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In Canada, scenes of horror haunt survivors

If it registered at all, the great Canadian earthquake that rattled a few windows last June caused far more shrugs than tears among Ontarians and Quebeckers.

But for Fanie Philogène, a Montrealer who has lived about half her life in Haiti, the small tremor stirred visions of broken bodies and a city's destruction, an end-of-days scene she had barely survived six months earlier.

One year ago, Ms. Philogène was at a gas station in Port-au-Prince, a few kilometres away from the family home, when an earthquake flattened the city and killed about 300,000 people.

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She was sitting in a car with her toddler son, Cédric, when the ground shook and the gas station burst into flames. She thought the garage had come under assault by heavily armed bandits. Ms. Philogène barely managed to pull Cédric out of the car before the sedan was consumed by fire.

Ms. Philogène, her son and baby daughter, Maeva, were among 4,690 people, mostly Canadians like them, who were evacuated from Haiti to Canada immediately after the quake. Their physical survival was no longer in peril, but psychological fallout surfaced quickly.

Last June, Ms. Philogène was back in Montreal, working as a dental hygienist, and felt she was finally getting a handle on her nerves. The 30-year-old was getting some sleep and Cédric, now 3, had stopped having nightmares about fire (at the gas station) and tears (from his mother).

Ms. Philogène was cleaning teeth at her third-storey suburban Montreal office June 23 when she felt the floor shake. The 5.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Quebec and Ontario was a minor aftershock by Haitian standards. Ms. Philogène was the only person in her office to feel the tremble but it was more than enough to throw her back to Port-au-Prince six months earlier.

"I was panicking. My Lord, I thought it was going to be my last day on earth," Ms. Philogène says. "Ever since that day, I can't sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I feel like something is moving."

The Canadian earthquake renewed the inevitable questions posed by guilt-ridden survivors. "How is it so many are dead but we're alive?" Ms. Philogène says: "What are the odds that a woman with two babies and an elderly mother would all come out of this without a scratch?

"How is it we are here when so many others aren't?"

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She has few nightmares now, but she is often drawn back to the apocalyptic walk from the infernal gas station to her family home in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Carrefour.

Sometimes the sight of children in school uniforms brings tears. The streets of Port-au-Prince were littered with dead and wounded schoolchildren that day. Other times, brief glimpses on TV of flattened buildings and dust-covered children will bring on more crying and another sleepless night.

Ms. Philogène said she missed a week of work immediately after her return to Montreal but has managed to get back on the job since. She's not sought counselling and isn't convinced there's a need, despite her insomnia. "One thing about Haitians," she says, "we're built tough."

Her 20-month-old daughter, Maeva, seems to have been spared any recollection. Ms. Philogène's mother remains in Haiti, living in a tent until she can get Canadian immigration clearance to move to Montreal.

More than 6,000 Haitians were granted permits to move to Canada to escape the earthquake zone in 2010. About 2,500 families were reunited, about three times the number in 2009, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Many earthquake survivors living in Canada had a relatively quick way out of Haiti, whether through their own immigration status or that of relatives. And many feel guilty about the ones they left behind.

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Docilia Dorival and her daughter, Wilda, are sipping chocolate milk from small cartons at their favourite coffee shop, a Tim Hortons in a working-class Montreal neighbourhood. At -8, it's merely brisk for a January day, but Wilda is wearing four visible layers of clothing. It's far colder than the coldest of days she ever experienced in Port-au-Prince.

While Wilda, 11, lives out this Canadian scene, her 15-year-old brother, Françio, is living with relatives under a tarp in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Ms. Dorival is here because Wilda has a Canadian passport. Françio does not. Wilda has Canadian citizenship through her estranged Haitian-Canadian father. She was able to bring her mother on one of the emergency evacuation flights eight days after the quake. "That passport is the one thing my father gave to me," Wilda quips.

Ms. Dorival, 36, hopes to send for her son eventually, but first the Creole speaker must learn to speak better French so she can get a job and support her family.

For Wilda, life since Jan. 12, 2010, is filled with dreams, but these are not always the visions of crumbling buildings and broken bodies. Sometimes, she says, it's not easy to tell where a dream ends and reality begins.

"I still wonder if it was a dream or a nightmare. Or was my life in Haiti before the earthquake the dream. Or maybe I'm dreaming right now," Wilda says, grinning at her mother and glancing outside at the frozen, grey street and the scattered snowflakes.

When the earthquake struck, Wilda was at home in their poor neighbourhood west of downtown Port-au-Prince while her mother was out selling clothes. Wilda happened to be standing next to stacked boxes of ceramic tiles, which kept her from being crushed by the falling cinderblock house they shared with relatives.

The earthquake tossed Docilia to the ground as concrete blocks and power poles fell around her. She still has pain from debris that fell into her left eye and from a bruised leg, but she was otherwise unscathed. She managed to run back to the house where Wilda was fine.

"I ran and ran and it seemed like everyone was dead," the mother says of her trip through Carrefour. "Everyone in the street was dead. For the week we spent on the street, it felt like we were in an empty city."

In Montreal, an Anglican church has taken them under wing, helping them with paperwork and finding clothing and a small apartment. Ms. Dorival has started to look for housekeeping work while Wilda attends school.

Rev. Roslyn Macgregor, an Anglican minister at Mile End Community Mission, which is helping Wilda and Docilia and two other Haitian families get settled, said she has been struck by their resourcefulness.

But she said psychological care has become scarce, despite government pledges to help new arrivals deal with loss and the trauma of their own near-death experiences.

"Really, the need is enormous," Rev. Macgregor said. "It doesn't matter how cheerful you look on the outside, the wounds are there and they're not all healed."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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