EDITED BY PETER ORNER AND LAURA LAMPTON SCOTT
Jean Marseille and his son, Diego.
Jean Marseille recorded these dispatches on his phone while surviving on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from October through December 2022. As the chaos that followed the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 devolved into further lawlessness, Jean witnessed firsthand a city in free fall.
I first met Jean Marseille over Skype in 2015… He was at his table, dressed nicely, his wife Guerda on his lap… I had dressed formally with my video background work-ready: nice textiles, a plant or two, and my house’s ubiquitous piles of books. I had prepared to meet a colleague, while Jean knew how to invoke our shared humanity—perhaps out of brutal necessity. — Laura Lampton Scott
Dispatch #10: 11/30/22
Good morning, Laura. Good morning, Peter. Good morning, any other person that might be listening to this recording.
Today is the big special day for me.
Today is the twenty-ninth, or the thirtieth to be exact, of November. Even though I’m not completely well, I made it to this point. The fever has been down. I’m feeling much better. And I’m packing my things as we speak right now to get ready to go meet my family in Cap-Haïtien.
This recording could be much longer, but my phone doesn’t have a lot of charge, because the hotel that I slept in last night doesn’t have electricity. And I’ve been up all night. And I’m sleeping really nervous just waiting to meet my kids and my wife.
I went to the doctors, got my medication. It’s about four thirty now, I’m about to head out. MacDonald has his papers done. Now we’re going to catch a ride to get to Cap-Haïtien to go meet my family.
Only thing I can say is that this was the roughest experience that I have had in my lifetime living in Port-au-Prince, living on the streets. For the last month or so, or last couple of weeks, I’ve been really sick, but I’m getting better now because of the happiness. Knowing that the whole family will be together forced my body to get better.
I just know that when I see all my kids together, I’m gonna feel even better.
I’m very excited. I’ve been on the phone with my wife all day, all night. She’s been helping me prepare over the phone. I bought myself a suitcase. I wasn’t able to buy things, like a lot of clothes and stuff like that, because I wanted to reserve some money so when I get to Cap-Haïtien, I can take my family out to eat. And spend that last day with them before I go to the DR.
I have to go to the DR. There’s no way to make money in Cap-Haïtien. Except to be a farmer, work on a farm. That’s not my kind of work. I do city kind of work.
I should be in Santiago, Dominican Republic,1 on Thursday morning.
But the thing that really hurts me is that I have to leave them, leave my two daughters and my wife here not knowing when I’m going to get the money to get them across the border.
My experience in Port-au-Prince was devastating. I’m thanking all the people that stayed by my side to make sure this could become a reality. For me to get myself out of this situation I’m in. The position that I live in every day, risking my life, trying to stay alive.
Afterword: April 2023
by Laura Lampton Scott
By now, you have read Jean Marseille’s telling of his harrowing time living on the streets of Port-au-Prince just before leaving Haiti. And his fight to get his family to the Dominican Republic (DR), away from danger in Haiti to somewhere he can find work, enough to live off and provide for his family.
And then there’s Jean’s on-the-ground reporting of life in Port-au-Prince after the assassination of President Moïse, how a power vacuum, class inequities, and the over-arming of militia-like groups of citizens by those still grasping at power has left the city unrecognizable and ruled by escalating violence.
Jean made it to the DR, but his story continues and continues and continues. Every new day arrives with its puzzle of securing shelter, food, healthcare, education for his children, and safety. In January, as we spoke, fireworks went off in the street outside of the place he rents in Santo Domingo. The noise, so like gunfire, startled him. He described his new life in the DR, another small dispatch about his youngest child:
Diego’s happy now that I’m around. We’re very attached. He’s pacing around this house with me. To this day, after what happened in Port-au-Prince, he has problems. He got hit in the head with a gun. He has memory loss. He stutters now. And he doesn’t remember what happened.
I first met Jean Marseille over Skype in 2015, but by then, I knew the major incidents in his life story. I’d been listening to and editing his stories for two years while working on an oral history about the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince.
Jean’s presentation for our first video call felt at once staged and intimate. He was at his table, dressed nicely, his wife Guerda balanced on his knee. The wall behind the table was painted butter yellow. Before this call, I’d asked him so many questions about his children and wife that it seemed right that I would meet her, too, despite a language barrier. I had dressed formally with my video background work-ready: nice textiles, a plant or two, and my house’s ubiquitous piles of books. I had prepared to meet a colleague. But it was Jean who understood how to invoke our shared humanity—a skill I imagine was born out of brutal necessity.
Jean translated Guerda’s questions about my house, my partner. When she asked whether we had any kids, I was disarmed. “No, we tried. I can’t have children.” She responded in Kreyòl, translated by Jean, that she was sorry, and I think of her condolence often when visited with thoughts—“I can’t make a baby with this body” or “this body can’t get pregnant.” I think of her face, moved into sympathy.
Why has this stayed with me? Maybe because I have spent years following her family, bits of their lives sent in intimate little dispatches from her husband Jean. A year ago, she and her husband had been settled after years of turmoil. They lived with four of their children in the home in Port-au-Prince left to Jean by his mother. Today, Guerda is separated from all but two of her children by a vicious border and dangerous roads, without money, without Jean, waiting for enough money to buy her and her two daughters visas and passports to leave Haiti for the Dominican Republic. One of her daughters, thirteen-year-old Geyonce, is adopted, a niece taken in years ago after her mother (Guerda’s sister) died in the 2010 cholera epidemic, a wave of the disease launched by the actions of UN representatives in Haiti post-earthquake.
