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Venting sorrow, seeking hope, Haitians here turn to radio

“The radio for me is my therapy. It’s the waiting that is driving us crazy,’’ said Linda Chery, a deejay on Haitian radio station in Mattapan. “The radio for me is my therapy. It’s the waiting that is driving us crazy,’’ said Linda Chery, a deejay on Haitian radio station in Mattapan.
By David Filipov
Globe Staff / January 16, 2010

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She speaks words of hope, words of relief, words of despair. In a tiny, one-room studio, behind a steel door down an unlit alley in Mattapan, Linda Chery leans over a soundboard, speaks into a microphone, and Haitians listen - across Boston, and, via the Internet, across the country and across the devastated island in the Caribbean.

Chery’s Thursday night show on this Haitian radio station has long been a draw for Haitians in the area who want to hear music and discussions of current events. Now it has become a virtual lifeline - a clearinghouse of good news, tragic news, vital news - for Haitians caught up in the destruction and chaos wrought by the major earthquake Tuesday night.

They await word from Haiti. They call in to pass on something, anything that they have seen or heard. They call in to plead for news of friends or loved ones. Chery, a Haitian-American born in Cambridge, relays their messages in fluent Haitian Creole. She translates breaking news. She forgets, for a while, that she, too, is waiting desperately; that she, too, is in mourning.

Three members of her brother-in-law’s family are dead, crushed when their house collapsed. A cousin she thought was in the United States is instead in Haiti, missing. She has heard nothing. Other relatives, many friends - missing. She puts that aside and does her job.

“The radio for me is my therapy,’’ she says during a break. “It’s the waiting that is driving us crazy.’’

A television hanging on the wall is tuned to CNN; the sound is down and the closed captions are turned on.

Breaking news: The Red Cross is estimating 45,000 to 50,000 dead. . . .

One caller to the station was looking for a woman in Port-au-Prince. He had dialed her cellphone but a stranger answered. The stranger said that the woman was all right but her legs were broken. The connection failed. The man then called the station to try to find out where the stranger who answered the woman’s phone might be.

“People call and say, ‘Do you know xyz?’,’’ Chery says. “We’re glad to be able to at least provide them something to pay attention to.’’

Breaking news: A 13-year-old girl is pulled from the wreckage, shaken, but alive. . . .

The owner of the Mattapan station did not want the call letters or location published. A number of Haitian radio stations in the region broadcast without a license, but the owner did not respond to inquiries as to whether the Mattapan station has one. The Haitian stations generally have weak signals that reach local communities, but listeners can stream their broadcasts over the Internet.

Chery briefly switches on an Internet feed from a radio station in Haiti. Then she goes back on the air and reads out a petition being sent around, asking the US government to grant temporary protected status to Haitians in the country illegally, so they cannot be deported to Haiti during the crisis. (President Obama granted the status protections yesterday.)

Posters on the wall advertise Haitian pop groups that have toured Boston. A Haitian flag adorns the wall, along with a Vote Obama sticker. A space heater warms the cramped studio, really just a sound board enclosed in a glass booth, two mikes and a few chairs. “I would like to remind you that this is not a hangout area’’ reads a sign addressed to staff.

Breaking news: Bodies line the streets of Port-au-Prince. . . .

Another deejay, Sanders Nicolas, gets on the air. He does a long interview by phone with a Haitian man in Florida. He gives his listeners a phone number “if you want to reach [Governor] Deval Patrick.’’ He reads updates from Haiti.

Nicolas has been calling Port-au-Prince since Tuesday night, hoping for updates of his own.

“My entire family is there,’’ he says later. “I called them this morning. I woke up and prayed, and then I called.’’

He got through. The connection lasted a minute or so. His family is alive. The houses to the left and right collapsed. His family’s home somehow remained intact. They survived.

“Our story is one of triumph, but there is so much tragedy,’’ Nicolas says. “You cannot be a Haitian and not have a friend or family down there.’’

He pauses. He has so many friends. He has heard from so few. “People call to see if their families are safe,’’ he says. “You want to inform everybody. but you don’t know if your friends or family are safe.’’

The show is over. Time to go home. “This is my therapy,’’ Chery says again. “Therapy, free of charge.’’

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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