His family back home safe, local Haitian calls earthquake, ‘God’s grace’
Haitian Lee Gilles went one… two… three… four brutally long days without speaking to his family in Haiti. He listened to the radio, read every newspaper and was glued to CNN. He didn’t know if his brother, sister and her husband and their child survived an earthquake that killed tens of thousands. He didn’t know if they were crushed beneath the rubble or needed treatment.
He didn’t know.
“I went through four days of not eating,” Gilles said. “Not taking phone calls, and my wife trying to get me to drink water.”
As it turned out, the building that housed the phone company in Haiti collapsed with the earthquake. No telephone communication was available. Then one of Gilles’ countless phone calls miraculously got through to his cell phone. His brother Wesner answered. He was alive!
Gilles, of Ann Arbor, who will serve as the master of ceremonies for the Helping Haiti fundraiser at Washtenaw Community College later this month, had been planning to visit Haiti around the time of the quake. And his brother was worried he was in the Hotel Montana, which collapsed and killed many visiting Americans.
Gilles’ brother was safe and sound in the five-story house that has been in the Gilles family for more than 80 years. His sister, Altacrace Lenard, didn’t live in that house, though. She went to go pick up her daughter, Brittany, from school. In Haiti, the school systems frequently look after children after school, almost as a daycare.
She was home safe in the driveway with her daughter when the quake hit. The four-story school crumbled to the ground.
His sister’s husband was at work in the city during the earthquake. He had left his job at the bank to go to a store. He was away from his desk for only about an hour, but in that span the horrific devastation rocked the city. His bank fell to the ground like a house of cards. The custom store he was in at the moment remains one of the few standing buildings remaining in Port Au Prince.
“Blessed,” is all Gilles could say about his family’s miraculous good fortune.
Now his brother is able to help out the community around him. With the family house having an abundance of water, he gives it to the thousands who are camped outside his house.
“Total strangers come knocking on the gate just wanting to put their belongings in our garage,” Gilles said. “He is taking it just to keep it in a safe place for them.”
Gilles left the country when he was 4 years old when his family was evicted under Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s regime. The dictator ruled the country for 27 years.
Papa Doc exiled anyone who challenged him. He wanted educated people out. Years later, Gilles and his family were able to return to their country.
“My father would take us around the country and show us different aspects,” Gilles said. “Going back and having my father and mother show us all the different landmarks.
“The church they were married in… Down.
“The palace that I visited… Down.
“All the major landmarks that I know, no longer exist.”
“It’s hard to comprehend,” he said in a soft, gentle voice. “It’s like an entire city, and a very old city. This is a city with tremendous amount of history. All the hotels I’ve visited… Collapsed.”
The devastation is obviously leaving a lasting effect Gilles family.
“My brother just looks around and bursts into tears,” Gilles said. “He looks around and sees no one in his friends’ homes.
“My fear is for my niece. She has been traumatized. Some of her friends died and a lot of her teachers have died. Last I spoke with my sister, the hardest thing for her is the lack of normalcy. That is what she’s trying to get, and it won’t happen for quite some time.”
Gilles plans to visit once commercial flights start going back to Haiti.
On Feb. 28, Gilles will retell his stories and update them for the hundreds expected to attend the fundraiser, sponsored by the International Student Center. To date, representatives from 12 different countries have agreed to participate with music and dance performances.
“As a Haitian I thank you so much,” Gilles said to Cecilia Paas, the International Student Center counselor. “I really, really appreciate what you’re doing.”
That isn’t all Gilles is doing to help his country. As the owner of Pierre Paul Art Gallery located on Washtenaw Ave., he’s planning his own unique fundraiser in hopes of creating an art school in Haiti.
He is having an art show on Feb. 14 featuring Haitian art, and half of the proceeds will go to the art school, called Arts for Haiti.
“We’re going to recruit emerging artists and give them a five-year program with food, medical and housing,” Gilles said. “We’re also going to have exhibits here, from them, to raise money to a savings account that will help them support themselves after they get out.”
Gilles is also looking for art professors and teachers to go down on a short-term basis to teach. They would stay in the Gilles family home.
He is doing this because as much as he loves the aid from the world, he knows it won’t last forever.
“The world will fatigue,” Gilles said. “I know right now they’re getting the aid like water and medical supplies for short-term, and that’s great. I want to help in the long-term.”
Gilles is confident that his country will prosper from this terrible tragedy.
“Some people think it’s God allowing this to happen from what some think is the witchcraft going on,” Gilles said. “I think its God’s grace. The Haitians have been suffering for years. I think he said enough is enough.”
Gilles is blessed that his family is OK, but he still knows there is plenty of work to be done. He’s confident that it will be.
“This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity, and we need to make the best of it,” Gilles said. “The Haitians have a saying: ‘I’ve done my best. Only God can move mountains.’ I find it ironic that God has moved mountains.
“I think it could be the beginning of the rebirth — because there’s nothing there.”