save limbs. After the amputations came the inevitable infections, most dangerous of all.

“Haitians have a different perception of death,” Tina Morrison, an emergency room nurse from Spokane, Washington, explained to Larsen. “They’re used to babies dying, and family dying young. They don’t have the same interventions and technology. They’re very tough with pain.” She’d been there for a week, sleeping in a tent on the hospital’s roof, when he arrived.

Like Larsen
, Tina Morrison didn’t speak much French, but she kept a list of all the patients and their particular needs. She was good at figuring out how to move them from this overwhelmed outpost to somewhere they could get real treatment. She kept a brave face.

Morrison was impressed by Larsen’s stamina. It would be 10 p.m. and he would want to take more people into the operating room. The staff were exhausted, but they did anyway. It wasn’t glamorous stuff that Larsen was doing: taking tissue from a thigh, reshaping it, and placing it over a deep wound. Morrison did pre- and post-op work, trying to prevent infection. Roovens had gone through surgery before Larsen arrived, and he already had an infection down to the bone of his right leg.

Larsen has a daughter a few years younger than Roovens, whom he shares with an ex-wife and wishes he saw more. Morrison had one who was even younger when she died of cancer. Roovens became almost a surrogate child to both doctor and nurse, but there was something else. A sweetness that radiated through his nearly catatonic silence; the way he held a hand and blinked his eyes.

A month after the earthquake, Roovens had a blood infection. He was very thin and weak, getting maybe 500 calories a day; his body needed five times that. Morrison gave him all the PediaSure she could, and extra rice, forcing him to eat it. His father brought him food too. It didn’t matter. Larsen operated on Roovens four times—repeatedly cleaning out the wound—but he wasn’t recovering. His eyes were open, but he barely spoke. Once in a while he quietly sang: “Christ has a surprise . . . ”

During the second week of February, one wave of humanitarian doctors and nurses began leaving. Another group would soon arrive. Larsen had to depart shortly. Roovens’s father was nervous. He trusted this man from America—a man who, also being short, Richardson could look in the eye.

Larsen asked other doctors about the boy’s options. Roovens had to be treated there, they said. Larsen lay awake at night, wishing Roovens could be operated on in America. After Larsen finally left the Haitian Community Hospital, having done what he could, Roovens went to the intensive care unit. If he stayed, he would die within days from lack of nutrition, or infection, or both.

Morrison called Colonel Jack McElroy, deputy commander of the U.S. humanitarian operation in Haiti. They’d met in a courtyard at the U.S. Embassy. He’d seemed like a good man. She hoped he could get Roovens on the USNS Comfort. The ship had a thousand beds for the very sick. Of course, there were far more in need than could fit. Still, Roovens’s best chance lay with this vessel, outfitted like an American hospital. Otherwise, it was a hospital in Tabarre, just north of Port-au-Prince, where they would be more likely to amputate.

The colonel, who never met the boy, made some calls. Paperwork was filed. Roovens was accepted as a patient on the magic ship. A boat took him there.

In the pediatric ward of the USNS Comfort, American doctors cleaned the boy, washed his wounds, and put a plate in his leg. He stared silently at these men and women. He needed long-term care, which they couldn’t offer. After six days, they sent him and his father somewhere else.

No one knew where.

At home in Atlanta, Larsen made dozens of calls. So did Morrison, back in Spokane. She tried the Comfort hotline. She called a congressman. They couldn’t find out if the boy was okay. They didn’t have clearance. Not knowing what else to do, Morrison called Colonel McElroy and asked for one more favor. Within an hour, he’d found the boy.

Turns out Roovens
was in Atlanta, three miles from Buckhead Plastic Surgery. Larsen had just left for the day when he got the call from Morrison. He spun his Toyota 4Runner around and headed for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

The boy was lying in his hospital bed, beside a Wii controller, smiling. He didn’t recognize Larsen, who stood there in his scrubs. But Richardson did. He said hello to him, in English. Larsen learned that they had arrived in Atlanta before he’d even returned from Haiti. They’d been there for weeks. Larsen began to cry.

The Monchils had left the Comfort by helicopter. The chopping blades and the men in fatigues were the first things that surfaced in Roovens’s memory, after the cartoon. They got on a C-130 U.S. military transport plane in Port-au-Prince and arrived in Marietta, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, around 10 p.m. on February 18, 2010. It was Roovens’s first plane ride. The air outside felt cold and thin. It smelled different too. Roovens asked his dad where he was. It didn’t seem possible.

Richardson had spent seven months before the earthquake filling out paperwork for a visa to come to the United States—for a short time, or a long one. Richardson knew about New York, Miami, and Boston. They sounded like nice cities to visit, if he and his son were so lucky. But he knew hardly anything about Georgia.

They soon met Natasha Bouloute, a friendly radiology tech at Children’s Healthcare. Roovens was placed on the hospital’s third floor. Natasha served as an interpreter for him and his father. It was unpaid work, done during her little free time; it reminded her of Haiti, where her parents grew up.

Roovens was at the hospital for a month, but he had to keep returning. Dr. Michael Schmitz, the chief of orthopedic surgery there, could tell the boy was terrified—he’d been cut open so much. On April 8, he had an antibiotic rod and plate removed, along with some dead bone. Dr. Schmitz hoped the rod—inserted on the Comfort ship—had done its job, that the remaining bone was healed and strong. A few steps proved otherwise. On April 20, Roovens went back to the operating room, where a titanium rod was implanted to treat the new fracture.

