On the day the earth convulsed in his native Haiti, 9-year-old Peterson Exais was watching an action movie on television with one of his best friends, Sekwa.
“The house started shaking. We thought the movie had an explosion and stuff,” he said. “We figured out it wasn’t the TV.”
The ceiling and concrete blocks rained down on the boys.
“I tried to grab him,” Peterson said of the best friend he still calls “my brother”. Slabs of concrete crushed Peterson’s head, pinning it onto the edge of the bed. Nearby, Sekwa’s body was buried beneath the rubble on the bed.
“At first he was making a little bit of noise like yelling and then he stopped,” Peterson said. “I knew he was dead.”
Peterson would spend the next four days entombed in his sister’s crumbled Port-au-Prince apartment and emerge as a lucky survivor after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. Treatment of his injuries would land him and his fractured family in the United States.
Today, Peterson, now 12, and his mother, Amenise Jean-Baptiste, are learning to survive a new life in South Florida.
Trapped and terrified
Unable to heave the pile of debris that pressed on his head, and with his best friend dead, Peterson remained trapped and terrified. “I couldn’t, I just left it alone,” he said.
He fell in and out of consciousness. No food or water. When he could, he screamed, “Help me!” No one answered.
On the fourth day, Peterson said he felt his head would burst. The pain was excruciating. People were walking on top of the blocks that pinned him down, searching for lost loved ones.
“I felt like the blocks were pushing my head down more and more,” he said. “I started yelling for them to stop walking, but they couldn’t listen I think.”
Someone heard Peterson’s cries. His mother, who had frantically been searching for him nearby, asked the neighborhood men to dig.
“I heard him yelling. I knew it was my son,” said Jean-Baptiste, who had been at the market when the earthquake struck.
A group of men and women freed Peterson.
“I kind of seen like the light, the sunlight bright from a little hole,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m here.’ ”
Peterson would travel to three different hospitals before he ended up at the Project Medishare field hospital on the grounds of the international airport.
There, he met Dr. Chad Perlyn of Miami Children’s Hospital, who was in Haiti volunteering.
Perlyn said he didn’t realize the extent of Peterson’s injuries until he gingerly peeled back the bandages the previous hospital had wrapped around Peterson’s head .
“When I saw him and took off his bandages, his wounds were profound. He had lost most of his cheek and his facial bones were crushed and his ear had been torn off and a large part of his scalp was missing. And really the amazing thing was his face was full of maggots.”
After being treated for gangrene and a number of infections, Peterson and his mom were flown to Miami along with 17 other children who were in need of more serious medical attention.
When he arrived in Miami days after the earthquake for medical treatment, Peterson spoke very little English. He underwent 16 surgeries at Miami Children’s Hospital to reconstruct his ear, his left cheek and parts of his scalp. He now bears a thick scar that runs across his left cheek and several thinner scars on his head.
“It didn’t hurt,” he said of the surgeries.
New life in America
Now living in Miami’s Little Haiti in a small apartment, Peterson and his mother are among hundreds of Haitian families who settled in South Florida after the earthquake. The severely injured came by medical flights, others who could afford it escaped the destruction by catching flights from the Dominican Republic. These days, he’s focused on being a regular 12-year old boy.
“I started learning English in the hospital. Every word I heard them say I tried to learn them,” said Peterson, who prefers to speak in English rather than Creole.
“I want to keep improving,” he explained, though he seamlessly slips into Creole when speaking with his mom.
Peterson is headed to the seventh grade in the fall at Young Men’s Preparatory Academy, a Miami-Dade all-boys public school where the students wear ties and blazers.
This summer, he was accepted into Breakthrough Miami, an academic enrichment program for high-potential students hosted at Ransom Everglades Middle School in Coconut Grove.
While he walked the halls on the last day of summer classes, classmates called out to him “Peterson, hey man,” as they exchanged high-fives.
Those closest to him say Peterson is thriving in his new environment.
