'They would be proud of us': How 8 siblings orphaned by the Haiti earthquake built a new life in Montreal

Healing is a lifetime project for the Pauyo siblings after surviving one of history's most devastating earthquakes. But now, 10 years after the disaster in Haiti left them without parents, it's their dreams they want to focus on.

The eldest of the eight siblings, Renata, 32, is starting a catering business and hopes to open a restaurant, like her mother had in Haiti. Adele, 29, works as a nurse in Quebec's Abitibi region, travelling home to Montreal during her breaks every few weeks.

Jean-Alix, 26, manages an A&W restaurant where his little brother, Rivaldo, 19, also works. The youngest, Adriano, is a calm and smiling 14-year-old working his way through his second year of high school.

"It's been 10 years, but it still feels like yesterday sometimes," said Jean-Alix, flanked by four of his seven siblings.

The three others, Augustin, Valdo and Richard, are also doing well. Augustin is back in Haiti, studying to be an agronomist in the hope of creating agricultural connections between Quebec and his home country.

The siblings are sitting around the dinner table in their aunt and uncle's well-appointed home in the affluent Montreal suburb of the Town of Mount Royal. This is where they came to live after the earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.

The couple's son, Thierry, found his eight cousins that fateful week while he was working as a Harvard medical student at the Partners in Health Hospital in Cange, in the mountains of Haiti.

Three days earlier, the Pauyo family's home in Port-au-Prince had collapsed, killing their mother and father. Four-year-old Adriano's leg was severely broken, but he and his siblings survived.

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After helping treat an influx of patients at the small hospital, Thierry headed to the capital in an ambulance and "out of sheer luck" found his eight cousins sleeping in a park among thousands of other homeless survivors. 

He treated Adriano's leg and began arranging to bring his cousins home to Canada. His parents, Eric and Nicole Pauyo, would become their legal guardians. 

"It was never a question," said Thierry. "That's how our culture, our family, is. We are a resilient culture."

His father, a doctor, and his mother, a nurse, were preparing to retire. But they never thought twice about taking in their nieces and nephews. Their family went from five to 13.

"When they got here, it was a big relief," Thierry said. "It was a different planet for them to come and be incorporated and assimilated into the system here, and I think they did really well."

The cousins got through their first Canadian winter, learned to navigate the school system, and went on to start careers.

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"We've changed a lot," said Renata, the eldest, who became a mother figure the day her parents died.

"That's why I work hard, so my brothers and my sister, we can stay together, and work even harder. We all have dreams, and sooner or later, I know we will accomplish them."

The siblings say they don't want to let that day define them, but they're deeply aware of its presence, how it still shapes their lives.

The key has been sticking together as a family, when so many other families were torn apart. They lost their parents and are finding ways to support each other as their parents would have done.

Renata, Jean-Alix, Adele, Rivaldo and Adriano now share a Montreal apartment. 

"When we're together, we're stronger," said Jean-Alix. 

Pauyo family

Adriano, the baby of the family, says he feels like a Quebecer and a Canadian.

"It's really great here, and I think that me and my family, we want to leave something. Like, we've been through a difficult time, but we do a lot of things, too," he said. 

Eric and Nicole provided their nieces and nephews with emotional and financial support — even buying the A&W franchise Jean-Alix now manages.

 

The siblings know they'll always have their aunt and uncle's support, but they're also motivated by the memory of their parents.

"I know they would be proud of us," said Adele. 

"I'm motivated to go further, to work harder for my family, for my parents, for me. So my family will be proud of me. So they will be proud of the choice they made to bring us here."

Verity Stevenson/CBC

Every year, the earthquake gets easier to talk about, she said. Now, she can think about it without breaking down in tears.

But there are still hard moments. 

"I still don't understand what happened ... I still have nightmares sometimes," said Jean-Alix. "I love my mom and dad so much that I still can't believe they're not still in Haiti somewhere."

Later, the cousins talked about how they're going to celebrate on Sunday. They talk about the dishes Renata will cook: lamb, griot and rice.

They want to honour their parents and also find ways to have fun. Plus, it will be their aunt Nicole's birthday.