Americans stuck in violent Haiti, Indiana couple desperately trying to evacuate 2 adopted teens

ByJillian Sykes, Christina Maxouris and Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, March 20, 2024
Indiana couple desperately trying to evacuate 2 adopted teens in Haiti
It's been more than a week since Missy and John Tennant spoke to the two teen boys in Haiti they recently adopted.

It's been more than a week since Missy and John Tennant spoke to the two teen boys in Haiti they recently adopted.

The boys, 13 and 15 years old, are trapped in the Caribbean country, hiding with other children inside an orphanage surrounded by gang violence, Missy Tennant told CNN. They're scared - and when they hear gunfire, they take cover under their beds, she said.

"They don't understand why they can't come home," she said. "They are very fearful." But they've kept their faith and "they are trusting in God, that He will protect them," she added.

The Tennants are among a number of Americans working to evacuate loved ones amid rampant gang violence, political instability and an escalating humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

Many other US citizens in the country are hoping to get out - either with the help of the US government or independent rescue efforts usually led by volunteers - as the situation deteriorates. More than 30 US citizens were on a Sunday State Department charter flight that landed in Miami, and nearly 1,000 Americans in Haiti have reached out to the US government, State Department Deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told CNN Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, Haitian airline Sunrise Airways announced it will operate special flights between Cap-Haitien, a city on Haiti's north coast, and Miami on March 25. The airline told CNN on March 1 it had suspended "all flights" due to safety reasons.

The evacuation efforts offer just a small glimpse into the danger and chaos that many people desperate to flee - or desperate to rescue family members - are faced with. And most Haitians don't have the option to leave.

The crisis in Haiti intensified earlier this month as criminal gangs and militias began wreaking coordinated havoc, security sources said, emptying once-bustling streets and leaving necessities including food, medicine and gas in short supply.

In the capital city of Port-au-Prince - more than 100 miles from Cap-Haitien - the airport is shuttered and under siege by gangs who are fighting with police in the area. The gangs have taken control 80% of Port-au-Prince, according to UN estimates.

Back in Indiana, the Tennants are desperate to get their two children home.

They met the boys a few years ago, shortly after starting the adoption process in 2018, Missy Tennant said. Since then, they've developed a strong relationship. The teens call them "mom and dad," she said. The Tennants brought the children's dog from Haiti to the US in anticipation of the teens' arrival, she added.

The adoption process was finalized last year, but remaining paperwork and travel documents were slow to be processed, especially due to the ongoing violence in Haiti, Missy Tennant said. And when the couple thought the teens were close to finally making the journey to the US, the nation's deteriorating situation brought everything to a grinding halt.

Missy Tennant said there's still documentation the two children need in order to travel to the US, but amid the violence and chaos, it feels "virtually impossible" to get it.

"We need to have our paperwork so we can jump on it and get the kids out. This is what a lot of parents are struggling with right now," she said.

'Feels like we are sinking in quick sand,' trapped American says

As the crisis continues, nearly 1,000 Americans have filled out a "crisis intake form," which helps the State Department track Americans and to ensure information on evacuations and consular services gets to them, Patel, the department deputy spokesperson, said.

That number includes people who want to leave Haiti but also others who "might be interested in staying in touch with the embassy" and want to receive more information, including departure opportunities, Patel said.

The US is "continuing to look at what options are available" in light of limited commercial options, Patel said, but did not discuss any concrete plans for another airlift.

The situation in Haiti is now "one of the most dire humanitarian situations in the world," Patel had said in earlier remarks Monday.

Among those still trapped is missionary Jill Dolan and her family, who are stuck in Port-au-Prince. They are hiding in a guest house near the closed airport, CNN affiliate WPTV reported.

The family continues to provide updates online through its nonprofit, Love A Neighbor, which oversees an orphanage and a family preservation project in rural Haiti.

"Feels like we are sinking in quick sand," Dolan's organization wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. "However, we are grateful to be alive."

Project DYNAMO, a nonprofit search, rescue and aid group run by veterans and based in Tampa, Florida, has also been conducting evacuations of Americans from Haiti. It says it has received more than 100 rescue requests.

"It is very hard," cofounder and CEO Bryan Stern told CNN in a video interview Monday. The group has been focused on Americans stranded in remote areas where no other rescue resources exist. That has often meant several modes of transportation are required to complete an evacuation. "We've been working day and night," Stern said.

Some have evacuated. Many can't leave

Stern was in the neighboring Dominican Republic during his interview with CNN Monday, sitting alongside Florida residents Miriam Cinotti and Linotte Joseph, who were in Haiti for missionary work and were evacuated by the nonprofit on Sunday.

"We took a plane, a boat and a bus," Stern said, describing that rescue operation. "And we had to walk on the beach for a little bit."

"It is hard, it is complicated, and it's even more complicated without any assistance," he said, adding the group relies on nothing but donations to fund their missions.

Both Cinotti and Joseph said they were relieved to be evacuated, but they worry about others, including Dolan, who are trapped amid the violence.

"We're here, and we're safe," Cinotti said. "But on this end, it's like, you know, it should have been them that came first. Those (are) things that go through your head."

Boyce Young, a 75-year-old former Marine from Georgia who arrived in Haiti in mid-February to do aid work, was trapped with another American until Monday afternoon when they managed to escape, his daughter Kim Patterson told CNN.

The pair found a boat that took them up the coast to the border with the Dominican Republic. They got off on the Haitian side, had their passports stamped, crossed the border and drove six hours to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where they remained Tuesday morning, Patterson detailed.

While some Americans have managed to escape, many locals must navigate daily life with dangers often lingering at virtually every corner. CNN spoke to one local aid organization who shared what the violent crisis has done for their work.

Friends of The Children of Haiti was founded by an American couple in 1992 and has often had to operate under challenging conditions. But in the past few months, the situation has severely worsened and the organization has completely run out of at least one critical medication, the group said.

André Boyer starts and ends his day at the clinic of Friends of The Children of Haiti in Jacmel, about four hours outside of Port-au-Prince, where he has been sleeping at night and working during the day to serve patients in dire need of medical assistance. He oversees the organization's Vital Health Clinics and Weekly Urgent Care, which provide free medicine to the people of Haiti from infants to the elderly.

That mission has become a balancing act as supplies have dwindled dramatically, leaving Haiti's most vulnerable without the lifesaving medicines they desperately need.

One medicine in particular, Medika Mamba, known as "peanut butter medicine," has been used to treat malnutrition in children from infancy to 3 years - but the organization is completely out of it with no access to any more, Nathan Ruby, its executive director, told CNN.

"It is the closest thing to a miracle I've ever seen in person," Ruby said. "This will take a 2-year-old child who is going towards starvation and literally grab these kids and pull them right back into a healthy physical body."

"We're out and we can't get any more," he said, adding for the children who were on it, "it becomes a life-and-death situation because these kids are so severely malnourished."

CNN's Kylie Atwood, Colin McCollough, Jennifer Hauser, Michael Conte and David Williams contributed to this report.

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