Kerlyne Paraison helplessly saw the drama unfolding on television the way one watches a loved one flat-line through a hospital window. The 26-year-old Haitian had lived in Port-au-Prince until just two years ago. When she saw the first pictures flash across the TV screen of the Haitian earthquake, she thought of her brother and sister, who still lived in a two-story house in the city's Carrefour neighborhood.
"My knees were giving away because I knew Port-au-Prince was already unstable," she said. "I knew it could not be good news."
Paraison is in the cramped offices of Haitian Women of Miami, a nonprofit located on NE 82nd Street in Little Haiti to apply for temporary protected status (TPS), a legal definition extended by the Department of Homeland Security to undocumented immigrants after a natural disaster or civil unrest.
Men and women stand groggily in line in the lobby holding manila folders thick with birth certificates and immigration paperwork. They began lining up early in the morning. Paraison arrived at 7 a.m.
It was clear, as they talked and sometimes sobbed to the receptionist, that even this government designation wouldn't salve a gaping wound.
"In a murderous time, the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking," an old poem says. Haitian immigrants in this neighborhood have long lived in that spirit, like marathon runners in a fog, waiting for the next tragic surprise.
As Paraison waited to be seen by one of the counselors, she agitatedly talked about the uncertainty of the past six days, an interminable limbo that has abated but not disappeared. Like many others, she began furiously phoning her siblings that Tuesday afternoon, only to get the deafening beep of a busy signal. "I've had headaches; I've been stressed out. I was afraid because I hadn't been called," she explained.
Instead, she went to memorial services at Notre Dame d'Haiti and wept with her mother, who until recently still sent $100 monthly from her unemployment check to her children back in Haiti.
It wasn't until Sunday, five days after the first devastating earthquake, that she received a Hail Mary.
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"I got a call suddenly at 4 in the morning. I was shaken. It had to be them. I heard my brother's voice: 'We're alive; we're OK. We've lost everything, but we're OK,'" she said. They talked for two hours, Paraison said, as she barraged her brother with questions, unsure of who was truly doing the consoling, her or him.
He told her they'd jumped through a window to escape their house after the stairs collapsed. His family is still wearing the same clothes seven days ago and sleeping in sheets out in the streets. Food is scarce.
Paraison, who without legal documents hasn't been able to find work, hopes that qualifying for TPS will help her with her brother's last request: Send money, fast.
A work permit is the most tangible benefit of obtaining the special designation. But for all of the 200,000 people expected to apply, that is at least six months away, says Martine Theodore, one of the directors at Haitian Women. "We're getting an increased case load, we're recruiting volunteers left and right, and we were crowded before," she says. "We're going to have an interminable line for the foreseeable future."