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Catastrophe’s child

She felt she had to risk it. Lynda Maurice’s visa to leave Haiti for Boston had finally come through, but not her little Abby’s. So she briefly left the child with relatives. Then came the terrible news.

In Haiti, Abby cried as her aunt Marlyne Maurice tried to get her to brush her teeth. In Haiti, Abby cried as her aunt Marlyne Maurice tried to get her to brush her teeth. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / April 25, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A narrow alley carpeted with broken glass and draped with dangling wires unfolds onto the rubble-strewn patio where Abby Emile lives. Ten of her relatives are there, too, crammed into tents behind a barricade of dining room chairs.

Abby, 3, sleeps on a bed that is steps from a crumbling house propped up by rusty pipes. Rats scurry among chunks of concrete. A bare light bulb, powered by a rumbling generator, illuminates the night.

Each day is a grinding routine of staving off worry and boredom. Abby clutches at her cousins in fear when she hears loud noises. She has had an infection, possibly from the dirt she plays in. There is no running water or reliable electricity. All of them worry about Abby missing her mother, 1,600 miles away in Boston.

“I don’t understand why she is still here,’’ a cousin said one day.

Abby is still here, and not with her parents, because of a mystifying immigration bureaucracy, a father’s error, and a mother’s heartbreaking choice.

Just months before, her mother, Lynda Maurice, had reluctantly boarded a plane with a temporary visa she had been seeking for more than four years. Because of missing paperwork, she was not allowed to bring her daughter with her.

Leaving Abby behind at first seemed inconceivable. But when America calls, Lynda’s cousin had gravely told her, you can’t say no. The girl would be safe with them until her own visa came through.

Go, they said.

And so she did. Two weeks later, on Jan. 12, a phone rang in the Hyde Park house that Lynda and her husband, Harry Emile, shared with other family members. Lynda felt a rising panic as her sister-in-law came into the bedroom and began to speak.

Something terrible had happened in Haiti.

Agonizing wait
Lynda and Harry rushed to the living room and turned on the news. They watched in stunned silence as the first reports of the massive earthquake flickered on the television screen. Harry scrolled the Internet, desperate for information. Lynda retreated to their room, crying and calling the cousins in Haiti, Monique and Yvon Daguilh, who were caring for Abby.

She dialed again and again and finally got through, but only long enough to hear Abby crying and adults screaming in the background.

Then the line went dead. It would be five days before they got through again.

Lynda and Harry agonized as aftershocks rocked Haiti and the television beamed images of the crumpled National Palace, just blocks from the house where Abby lived.

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where Harry worked as a medical technician, he wept quietly in the locker room. At home, Lynda obsessively, and fruitlessly, dialed her cousins. And she thought bitterly of her long-nurtured dream of being together as a family in America.

She and Harry had talked of it countless times since they started dating at a party in Haiti in late 2003. He had been struck by her luminous eyes and sweet spirit; she liked that he was kind, educated, and ambitious. Soon they married, and laid plans for their future.

Harry would be the first to leave, in 2004, after waiting a decade for a visa. In Boston, where his mother and several other relatives had already settled, he filed papers for Lynda’s visa and became a US citizen. That could help speed her application.

Even so, they knew it would be a long, daunting process. Applicants routinely waited years, sometimes decades. They confronted a mammoth federal bureaucracy with a bewildering array of forms, deadlines, and hundreds of dollars in fees. Harry needed money — enough to prove to federal authorities that he could support Lynda. And so, to save, he moved into the house in Hyde Park. He worked days at the hospital, and, at night, took classes at Cambridge College.

A year ground by, and they decided to start a family. He visited her when he could. But Lynda endured a painful miscarriage and Abby’s birth in 2007 without him. To bear it, she leaned hard on the dream that one day they would be able to build a life together.

She can’t go with you
That day seemed to come in December, when Lynda got word that her four-year wait for a visa was over. She was jubilant, and squeezed Abby close to her in the back seat of her brother Jean’s sport utility vehicle as he navigated the dusty road to the American consulate outside the city. All that remained was one final interview to demonstrate she had a relationship with Harry.

At the consulate, Lynda waited nervously with Abby until her name was called and she approached to face a woman behind a glass window. Lynda hoisted Abby onto the counter, where the girl waved and blew kisses at the official who was asking series of questions. Where did Harry live? Where did he work?

Lynda answered, and then she asked about Abby.

The official glanced at her daughter.

She can’t go with you, the woman said.

Lynda was stunned.

The woman patiently explained that Abby needed a separate visa and that she was not covered by the application Harry had filed for Lynda before Abby was conceived. In Lynda’s file were copies of Abby’s birth certificate, passport, and other documents. But no immigration official had mentioned the need for a separate application before.

As the woman behind the window kept talking, Lynda drifted into a haze. She gathered Abby in her arms, walked outside to the car and burst into tears. She did not speak on the ride home. She went to church and prayed.

Here was her dilemma: If she waited for Abby’s papers to come through, she worried that her own visa might expire, forcing another long wait. But the thought of leaving her daughter paralyzed her with grief and fear. Her family urged her to get safely to America and fix the problem there. Lynda should spend time with Harry, they said. In Haiti, where dreams of moving to the United States span generations and families routinely endure separations to achieve the goal, it only made sense.

“I gave them a guarantee,’’ said Yvon Daguilh, her cousin who promised to look after Abby, speaking through a translator. “She can leave the child behind so she can get her green card. After four years, you can’t tell her to stop. You better go and get the green card. You better go and finish it.’’

