Haitian brothers and their Wexford family

Boys arrived from orphanage after 2010 earthquake

The journey of Stanley and Kensly Printemps Owens started years ago when their mother left them at an orphanage in Haiti. Kensly, now 9, remembers the day.

"I was crying really hard when I got there," Kensly says in the living room of his adoptive family's home in Wexford. After their father died, "we didn't have enough money to take care of all of us."

Their mother visited, but always went home -- alone.

At the memory, Kensly cries. Adoptive mother Carmen Owens tenderly leads the boy to another room. They talk in gentle tones that make clear Kensly has two mothers in two lands.

Kensly and Stanley are among the 54 children whom former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and others escorted from Haiti to Pittsburgh after an earthquake in January 2010 turned parts of the Caribbean nation to rubble. At the time, the children ranged in age from 1 to 13.

Soon after they came, 42 of the youngsters, who already were in the middle of the adoption process, were living with American families. Twelve others, including Stanley, now 14, and Kensly, had no families waiting for them.

The dozen were called "the Pittsburgh 12," for staying a year in limbo until federal officials made sure that in the havoc of post-earthquake Haiti, they had not been pulled away from biological relatives who would have cared for them.

Nearly three years later, most of the 12 live with permanent families across the country. They still feel the tug of missing relatives in Haiti and the pull of finding their place with new families.

One of the adoptive mothers, whose Haitian son keeps a photo of his birth mother on a shelf in his room, comforted him with these words:

"You don't switch families, you join families."

'The Pittsburgh 12'

The 54 children Mr. Rendell and others escorted from Haiti arrived in Pittsburgh on a cold, wet January morning, going first to a hospital for examinations and vaccinations, and then to the Holy Family Institute, a Pittsburgh nonprofit children's home.

It was easier when they were together at Holy Family, but as adoptive families were found, children left.

"In the [remaining] children's minds, they were wondering whether they were going to be left behind again," says Michael Owens, 54, an emergency-medicine physician and adoptive father of Stanley and Kensly.

Stanley wondered what would happen to him, but as much as he missed his family, he didn't want to return to Haiti.

"My mom said not to come back, because there's nothing, not much jobs. If I stayed here, I could get a job and send back some money."

Stanley and Kensly marveled at what was in the United States -- and what wasn't.

"I thought the snow would be falling in giant balls," Kensly says, "and then there were tiny grains."

Stanley noticed lots of food, but no coconut palms with giant fronds.

The two were stunned by the size of American homes.

Michael and Carmen Owens and their eight children live in a 6,200-square-foot house. Big by any standard, that amount of space is rare in Haiti, where Kensly, Stanley and their three brothers slept on the floor in the same small room where their mother slept on a bed.

Carmen Owens, 48, met Kensly and Stanley as a volunteer teacher at Holy Family Institute. "Do you remember what I taught you?" Carmen asks Stanley. He holds up his fingers to show how she taught him his nines multiplication table.

Among the Pittsburgh 12, Stanley, Kensly and another young man, Fekens Soffrant Dusch, reside in the Pittsburgh area with families who adopted them in March.

Two children are in Illinois. Four live with families in Colorado, who were recommended by the U.S. adoption agency All Blessings International, which worked with the Bresma orphanage. One child is with a family in Maryland.

The initial placements of two other children failed. One, an 11-year-old boy, was sent to Miami, where a large Haitian American community meant greater support. The boy has just moved in with a foster family as his visa application is pending.

Michelle Abarca, with the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice's Children's Legal Project, is his attorney. She doesn't know for sure what happened.

"It was a very abrupt process," Ms. Abarca says. "Everything was precipitated by the earthquake."

Adjusting to a new country was hard enough, she says. Then the boy tumbled through a series of homes -- Holy Family, an individual family, a shelter in Florida and now a foster family. All that was on top of living at the Bresma orphanage in Haiti, where, he said, he was physically abused.

"He's come a long way," Ms. Abarca says, "going to school and getting better every day."

Sherry and Chad Cluver adopted two of the Pittsburgh 12. Now, Ms. Cluver says, they appear to be happy, healthy kids.

The children speak with their family in Haiti about every six weeks. The conversations are getting more complicated as Beatha's and Jameson's Creole fades. Still, Ms. Cluver says, "it sounds like they're talking to family."

More vulnerable

Experts say taking children away from their home country should be done carefully, especially amid a crisis.

"It can be traumatizing in and above itself to be plucked from your home, your culture, known places," says Adam Pertman, author of the book "Adoption Nation" and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City.

When well-intentioned foreigners rushed to Haiti to help after the earthquake, fears grew of children separated from their parents being trafficked into exploitative situations, says Gary Shaye, who became the director of Save the Children's Haiti program about four months after the earthquake.

In a poor country where the young already are hurting, he says, children are even more vulnerable after a crisis.

Mr. Rendell, now special counsel with the Ballard Spahr law firm in Philadelphia, says it "took a little too long" to find homes for the 12 children.

Still, of the Haiti mission's value, he says, "I never doubted it for a minute."

Jamie and Ali McMutrie, Ben Avon sisters who worked at the Haitian orphanage and initiated the airlift, could not be reached for comment.

They no longer are associated with Bresma.

Contented brothers

Kensly and Stanley love living with the Owens family.

The younger brother especially likes Christmas and that people talk about the American president -- in Haiti, Kensly didn't hear much about the country's leader.

But they miss their homeland, their family most of all. One day, the brothers would like to visit them.

Says Kensly: "I would like to see what my mother and my baby brother look like."

lifestyle - neigh_north


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