I know this family’s story because Jean has been generous enough to share it in his singular way of telling, when he has had time to send something, whatever size of digital record we can squeeze through our free Gmail accounts or in short bursts of voice recordings over WhatsApp, the story’s telling limited by technology, funding, and the time Jean can spare.
While life in the Dominican Republic has been objectively safer, geography doesn’t change the unrelenting problem of poverty. In February, on top of immigration sweeps targeting black people, Jean’s son Diego suffered a setback to the head injury from his kidnapping last year. The area became infected and his brain function suffered, causing seizures, fainting, and loss of speech. Doctors said that Diego needed a scan and surgical procedure. The surgery at the children’s hospital in Santo Domingo would be free, but Jean, who spent everything he had to move to the DR, somehow needed to gather enough money for Deigo’s head scan and to buy blood for a transfusion. The process of coming up with the money left Jean depleted:
The doctor said he doesn’t think —good afternoon Laura, I forgot to greet you—all of the nurses and the doctors, all of them put some money together, because they like my son so much, they came up with fifty dollars. Yeah, that’s good. I went today—I had to get some time off work—I changed Dominican money into US money. So now I just need fifty more dollars and I’d be set. I’d be set, yeah.
After a series of asks to many people, including to his new employer, a call center where he was fast becoming the top sales performer, Jean came up with the money and Diego’s treatments began. Due to the language barrier, Jean wasn’t clear about all that was happening:
I went to the hospital, seems like, where my son is located, they don’t want men to walk up in there, so I my daughter Medjine went with them to assist with Diego. I guess they’re going to go make the scan right now. Now we’re just going to have to wait. We’re going to have to wait to see what happens. I’m just outside the hospital. Okay.
By March, Diego was improving, and Jean sounded hopeful. Money was still tight:
Hello good morning, Laura. It’s early in the morning. Today’s my birthday. I have a place to sleep right now because my oldest daughter got herself together to help her old man.
I borrowed some money from my job to pay for Diego’s blood and scan, $230 US. So now I have to pay $60 every week for four weeks to pay off the loan. And they have me pay with interest. I think that it’s fair to make me pay interest, but it’s bad for me because I had to do what I had to do to get my son out of the hospital. So every time I get paid, I only get paid $20. That’s all the money they give me.
Diego’s better now. He still has headaches. He’s remembering, and he’s back in school, in Dominican school. He’s not doing great yet, but he’s doing better.
Medjine just got a new job. Esperanta is filing to go to America on the new Joe Biden plan. David is an artist, he paints signs for people. But I don’t hear from him much.
MacDonald, Annesamme, Geyonce, and my wife are all in Haiti. They are living with my wife’s sister in Cap-Haïtien. They are living in this small room. My daughter says she has to sleep on the ground, everybody just squeezes themselves up. They’re just trying to survive there. But the best solution is to have my family here with me, my wife, and my kids, and I could feel we are all safe. I’m waiting until I get some money so I can send for the rest of my family. Everything is on pause right now. All these things are piling up on me.
And I’m very happy, it’s my birthday. I thank the Lord for making me live to see 52 years old. Wow. And I feel healthy, and I feel good, and I have a place to stay. So I’m doing okay. I get to take a shower, I wash my clothes. I’m not comfortable, but I’m okay, I’m okay. And hopefully today I get something to eat.
Halfway through Jean’s life, he was deported from America, the country he had called home for most of his life, to Haiti, the country of his parents. He made a go of it in Haiti: learned Kreyol, got married, had a family. He and his family survived the cataclysm of the 2010 earthquake and its aftermath. This year, his fourth deportation, the decision to leave Haiti to seek refuge in the Dominican Republic, once again took him away from the place he had called home.
Before my house was taken, I was okay, because I had a little small business I used to do. The thing that I miss the most about Haiti is my family, my daughter, my kids that were around me and always expressing so much love to me. When I woke up in the morning in Haiti, it was like the sunshine to me, you know, and I’m free.
Working up in the DR is much harder because I’m not at home, I don’t speak the language. I feel uncomfortable. Being here hasn’t changed anything in my life. Things have improved for my family who are in the DR with me. Things are a little bit better for them. When I wake up in the morning here, I be so cold, and I be so sad and depressed. And I just hate it here and I just want to go home.
I want to go home, but I don’t want to leave here with nothing in my hands and get home and be starving. I don’t have anything to do, no business. That really scares me, that stops me from sleeping. Haiti is hard now because you wake up in the morning, and you can’t find food to give your family and you can’t eat or have a place to stay. The violence and the destruction going on, that ended up badly. But it started out slowly. Haiti is not going to get better just like that.
I wonder when Jean will once again live somewhere he can call home. He has a way, a hustle, as he says, but I worry, and he does, too, about a day when the hustle might not come through and I stop getting those messages at night, when Jean can’t sleep: “Laura, I’m so worried.”
Jean, Peter, and Laura would like to thank Yukiko Tominaga and Jeffrey Wolf for essential editing and transcription assistance, and Sarah Royalty Pinkerton for her editorial guidance and for the title.
1 Jean’s two eldest daughters live outside of Santiago de los Caballeros. His youngest son, Diego, has already traveled to the DR to stay with his sisters, attend school, and learn Spanish.