Ultimately Roovens had four surgeries by Dr. Schmitz’s hand. His infection gradually cleared, and his leg was saved. The titanium rod, the diameter of the boy’s thumb and the length of his thigh, was there to stay. Superman, he learned, was made of steel.

As she translated for the Monchils—helping them understand the healing process, and Atlanta—Natasha and Richardson noticed each other. He was a slight man with a goatee and kind eyes, and she a pretty mother, with an angular face and sharp tongue. She was divorced from a Haitian man. So Natasha hesitated when Richardson friended her on Facebook. It felt quick, but she let it go; he was new to America, and social networking. He also looked good in the clothes she helped him pick out.

Roovens had rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair that March, his bill paid for partly by the government and the rest by the Refugee Medical Assistance program. The resettlement agency had found an extended-stay motel, near Children’s Healthcare, where he and Richardson could live. They received food stamps. Roovens got a walker. Richardson rehabilitated his son’s leg by stretching and rubbing it. After almost two months, they were moved to Valley Place to live with the other father and son.

That boy had an undiagnosed brain injury, caused by the earthquake, that made him drool. He couldn’t talk or eat on his own, but he understood. And he always smiled. The man kept their door open, and people wandered in. Sometimes they took things. Other things would break or stop working. Sometimes it was hard for the evacuees to get the agency to help. Once, Natasha texted a case officer: “CNN might be interested to know that a young refugee mother and her baby don’t have any air-conditioning and it’s ninety-eight degrees outside.” That did the trick.

Richardson got a job making doors and windows in a factory. He got up at 3 a.m. and worked twelve-hour days. It was physical work: He lost fifteen pounds in six weeks. Natasha urged him to look for another job. By then they were officially dating. Richardson was different from most men she’d known. He came to her big house one day and tilled her bare yard. Soon there was tall grass. Another day, it was ceiling fans. She’d been divorced for three years. It took some time to let him in. Richardson learned patience long ago.

After two months, he put in his two weeks’ notice at the factory. With the help of the International Rescue Committee, he’d found a hotel housekeeping job. The man who hired him asked if he would mind working with women, making beds, and cleaning toilets. Richardson ironed his son’s clothes and cut his food. He was the boy’s mother and father. No, he wouldn’t mind at all.

Last June, Tina Morrison
flew to Atlanta for Roovens’s twelfth birthday. He’d heard about Nurse Tina. She and Dr. Larsen went with the Monchils, Natasha, and a friend to Joe’s Crab Shack. The boy ate and ate. He talked some too and hummed “Welcome to Atlanta,” the Jermaine Dupri song. He was funny, tugging on Natasha’s arms, laughing at words his dad tried to say. Roovens learned English quickly. Morrison gave him his Wii that night. It was like a cartoon he could control. He thanked her. He wouldn’t forget.

The Highland Forest Apartment unit didn’t work out, so they found another place in early September of this year. The Summerlyn Park Apartments sit in a quiet, family-oriented Lithonia neighborhood. There’s an Olympic-sized pool, a gym, twenty-four-hour security, and a basketball court. Richardson signed a nine-month lease. Why nine months? asked Natasha. He smiled. Maybe they’d move in together when it ran out. They’d have to get married, she replied. She doesn’t just live with men.

Larsen is back in his office, doing cosmetic surgery, reminding himself to give his patients pain medicine—and to not chide whiners. Richardson texts him when he’s got news. In October he began training to be a supervisor at the hotel, which would mean a raise. This bothered many of the housekeepers he worked with; they didn’t understand how a new hire, who spoke imperfect English, could become their boss. They got up when he sat down at the lunch table. Richardson’s boss still wants him to be a supervisor. It’s not about making friends, he says. But Richardson isn’t sure. He remains a housekeeper for now.

Often, Richardson pays when he and Natasha go out. Money isn’t important to her, but it makes him feel good. He’s saved a few thousand dollars in just six months. He sends some back to Roovens’s mother. She’s married, but she’s still the boy’s mom. Natasha understands that; Richardson is a good man.

Atlanta is a good place to be a man, to make money, to raise a child. Richardson and Roovens have been to the Stone Mountain laser show, seen those giant faces up close. They’ve watched movies in 3-D, Roovens reaching toward the screen—another thing that didn’t seem possible.

Roovens still has his stuffed animals, which line the bureau in his tidy room. He also has a cell phone and an MP3 player. He has many Facebook friends, including Natasha’s son, whom he wrestles. As long as his grades stay up, they can play. Natasha pays him $2 for Bs and $5 for As. His first check was for $25, and he sent $20 back to Haiti, to his mother. He wants to be a doctor someday. And drive a nice car.

But what does Roovens Monchil want right now? He wants to hug his mother and his friends in Haiti . . . and then fly to Brazil to meet Ronaldhino, the soccer star. First he must register at a new school, though. Standing nervously in front of a guidance counselor, he finally says: “My name is Roovens Monchil. I am from Haiti. I want to learn.”

A year ago, Richardson formed a group for earthquake victims in Atlanta. He suggested giving plaques to the people who had helped. He wanted to show them what they’d saved—to show them Roovens. Four hundred people attended the ceremony at Natasha’s church. She arranged a Josh Groban song, called “You Raise Me Up,” to be performed at the end. Richardson had a solo, but Roovens sang the last line: “You raise me up to more than I can be.” He sang in a suit, in his new language. And it brought down the house.