It was around 4 p.m. when the ground started to shake. Nagiarry Porcéna-Ménéus was in seventh grade, playing volleyball with her friends at school. The earth “was moving in waves,” she said, as dust rose around her.
“There was a clock,” she said. “I kept watching the clock. There was complete silence. Everything stopped moving.”
Blinded by the dust, Porcéna-Ménéus prayed with her classmates on the ground. When the dust settled, she saw collapsed buildings—the neighboring church had turned to rubble. People ran from the building, covered in blood. The silence lifted and people started shouting.
“That never occurred to me, in my mind, that an earthquake would happen in Haiti,” said Porcéna-Ménéus, now a freshman geography and urban studies major at Temple.
When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in 2010, Porcéna-Ménéus was one of 1.5 million people initially displaced. She fled the natural disaster in Haiti and moved to the United States.
Porcéna-Ménéus is a refugee.
Refugees are people attempting to escape persecution or danger within their home country by temporarily relocating to another country, said Lilah Thompson, a second-year law student specializing in immigration and refugee law.
“Most people want to go back to where they’re from,” Thompson said.
Amidst the chaos, Porcéna-Ménéus and her younger sister started on a two-hour walk back to their house. She wanted to stop and find her mother, Gina, whose workplace was not far from her school, but she was told to keep walking.
“It felt like I was leaving her behind,” she said. “I wanted to make sure my parents were OK, but at the same time, I was afraid to find out the truth, if they were alive or not.”
Her house remained standing, but she couldn’t go inside. She and her sister slept in the street that night, surrounded by what she said felt like a “community” of people displaced by the earthquake.
When her father, Arry Joseph came home, he was alone. Porcéna-Ménéus still hadn’t seen her mother in a few days.
“He didn’t want to overwhelm us,” she said. “He told me, ‘Mommy is fractured badly. She’s at the hospital.’ … Little by little he told us what happened, until he finally just told us the truth.”
Her mother didn’t survive the natural disaster.
On the way home from the cemetery, her father told her there was an airplane leaving at 10 p.m. that day. He had already packed their bags. Porcéna-Ménéus and her sister were going to the United States, and he was staying in Haiti with their house, a symbol of their life before the quake.
The military plane she boarded didn’t have seats. Haitian citizens squeezed together on the floor for the six-hour flight.
“It was shaking a lot,” Porcena-Ménéus said. “That reminded me of the earthquake. Everything reminded me of the earthquake.”
“I was scared to die,” she said.
Porcéna-Ménéus may be a refugee, but that isn’t all she is, she said.
“I immigrated to another country because of my safety, so yes, it is a word that would describe my experiences,” Porcéna-Ménéus said. “But normally, I don’t like to give my experiences a word, to define it, to categorize it, because that would be like limiting my experiences.”
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Philadelphia County plans to resettle 159 refugees from October 2015 to September 2016.
The resettlement of refugees in America is “a large-scale problem,” Thompson said. She estimates only one percent of refugees actually get resettled to another country.
Among other factors, Thompson said political climate often plays a role in the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States during any given year. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, people feared terrorism more than usual.
In 2001, the refugee cap was supposed to be set at 70,000 people, but Thompson said only about 22,000 refugees actually came to the United States.
“Political figures and media can really affect what we do now, in terms of perception and what society thinks,” she said.
“These aren’t terrorists,” Thompson added. “They’re people who had to leave everything they had and have nothing. We should help them, because that’s the right thing to do.”
Porcéna-Ménéus was already an American citizen when the earthquake struck Haiti—she was born in Brooklyn and moved to Haiti while she was an infant—and she had a passport. Without one, she wouldn’t have been able to board the plane to the United States in the first place. Her citizenship made getting into America happen more quickly than it can for other refuges.
“A lot of people end up in refugee camps and sit in refugee camps for 12 to 24 to 30 years until they’re resettled,” Thompson said.
“I can see myself in the traumatic experiences they’re going through,” Porcéna-Ménéus said.
Some things still remind Porcéna-Ménéus of the earthquake in Haiti. She’s prone to scare at the sound of a loud noise or a knock—but it doesn’t scare her enough to stay away. She visited her house in Haiti two summers ago, and every summer before that.
“I can still feel [my mother’s] presence now, in the house,” she said. “It’s like the stories that we shared play over and over.”
Porcéna-Ménéus said she plans to return home again.
“I definitely want to go back,” Porcéna-Ménéus said. “To live.”
“Haiti itself is a very important place for me. It’s home.”
Michaela Winberg can be reached at email@example.com.