At first, she looks like any adorable 3-year-old, full of giggles while playing peek-a-boo in her father’s arms and waving at neighbors calling her name. That is, until she starts rubbing the web of scars on the insides of her arms.
“Sometimes, she asks, ‘What is this?’” dad Junior Alexis said.
Jenny spent five days buried beneath the rubble of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake. Her improbable rescue led to an emotional, months-long international ordeal to confirm who she was and to reunite her with her distraught parents.
Three years later, the girl known as “Baby Jenny” is blossoming in North Miami, where she and her family now reside.
Jenny Alexis is both an enduring symbol of hope and a reminder of the ongoing struggle to forge a new life for the people of Haiti.
“For us, we thought it was the end,” her 26-year-old father said about the day the ground buckled in Haiti. “People were walking in front of you and they only had half a limb; the same place you would fall asleep is where you would wake up the next day and the person next to you had died.”
“We just don’t think about what happened on the 12th of January,” chimed in mom Nadine Devilme, 25, who calls Jenny her “miracle baby.”
“We think about it everyday,’’ she said. “It never leaves you.”
For survivors of Haiti’s greatest tragedy, the third anniversary of those horrifying 35 seconds isn’t just about mourning their losses. It is also a somber reflection on survival at a time when the world — and even Haiti — seems to have moved on.
In Haiti, the government opted not to declare the day a national holiday as in past years. Instead, President Michel Martelly held a brief, low-key ceremony and asked for patience from those still living under tents. He announced a contest to design a permanent monument honoring the dead.
In South Florida, Haitian community leaders held a march in Little Haiti followed by a Mass at nearby Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church to remember the more than 300,000 people killed in the disaster.
“So many died; so many suffered,” said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary of Notre Dame.
“When you don’t celebrate those memories the way it is supposed to be, what’s going to happen is the people — the loved ones — are going to feel the pain more,” he said.
The pain lives on not just in Haiti, where 347,284 remain homeless in tent cities scattered across the capital of Port-au-Prince, but 681 miles away in South Florida, where resettled quake victims are still searching for a sense of home.
“The people are living without hope,” said Alexis, who last visited Haiti for five days in May. “When I listen to the news and I hear about all the aid that was given, I thought there would have been a lot more people who would have found improvement in their lives.”
The difference between life here and the one he left behind in Haiti?
“Once you have the possibility to work, you always live with a certain hope — compared to people in Haiti, who have absolutely nothing at all and no possibility of work,’’ he said.
A humble gift
As he spoke, the daughter who almost died in the rubble bounced up and down in the living room, dashing back and forth between a used educational toy and the only gift her parents were able to afford this Christmas: a $27 pink, plastic Dora dinette set.
Three years ago at 4:53 p.m., Jenny’s world turned completely black when the house she was in collapsed, burying her and killing her caregiver. Just two months old, she spent days under the rubble with no food or water, before being discovered by people in the neighborhood searching for survivors.
An American reporter, hearing the commotion, would later rush her to a medical tent at the United Nations base near the airport. Jenny had a skull fracture, broken ribs, a barely perceptible pulse, a blood sugar level that was one-third what was necessary to live, and two crushed arms. The scars are a permanent reminder of the concrete blocks that smashed both arms.
By the time she was airlifted to Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, her parents had no idea where she was. It would be months before DNA confirmation, a court hearing and pro-bono lawyers made their reunification in Miami possible.
“God had a hand on her. She lived, and for that they are grateful,” said Jean Caceres-Gonzalez, the founder and head of His House Children’s Home Shelter, which initially had custody of Jenny and provided her with therapy. “Jenny’s doing great. She’s just a doll. She’s speaking English.”
But Jenny’s blissful, bilingual world is a stark contrast to her parents’ struggling reality. There are bills, language hurdles and — most recently — car insurance claims, police accident reports, and the challenge of figuring out how to survive on Alexis’ $8.50-an-hour salary with another baby on the way.
“The money he makes in a month isn’t even sufficient to pay the rent,” Devilme, who is four months pregnant, said in a quiet voice from across the room of their $725-a-month, one-bedroom apartment.
Life recently got tougher.
Devilme said the Hallandale Beach hotel where she worked for the past year let her go because her pregnancy made it difficult for her to do the daily bending that’s required to make up the hotel beds.
Then, two days after her firing, a Jeep slammed into the couple’s 12-year-old Honda Civic while Devilme was driving Alexis to his dish-washing job at an Italian restaurant on Hollywood Beach.
With no car, Alexis now spends more than six hours daily commuting on public transportation. It’s often 3 a.m. when he arrives home from a shift that ends at 11 p.m.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But what are you to do?’’
As with many other displaced quake victims, life has been more about survival than recovery.
“We lived in Haiti, and we know how the misery is,” said Alexis, a thin man who writes music in his spare time. “Once you’re outside of the country, and you’ve left family behind, you can never think just about yourself. You are working not only on behalf of yourself, but also on behalf of the family you have here with you and the ones you’ve left behind.”
Caceres-Gonzalez, who still calls to check on the family even though Jenny is no longer in need of therapy, said: “There’s still a lot of struggle, but they are persevering through all of the challenges of making a new life here.”
His House is still caring for two Haitian children who came after the quake to be with adoptive parents who changed their minds.
These days, all of the free assistance, including state-funded daycare for Jenny and rent money from the International Rescue Committee, is gone.
The couple are among thousands of Haitians who have been granted Temporary Protected Status by the Obama administration. The legal relief allows Haitians to live and work in the United Sates without fear of deportation.
Haiti, however, is never far from their minds. Recent visits home have provided little comfort, they say.
For Devilme, the pain of being out of Haiti is sharpened by what she left behind — another child. Fearful that Jenny wouldn’t be returned to her if it were known she had another child, she initially told reporters that the baby was an only child.
Her 7-year old son, Christopher, lives with one of her brothers in Port-au-Prince; as a mother, it pains her to be separated from him.
Last summer, she visited Haiti for two weeks.
“He was so small,” she said, recalling how she slept in the ruins of a quake-damaged house with her son. “That was so painful, seeing him that way.”
Markenzy Lapointe, one of two attorneys who provided the family with pro-bono legal services, said he understood even three years ago when fighting for Jenny to be reunited with her parents that “it was going to be very hard for them.”
“I believe they will overcome their challenges,” he said. “The single most important thing is this little girl’s life was saved.’’