By Onz Chery
For Mother’s Day, Jeanine Michel used to ask her six daughters to come to church with her.
“This is Marguerite, the oldest girl,” Jeanine would say as she showed them to her friends at church. “That’s Dominique, the youngest one.”
2019 Mother’s Day was the last one Jeanine showed her children off to her friends at the Holy Cross Roman Catholic church in Brooklyn, N.Y. This year’s Mother’s Day, her children visited her grave at St. John Cemetery in Queens.
Jeanine died from the novel coronavirus on April 11, 2020, at 81.
The former home attendant was the embodiment of a Haitian mother as she went above and beyond to provide the best future possible for her children with limited resources. Jeanine, unexpectedly, came to the United States alone in the late 70s from a hijacked boat. Although she had no formal education, Jeanine still managed to bring seven of her children with her.
“She’s my fanm vanyan (valiant woman in Creole),” Dominique Michel said of her mother. She took a long pause to sob. “Her sole goal and objective was to bring her kids to her. I don’t want anyone talking about immigrants not being successful here and not contributing positively. She brought seven kids here and all of us are professionals and hardworking individuals.”
When Jeanine was in Haiti, she sold products at a supermarket in Jeremie. She used to travel to Port-au-Prince by boat to purchase her merchandise. One of her trips back to Jeremie didn’t go as usual. Pirates took over the boat. As Jeanine and the passengers were screaming and crying, one of the pirates pointed a gun at her.
“We’re taking the boat to Miami, why are you crying?” the pirate, reportedly, told Jeanine.
She stopped screaming and cooperated. Seven days later, Jeanine stepped foot in Miami. Soon after the landing, an immigration agent gave her the choice to either return to Haiti or stay in the U.S.
Jeanine couldn’t read and write, didn’t speak English and the only relatives she knew who lived in the U.S. were in New York, yet she made the firm choice not to return to Haiti.
“She said ‘I would only go back when all my children come to the United States,’” Dominique recalled from her mother telling the story.
After working at a restaurant for about a month, Jeanine moved to Brooklyn, where she had relatives.
Unable to read and write or speak English, Jeanine had to seek help to fill all of her job applications and she counted stops on the train to get to her destinations. Her niece taught her how to write her name in New York.
Jeanine often sent recordings of her voice via cassette tapes to communicate with her children. She tirelessly worked as a home attendant with the “sole objective” to usher her kids to the U.S. and reunite her family.
At last, the first part of her dream was fulfilled, she brought her fifth child to her: Guelda. Then came Hodeleine, then Frank followed by Marguerite. Afterward, Michelle and Gilene came together. Dominique was the last one who migrated to the U.S as she did on July 15, 1991, at 16. Mario Michel, who unfortunately died in Haiti, was Jeanine’s only child who didn’t move to the U.S.
When Dominique moved to Brooklyn, she hadn’t lived with her mother since she was four. It was a bit awkward at first.
“I remember she looked at me and I looked at her,” Dominique said laughing, “I was like okay.”
Eventually, they grew close to each other.
Even though Jeanine herself didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, the main lesson she imposed on her children was the importance of education.
Dominique has a Master’s in Public Administration and works as an assistant director at Key Reentry Employment Program.
Despite Jeanine’s admiration for education, she was a fun grandmother, her grandson, Tristan, said. They watched wrestling together and she was a die-hard New York Knicks fan. Tristan was impressed that her late companion managed to bring seven of her children to the United States.
“I couldn’t believe it that she brought them to the U.S—and she did it one at a time,” the 16-year-old said. “I respect that a lot.”
Tristan later added: “I don’t even like to think of it as my grandma dying. She never left the house without telling me she’ll be right back. So, I like to think of it as if she’s not really gone.”