A Nelson couple who have been raising two foster children in Haiti have successfully convinced the federal government to temporarily allow the girls to escape the COVID-19 pandemic by living in Canada.
Sébastien De Marre arrived in Nelson on June 21 with Rosena, 12, and Amaika, 8. All three have since quarantined themselves for two weeks.
“The girls are doing really well,” said De Marre. “Yes, they still have to adjust, but they’re very positive, they’re really happy to be here.”
De Marre, 69, and his wife Marie-Paule Brisson, 71, have been the foster parents of the two orphaned girls in Haiti since the children were two years old.
When COVID-19 hit, De Marre was with the girls in Haiti. Brisson was visiting Nelson and was then stuck here because of travel restrictions. De Marre could have repatriated to Canada but would not leave Haiti without the girls because they would be left homeless.
Brisson and a group of supporters fought for two months to convince the Canadian government to grant the girls temporary Canadian visas so they and De Marre could avoid the pandemic in Haiti.
The couple’s support group in Nelson wrote letters, retained a lawyer, and started a Change.org petition with 14,000 signatures, all to keep the attention of the federal government on their case.
The lobbying paid off.
De Marre got a message late on June 17 from his friend David Putt in Vancouver, one of his most active supporters, that he and the girls could get a flight out of Port-au-Prince with a six-month visa for the girls. They had to be at the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince at 11 a.m. the next day and their flight for Montreal was on June 19. The family lived in Jacmel, a city four hours away from the capital.
After hurriedly hurricane-proofing their house (it’s hurricane season in Haiti), De Marre had to hire a small plane to get to Port-au-Prince, driving being slow and potentially dangerous because of armed gangs on the road.
This small plane was the girls’ first experience of flight.
The next afternoon, after some hair-raising misunderstandings and discussions with officials at the Port-au-Prince airport, they eventually got to fly in an international jetliner as well.
“This was a big discovery for them and they responded very well,” De Marre said. “They were so curious. They’re very interested in new things, and to learn.
“The biggest thing for them in Nelson is the feeling of freedom, the quietness, the fresh air, the clean streets and electricity 24 hours. In Haiti, we had electricity every second day for a few hours only at night. So here, everything is so easy.”
In quarantine in Nelson they were still separated from Brisson, whom the girls and De Marre had not seen for months.
“The worst thing for the girls was that they knew Marie-Paule was in town,” De Marre said. “Mom could not come and see the kids because it would be too difficult to keep our distance.”
But now all four are together again.
“A special thanks to our great friend David Putt and the Nelson support group,” said Brisson, “because without them, this would have never been possible. It is very special how people came together. They really wanted to make a difference for us, bringing back Sébastien home with the girls. We could feel their commitment.”
They said they’re also grateful to their lawyer, to immigration minister Marco Mendicino, to Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison and his assistant Krissy Coté, and to MPs Paul Manly and Elizabeth May.