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At a glance: Haiti

Field Diary: A family reunited after the earthquake in Haiti

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0317/Noorani
Iste Mui Vincent holds his daughter Sterling, 5, reuniting after more than a month of separation, near the tent settlement where her aunt Elude lives in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

By Shezhad Noorani

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 12 March 2010 – On assignment as a UNICEF photographer in Haiti, I had the pleasure of meeting five-year-old Sterling Vincent – a child who had been separated from her family in the aftermath of the 12 January earthquake. I only came to know her over two days, and yet her joy, grit and determination will stay with me forever.

UNICEF's emergency relief team heard about Sterling from one of our field workers. She was staying in the Carrefour Feuille neighbourhood of the Haitian capital, with a host family that had taken her in.

Sketching the past

When asked, Sterling was unable to provide identifiable information about her parents or the location of her home. So UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Marie de la Soudière decided to try to a special technique that involves the child sketching whatever she can recall about her past.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0285/Noorani
Before being reunited with her father, Sterling Vincent speaks to child-tracing volunteer Wersner Gesegen and UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Marie de la Soudière outside the makeshift living quarters of her host family in the Carrefour Feuille neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Within 30 minutes, Sterling had managed to draw a picture of her house, a cemetery and a church that she said was nearby. She recalled details about her siblings and knew the names of her teacher and the pastor of her church.

The UNICEF team set off in search of the young girl's home. Sterling led the way.

We walked at a fast clip for miles as she took us past many landmarks, including the main stadium in Port-au-Prince. Every now and then, she would stop and make a comment about something she recognized: a fallen house, for example, or a bakery where her family used to buy bread.

At times, it felt like a wild goose chase. We adults were all sweating and struggling to keep up. We wondered whether this little girl really had any idea where she was going.

Dashed hopes

But then Sterling started to run up a hill, singing and dancing all the way. She navigated us though rubble and several tent settlements to a group of houses. "Aunt Elude!" she called out.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0289/Noorani
Sterling Vincent draws a picture of her home and its surroundings to 'bring back memories' that will help reunite her with her family.

A woman emerged from one of the houses, and we came to understand that she was Sterling's aunt, who was looking after the girl's older sister, Shasha. Aunt Elude produced a scrap of paper with a telephone number scribbled on it – a contact number, they said, for Sterling's father.

Sterling used one of our cell phones to ring the number. When the line connected, we held our breath, waiting. But rather than hearing Sterling's squeals of joy, we understood there was some problem, some confusion. Though she spoke to several people on the line, Sterling believed that she had not reached her father.

When she hung up, we said our goodbyes to her aunt and sister, and began to make the long walk back to our car. Our hopes were dashed.

Surprise arrival

At the bottom of the hill, however, the story took another surprising turn. Arms outstretched and eyes brimming with tears, a man there began walking toward us. At once, Sterling called out "Daddy!"

She had, in fact, reached her father, Iste Miu Vincent, on the cell phone, but had not recognized his voice. After receiving the call, he ran to a motorcycle taxi. The driver was asking for too much money, said Mr. Vincent, but "I told him, 'I don't care, just take me to my daughter.'"

Mr. Vincent also recounted the day that he had become separated from his daughter. Some 10 days after the earthquake, he had left Sterling and Shasha with their aunt and gone to work early. "When I returned at night," he said, "Sterling was not there.... They told me she went to get bread and never returned."

A family reunited

UNICEF and its partners, together with the Haitian Government, verified the story against information provided by witnesses, Sterling's host family and community elders. And then it was done: A family was reunited.

We bought some small gifts for the host family in Carrefour Feuille, as well as notebooks, crayons, and soap for Sterling. As she said her final goodbye to those who had been caring for her, Sterling took one of the soap bars from her bag and gave it to one of the women from the community.

All through the dusty streets, families in Sterling's neighbourhood emerged from their houses to welcome her back. When we finally reached her house, high on a hill with a commanding view of the capital below, the first thing Sterling did was to put away her bag of goodies. Carefully and deliberately, she took out a notebook and a packet of crayons, sat cross-legged on the floor of her room, and began to draw.

Jennifer Bakody contributed to this story.



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