“As a 12-year-old, he already understands what’s important in life. He engages in a way that makes any individual interacting with him feel important. He’s so in tune,” said Charles Webber, associate site director at Breakthrough Miami’s Ransom campus.
Sitting on the worn white couch inside the two-bedroom Little Haiti apartment he shares with his mother and another family, Peterson wipes away the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. There is no air conditioner or fan.
Perhaps someday he’ll become a pediatric plastic surgeon, Peterson muses. Then he shakes his head.
“But that’s not what I really, really, really, really think I want,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I want to be an actor, a dancer or a singer. I want to be who I am, not like someone I’m not. I’m still a kid, I can change my mind any day.”
For Peterson, it’s a different transition than for his mom.
Jean-Baptiste, 49, is also enrolled in classes. Four times a week she attends adult literacy and education classes at Miami Edison High School.
“To learn how to write and speak English,” said Jean-Baptiste, who had very little formal schooling in her native Haiti.
It’s a daily and frustrating struggle for her to catch the metro bus to Miami Beach, Coral Gables and other neighborhoods looking for domestic jobs after class — only to be turned away.
In Haiti, Jean-Baptiste worked in the homes of well-to-do families earning $30 a month to cook and clean.
A housekeeper, a cook or a launderer are jobs she knows she’s qualified for, but the language barrier is a hurdle. Once, she tried bringing her English-speaking friends from church with her to an interview. The opening was for a person to wash and fold clothes at a laundromat, but her friends were not allowed to sit in on the interview.
“Three friends came with me and next thing I know it’s a white person who comes out. He asked who needs the job; they said I did. He said he has to talk to me,” she recounted. “The first word, the second word he said, I couldn’t respond. He said, ‘Sorry.’ ”
She hears sorry a lot.
“I’ve been here for three years getting assistance. If I could find a little job it would make me feel better. I’m sitting here waiting for a handout. I accept it, but it’s not how I want things to be,” said Jean-Baptiste, who receives about $500 a month in cash and food assistance.
Her 14-year old daughter is living with an older sibling in Port-au-Prince. Jean-Baptiste had to leave the minor behind because only the injured and a chaperone were allowed on medical flight to the U.S.
“I have to be able to send money home for her and I need to take care of us here,” she said.
Jean-Baptiste smiles when she looks over at Peterson, as he lays on the couch watching SpongeBob Squarepants.
“He’s all I have here,” she said. “Of course, when he misbehaves I have a talk with him.”
Peterson’s father, even before the earthquake, was estranged from the family. Dr. Perlyn has become like family to Jean-Baptiste and Peterson.
Forging a bond
Perlyn, 40 , a pediatric plastic surgeon, had lost track of Peterson until one day in the weeks following the earthquake he saw the young boy at Miami Children’s Hospital. Perlyn works at the hospital, where Peterson coincidentally ended up on his arrival to South Florida.
As Perlyn pieced back together Peterson’s face and ear in the operating room, they forged a bond.
Most Wednesdays, Peterson spends time with Perlyn, his wife, Brooke, and their two sons at their Miami Beach home. Perlyn picks Peterson up from the Little Haiti apartment and on the ride to Miami Beach they chat about school and the future.
On his most recent visit, Peterson was delighted at the offering for dinner: spaghetti and hot dogs, a customary Haitian dish.
“My favorite,” he said
For about two hours Peterson plays with Perlyn’s two sons Ethan, 4, and Merritt, 1. When school is in session, he does his homework during the weekday visits.
“He has really grown into this amazing young man,” Perlyn said, as he watched Peterson play Legos with his sons. “He’s like my child, my third son.”
At the end of the night, Peterson returns to Little Haiti.
“I’m thankful for the things the doctor does for my son,” Jean-Baptiste said. “He’s showing him another part of this life. I want to see my son succeed; he’s come very far from the brink of death to where he is now.”
For herself, Jean-Baptiste said she has to remain strong.
“My son needs me. My family needs me. I’m going to continue to go to school and look for jobs,” she said. “I know I’ll get a break.”