Haitian family in Delco to take supplies home to family

Family members (from right) Peterson Massena; sons Jean, 22, and Ephraim, 16; and daughter Sophilee, 19, were sponsored by Peterson's brother and mother, who live in Delaware County.
Family members (from right) Peterson Massena; sons Jean, 22, and Ephraim, 16; and daughter Sophilee, 19, were sponsored by Peterson's brother and mother, who live in Delaware County.
Posted: June 18, 2010

Starting a new life in Delaware County has not been easy for Haitian immigrant Peterson Massena, who arrived in Upland two years ago with three of his children. He juggles three jobs, working seven days a week, as he struggles to pull his family out of poverty.

Still, it all seems like a cakewalk when he gets on the phone with his wife or 8-year-old daughter, who are stuck in Haiti because of immigration issues and barely getting by after the massive earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in January.

On Tuesday, the family will finally be united - not in the Philadelphia suburbs but on the treacherous streets of the devastated Haitian capital.

Massena and his sons, Jean, 22, and Ephraim, 16, will deliver much-needed supplies to their family and community. Daughter Sophilee, 19, can't go because she is too busy with school and work.

Although Massena's wife and her daughter - along with an adopted daughter and her son - escaped injury, they are living on the street outside their damaged home like so many others there.

"My wife, she says, 'We're OK.' But my daughter, she says, 'no,' " Massena said on a rare break with his children in their small apartment, which was infused with the aroma of a Caribbean lunch cooking on the stove.

"One day they eat," said son Jean, "one day they don't. Food costs a lot now."

Massena, 44, who couldn't afford to send his children to school in Haiti, spent 16 years trying to bring his family to the United States. He was sponsored by his brother and mother, who already lived in Upland. When permission did come, he was not able to take everybody: Under U.S. immigration policy, his wife was not eligible to come because she was not directly related to her in-laws. She stayed behind with the couple's young daughter.

Massena, who hasn't picked up English as quickly as his children, looks wistful as he talks about his wife, Valette. He speaks to her every day.

"My wife and little daughter are on my mind, so I call them," he said, showing pictures of them that fill two tall ladder frames in the living room.

In a phone conversation translated by Sophilee, Valette said she missed her family just as much.

"She cries and then my sister cries," said Sophilee. "She just needs us to come."

It took a year before Massena, a taxi driver in Haiti, found a job in the United States. By then his sons, who played soccer, had befriended a neighbor, Gary Klein, who took on the role of soccer dad.

Klein said he was amazed at the family's resilience.

"They never seem depressed or down," he said. "I can cook anything and they'll eat it. They're a lot of fun to be around."

At first, the family got by on daughter Sophilee's wages from McDonald's. Now her father works nearly every waking hour, parking cars, or as an elementary school janitor, or as a caretaker at the Clark Park farmers' market in West Philadelphia.

Before he got a Honda CRV with 120,000 miles on it, he rode Klein's bicycle 26 miles round-trip from Upland to the farmers' market, working from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

"They're used to being on the verge of survival," said Klein, who videotaped Jean and Sophilee's high school graduation because their father was too busy to attend.

Sophilee, who was recently promoted to manager at McDonald's, got a second job at Dunkin' Donuts this summer, a mixed blessing since she can use the money but can't take time off to go to Haiti.

"When I told my mom I got another job, she said, 'Oh, my God, you're just like your dad,' " said Sophilee, who has a big smile and is studying at Delaware County Community College to be a nurse.

Meanwhile, Jean also works at McDonald's while attending community college in hopes of becoming a doctor. Ephraim, an aspiring artist and actor, will be a senior next year at Chester High School.

The family's nonstop pace kept Massena from dwelling as much on the sadness of being apart from his wife. Then the 7.0-magnitude earthquake stuck on Jan. 12, and he was terrified.

For two days, there was no contact - until finally Valette called to say she and her daughter were all right. Remarkably, they were outside at the time and were not crushed when their house in the south of Port-au-Prince collapsed.

"We really miss her," said Sophilee. "We're here in this house eating and sleeping, and they're living outside."

For months, Valette told them not to come because it was too dangerous. There was looting, and someone sleeping near her was murdered in the middle of the night.

Family members here couldn't even send supplies because nothing was being delivered.

"It was so weird talking to my family, but I can't help them," said Sophilee.

Her sister in Haiti, Nathaiga, keeps asking, "When is Jean coming to get me?"

That's what Jean wants, too, to swoop her up and bring her back.

"If she can be near to me, that will be OK. That's it," he said.

The Massenas will take as much as they can with them, including extra 50-pound suitcases stuffed with clothes and shoes collected by Wallingford Presbyterian Church. Ephraim will help out a local church and document his trip for a senior project at school. Massena, meanwhile, is hoping to jump-start the immigration process by securing passports for his wife and daughter.

He has no idea when they will be able to join him in the United States, which makes the thought of leaving them behind a second time excruciating.

"It's going to be hard to do that," said Jean, while his father nodded.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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