The earthquake
When the earthquake hit, Abby was with Monique on the upstairs deck in the Daguilhs’ cream-colored house in downtown Port-au-Prince, overlooking an avenue bustling with customers filling prescriptions at Luxe Pharmacy, having their hair curled at Mondy’s beauty parlor, or placing bets at lottery kiosks pegged to the New York daily number.

The force of the quake knocked Monique down. Panicked and disoriented, her only thought was for the girl. She scrambled to her feet, seized the child and bolted down the stairs and out of the house.

“Run and jump,’’ Abby says when she talks of the earthquake now. “They ran, they ran, they ran.’’

Desperate for a visa
Days later, thousands formed a river of misery on a dirt path outside the US Embassy. They arrived with mangled limbs and bandaged heads clutching birth certificates, immigration applications, and any document that had US government stamped on it.

Most were turned away. It wasn’t easy to say no, officials said. But Congress writes the law, and they must enforce it.

Officials handed out fliers printed with the Internet address for US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website. People wishing to go to America could ask relatives in America to apply on their behalf then wait for an appointment with the Department of State, just as they would have done before the earthquake. Even before the disaster, more than 70,000 Haitians were on a waiting list for visas to join their relatives in the United States. Another 7,800 applied after the disaster.

“The law makes the decision for you,’’ said Linda Percy, the American vice consul in Haiti. “That’s the painful part.’’

In Boston, Harry was still hopeful. He was hearing news that the United States was evacuating thousands of American citizens and Haitian orphans.

He called the State Department’s hot line, told them he was a US citizen, and begged them to let his daughter get on a flight.

The official who answered was sympathetic but said she had to follow the law.

“She told me I could only hope and pray for my daughter,’’ he said.

Weeks earlier, after Lynda’s appointment at the consulate but before the quake, Harry had marched to the immigration agency in Boston to try to find help. Then he flew to Haiti and went to the US consulate. Every official told him the same thing: There was nothing to do other than file an application.

“I was going to say, ‘Do you have any kids?’ ’’ he said. “How would you feel if you were the mother and had to leave your child here?’’

Harry could not believe this was his fault. He could not afford an immigration lawyer. But he felt he didn’t need one, and that the law was on his side. A friend told him she had been in a similar situation and had been permitted to bring her child.

US officials say they do not want to separate families, but that it is the applicants’ job to fill out the paperwork correctly.

It turns out there was much Harry did not know, federal officials say. Lynda did not have to leave Haiti right away, as she believed. She could have stayed with Abby and requested a replacement visa, which probably would have been granted within weeks, a US official said.

“She did not have to leave her child behind,’’ said Charles Oppenheim, chief of the immigrant visa control and reporting division at the Department of State. “She and her husband made a conscious choice to leave that daughter behind. The US government did not do that. That was their choice and unfortunately now they’re paying the price for that.’’

After the earthquake, Harry also could have applied for humanitarian parole, a discretionary tool used sparingly in emergency cases. But he did not believe that it would work. He had tried for parole to get Lynda out of Haiti in 2007 when she miscarried Abby’s twin sister, but could not. After the earthquake, the consulate did not advertise that option. Some 1,300 people received it, most of them orphans.

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harry’s co-workers rallied around him. Nurses and techs raised money for Abby’s visa. A receptionist wrote a letter to President Obama on his behalf. They searched the Internet for numbers he could call.

Harry and Lynda considered returning to Haiti to be with Abby and to search for some solution, any solution. But going there would do nothing to speed the child’s visa, they knew. And they feared that if the document didn’t come through while they were there, they would only have to leave her behind again.

“What can I do?’’ Harry said, his soft voice rising. “I’m just me. Nobody. I just have to wait. No parent should have to go through what I’m going through right now.’’

Has she forgotten them?
The cousins and aunts on the patio behind the Daguilhs’ cracked house stretched a banner that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY’’ across Abby’s tent. It was March 23, the day after her third birthday. Without the child’s parents on hand, they had been uncertain of the right date. They pushed aside the beds, hung blue and silver balloons, and put out a cake and plates of cookies and popcorn.

They helped Abby into an ivory-colored dress and shiny black shoes. She played tag with a friend, and dispensed handfuls of popcorn to the guests.

She sat in a battered white chair and opened presents. A pink telephone. A Tweety Bird musical toy. A doll.

Abby smiled, but not often. Her aunts said one of her teeth ached.

They murmured their worries about the girl out of earshot.

They worried about how the dust from upcoming demolition work in the city would affect her asthma. They worried about disease. They worried especially about the hidden impact on Abby of her mother’s absence.

Abby had lately refused to speak to Lynda, who called several times a day. One of the girl’s aunts, Lynda’s sister Sabrina, answered when the phone rang one day. “Abby?’’ Sabrina said to the girl, pointing to the phone. “It’s mommy.’’

Abby frowned, covered her ears with her hands, and shook her head.

Lynda had fretted to Sabrina about it, worried that her daughter was forgetting her. Abby was already calling the Daguilhs, “Mommy’’ and “Daddy.’’

Sabrina had tried to reassure her sister over the phone, saying that a mother is irreplaceable.

“It’s a love you never forget,’’ Sabrina had told her.

A few days after the birthday party, Lynda called again, with Harry on the line.

Yvon Daguilh answered.

“Say good morning,’’ he said, holding the phone out to Abby. Abby ran away, braids flying. Someone asked why she wouldn’t talk to her mother.

“Lynda left,’’ she said.

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