Haitian rape survivors begin new lives in Canada and the US

Resettlement programs offer an escape from violence and time to heal

A young Haitian sexual assault survivor in a home she shares with her family after they were relocated from a camp with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2012.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

MONTREAL — There are no Haitians in the Montreal neighborhood where Lovely lives. “There are mostly whites. It’s very rare to find a black person, let alone a Haitian,” she says.

In the 11 months since Lovely left Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to live in Montreal, she hasn’t made friends at school; she is still learning to speak French, and for many reasons she prefers to stick to herself, she said. There are people she misses in Haiti — her grandmother, her school friends — but she does not miss the place. She much prefers living among the “blans,” the whites, than her own people. “I know Haiti is my home, but I do not miss it at all,” she says. “I feel safer where I am now.” 

Lovely was raped in February 2011, when she was just 13. In addition to the trauma of being raped, she suffered the stigma that came with it, because there was proof of the rape in the form of a baby. Like thousands of other Haitians who were displaced after the January 2010 earthquake, she was living in a tent with her family in a camp for internally displaced people. The camps were unsafe — cloth and tarp structures did nothing to keep armed gangs out — and since the earthquake, hundreds of women and girls have been raped

As part of a program run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in conjunction with lawyers, Haitian grass-roots organizations and other NGOs, some rape survivors have been relocated to Canada, where they have been granted permanent residence. Lawyers have also successfully petitioned for some women to relocate to the U.S. on humanitarian parole, which, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is “used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.”

As of the end of 2013, the UNHCR had relocated 40 rape survivors and their dependents to Canada — a total of 145 people. The women were selected in part because of the level of trauma they suffered — some were minors, others had been gang-raped or raped more than once — and applications focused on their need for psychological treatment. Lawyers working on the applications selected the most dire cases.

“Many of the women we interviewed had classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — constantly anxious and unsettled, hypervigilant and on alert beyond a reasonable level, poor, limited sleep with graphic nightmares throughout,” said psychiatrist Dr. Daryn Reicherter, who evaluated rape survivors and consulted with lawyers working on the women’s applications, in an email. “The women we interviewed continued to live in deplorable conditions with a constant threat of violence and/or rape.”

Some, like Lovely, had taken legal action against their perpetrators and were therefore in danger of retaliatory attacks. “We’re talking about people that … are taking serious risks for their life and the lives of their families,” says Corinne Raess, a former associate protection officer at the UNHCR for Haiti. “They could be stigmatized and have no future in their own country.”

I felt a lot of pain and shame. I said to myself, ‘He didn’t kill me, so I will kill myself because what happened is a shame and people will badmouth us.’


Haitian rape survivor living in Montreal

The largest camp for Haitian earthquake refugees, in Port-au-Prince in 2010. More than 212,000 people were believed killed in the quake, which left an additional 3 million injured or homeless.
John Moore / Getty Images

After their house was destroyed during the earthquake, Lovely, her mother, her sister and one of her brothers settled in a camp in Lalue, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Her older brother, John, also lived in the camp in a separate tent. Lovely’s mother warned her not to visit him because he was physically and verbally abusive. Still, she went so she could watch telenovelas on his TV.

One day, while Lovely was in John’s tent, he tied a piece of cloth over her mouth and raped her. She did not tell her mother because, she recalls, “he told me, ‘If you dare tell anyone what I just did to you, I have a sharp machete and I will take you to the woods and cut you into pieces.’”

Lovely’s mother eventually noticed that she had not had her period for some time and suspected she was pregnant. She asked Lovely if she had a boyfriend, and she said no. Her mother beat her because she said Lovely was lying. When, finally, Lovely told her mother that her brother had raped her, her mother continued to beat her.

“My mom said no. Even if I thought I was going to die, I had to speak up,” Lovely recalls. “I felt a lot of pain and shame. I said to myself, ‘He didn’t kill me, so I will kill myself because what happened is a shame and people will badmouth us.’ I made a big pot of bleach, then I put it away so I could drink it later and kill myself.”

When Lovely returned for the bleach, she found that her mother had used it to wash some clothes. Her mother never went to the police to report the rape but bought pills that would induce an abortion. “I took the pills,” Lovely says, “but the child would not come out.”

It was Lovely’s older sister who took her to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, where they reported the rape. Lovely was referred to the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, or KOFAVIV), a grass-roots women’s organization founded by and for rape survivors. A KOFAVIV agent took Lovely to the hospital for a medical exam and helped her file the necessary paperwork with the police so that John could be arrested. KOFAVIV also referred Lovely’s case to human rights lawyers at Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, who worked to ensure that John was arrested and prosecuted.

