Like most children, Guychar Nicaisse likes to be the center of attention: Some days she declares herself royalty by dressing as Cinderella.
When she’s not garbed in her light-blue Cinderella gown, she reminds visitors with a photograph she took in Disney World a few years ago, along with other pictures preserved neatly in a family photo album.
Guychar giggles at most of them. She was a cute baby, she says. The photos show the wide-grinned 8-year-old either on her first day of school or standing in front of her old home — destroyed by Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
As she examines photos scattered around her in the living room of her Miami home, Guychar turns to her mother. “Mom, I used to be able to walk?” she asks.
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“Of course, baby,” responds her mother Charline Francois. “You weren’t born like this.”
The child and mother are trying to leave behind that painful past with a new life in a new homeland. And if they succeed in getting medical treatment to help with Guychar’s paralysis, a job for Francois and a permanent place to live, they just might be able to carve out a path to a brighter future.
Guychar understands that she is bound by a wheelchair, but her recollection of the earthquake is foggy: She was only 3 at the time.
Francois, however, remembers that day well, even though she doesn’t like to talk about it. She was working as a lawyer in Port-au-Prince, a 20-minute drive from her home in Carrefour, a suburb outside the capital.
The earthquake struck shortly before 5 p.m. Francois didn’t make it home until 9 p.m. that evening.
“When I came home and saw the house was destroyed, I said, ‘My God, the kids must be dead,’” Francois said. Guychar and her four cousins were all home when the building collapsed. She spent the next few hours searching for her kids. Luckily, an older nephew was able to pull Guychar out from under a wall that fell on her.
“There was a lady who told me, ‘No, the kids are safe at an empty lot by the church.’”
When Francois found the children, all of whom needed medical attention, her eldest nephew, Alanderson Francois, — who was 12 at the time — told her what happened: The kids were watching television when the house began to shake. They all got up and ran out, except Guychar, who was trapped under a fallen wall. Alanderson managed to pull the girl out of the rubble, but the disaster left her paralyzed from the waist down.
“I was scared,” Charline Francois said. “Not just because my daughter couldn’t walk, but because hospitals were cutting people’s limbs off.”
“A lot of hospitals were so overwhelmed with people, they didn’t know what to do.”
Francois’ mother, who lives in Section 8 housing in Miami, brought Francois and Guychar into the country in December 2011. But the housing rules wouldn’t permit the two newcomers to stay with her for long. Toward the end of 2013, Guychar and her mother were forced to live in a shelter for six months.
Currently, they are at a temporary home in Little Haiti, but they’ll need to move soon.
Michelin Lubin, a care coordinator for the Uplift Little Haiti Service Partnership, a program funded by the Children’s Trust that connects families with different services and resources, said she came in contact with Guychar and her mother shortly after they became homeless. Lubin put the two in touch with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami. The agency allowed Guychar and her mother short-term habitation in the house, which is used to help families in need.
Lubin said the two could be asked any day now to vacate : “They were supposed to be out since October.”
Guychar doesn’t qualify for Medicaid because of restrictions for non-citizens. She needs medical treatment to determine whether she has a chance of regaining some mobility. Her father still lives in Haiti and doesn’t have the financial means to support Guychar and Francois, his ex-wife.
One of the most difficult parts of her situation, Francois said, is that she has been unable to find a paying job that will let her be home in time to attend to her daughter. The house they’re in now lacks ramps, handrails and other handicapped-accessible features, and Francois must help her daughter get around — lifting the wheelchair, for example, when she takes Guychar out of the house to attend First Communion class.
“We can link [Francois] to a job placement agency, but, the thing is, it has to be while her child is in school — she’s her only caregiver,” Lubin said.
Despite the odds, Francois is committed to giving her daughter the life she deserves. One bright spot: At school, Parent to Parent of Miami, a parent-run community resource center, provides Guychar with a personal aid. But she doesn’t have any help at home.
“I’m everything for Guychar, and it’s just the two of us,” Francois said. “I told myself that I would one day return to Haiti, my home, but I look at the bad infrastructure in Haiti, and I know she won’t be able to get around in a chair like she does here.”
“Haiti is broken, and as bad as things are here, you can’t forget we don’t have a home to return to,” she said. Yet she remains hopeful.
“Home is home, so I can’t say that I’ll never go back. But until then, we’ll be here trying,” she said, smiling at her daughter who was preoccupied with the pictures that tell the story of a former life that collapsed with their former home.
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