When John learned that Lovely had gone to the police, he threatened to kill her. “I overheard one of his friends say that my brother said that it’s only because he has no money — otherwise he’d buy a gallon of gasoline and come burn us down in the tent,” Lovely recalls.

In June 2011, KOFAVIV moved Lovely, her mother and her sister to a safe house. That month, John was arrested. Lovely was still living in the safe house when she gave birth in October 2011. The baby was a constant reminder of the rape, so Lovely wanted little to do with her. Because Lovely did not have money to buy food, the child was malnourished; she was a solemn baby, her hair was sparse, and her skin pockmarked from mosquito bites. Lovely was happiest when she was away from the little girl.

“Once I go to school, I’m at ultimate peace because that way I can’t see the baby,” she says. She never considered leaving her daughter in an orphanage because, she says, “when she grows up, you never know. Maybe she might be the only one God gives. Maybe she might be the one who will take me out of my misery.”

Though John was in prison, Lovely says that she still did not feel safe because she was afraid his friends would follow through on his threats to harm her. “If he is convicted, the case will still be on with his friends, because they are threatening me,” she says. “The best would be if I could go to another country so everything would be over.”

KOFAVIV has been working with the UNHCR to resettle some of its clients, and in July 2013, Lovely got her wish and, along with eight family members, moved to Canada.

Everything that happened [in Haiti], I would just like to forget.


The road to resettlement is a long one. Most of the women do not have passports, and some do not even have birth certificates, which means that the UNHCR has to assist in getting them. “In remote areas, it means maybe two days to access by car, and it takes time. There may be no registration office. There may be no records,” says Raess.

The women who were resettled in Canada had to meet strict criteria. “The beneficiary had to be an IDP [internally displaced person] who was raped after the quake and met other vulnerability factors (e.g., medical issues, disability, elder, orphans and vulnerable children, widows). If they were raped post-quake but were not an IDP, they did not qualify,” writes lawyer Jayne Fleming, who runs safe houses in Haiti and had 13 women granted permanent residence in Canada.

Even when the women get to Canada, however, they face challenges. “Immigration to a new area or new country has its own risks for the stress of acculturation,” Reicherter explains, “but these risks are minor compared to a constant risk or retraumatization by repeated gang rape.”

The women receive some financial and other support after they relocate but still struggle to become self-sufficient. “They’re not literate and have no skill sets that are transferable to employment here,” Fleming says. “They’re also traumatized and have a difficult time adjusting to the move from deep poverty to circumstances that are very comfortable, especially when they left so many of their family and friends behind in circumstances of deprivation.”

Though the women were selected for the relocation program precisely because of their need for psychological care, many women do not want to attend therapy. “Everyone knew they were coming for medical care, psychosocial and psychiatric support, but none of my clients wanted to pursue ongoing therapy, as it is stigmatized in Haiti,” says Fleming. “It’s also opening doors to dark histories that they would rather keep closed. The idea is, ‘I’m no longer in Haiti, I am moving on.’”

Lovely says she is simply tired of having to tell her story — to the police, to lawyers, to therapists. “Everything that happened [in Haiti], I would just like to forget,” she says.

The women who went to the U.S. faced an additional challenge, since applicants for humanitarian parole must have sponsors who will agree to provide housing and support them and their families financially. They were allowed to stay in the U.S. for only a year and had to apply for asylum if they wanted to remain in the country permanently.

In order to be granted asylum, applicants need to show that they have been persecuted because of their race, religion or membership in a particular social group. Fleming has three clients who have been granted asylum in the U.S. “We argued the clients were raped because they were Haitian women living in extreme poverty and the Haitian government would not protect them. Thus they were persecuted on account of their membership in a particular social group and met the refugee definition,” she explains.

Lovely says it is this fear of persecution that will prevent her from ever returning to Haiti, even to visit. She says matter-of-factly, “I was happy — not super-excited, jumping up and down — when I found out we were going to Canada. It was hard to be excited because I still had my mind on John, always wondering if he would find a way out of prison to hurt me and my family.”

She and her family live in a house paid for by a Canadian agency, and she receives free psychological counseling. Through working with a psychologist, Lovely says, her relationship with her daughter, who is now 2, is better. “Still, I will never forget what she represents,” she says. 

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