Alexandria mom trapped with family in Haiti

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Rhyan Buettner-Desmaret with husband Peterson and their five children: Annabel, Henry, Adaline, Jonathan, and Malachi. (Contributed)

A Minnesota woman trying to return to Alexandria says she and her family are trapped in Haiti amid growing violence.

Rhyan Buettner Desmaret, founder of Middle Ground Haiti, which helps children suffering from malnutrition, was supposed to be in Carlos this coming weekend for a fundraiser.

"I was supposed to fly to Minnesota last Tuesday for the event, but woke up that morning to chaos," said Desmaret, who grew up in Fergus Falls and who spent much of last winter in Alexandria. "My clinic has been completely surrounded by fires, roadblocks and violent demonstrations for going on three days."

Desmaret runs Middle Ground Haiti. She is married and the mother of five; she is in the process of adopting her three oldest children, who are Haitian and ages 10, 8, and 5. She said she can't return to the U.S. with those three, as they lack visas, and she won't leave Haiti without them. She wants to settle in Alexandria, which is where her parents, brother, and sister live.

According to The New York Times, the current spasm of violence is being driven by the government's announcement that it was raising fuel prices. Haiti has been in turmoil since the assassination of its president last year. In recent days, gangs have killed police officers and journalists, the newspaper reported.


"The unrest is widespread across the entire country. It's not directed specifically at my clinic, but every road in and out of our zone is blocked," Desmaret said.

The Middle Ground clinic is caring for 27 severely malnourished kids along with their caregivers, and together with staff, mean at least 50 people are there, Desmaret said. She said the clinic had drinking water and supplies for several more days, but once those run out they will be in a devastating situation. She and her children are not at the clinic; they are in a separate, secure location, she said.

Desmaret said she has tried a half dozen times over the past decade to obtain visas for her adopted children.

"The problem is the legal adoption status of the kids," she said. "Our adoption was fully approved by social services, but we are waiting for a final judge's signature for our adoption decree. Unfortunately, there is no way for courts to operate at all in the current climate."

She said she expects it will take months for the Haitian courts to function again once the latest round of violence ends. She filed an emergency petition for visas in December, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would be at least nine months before they could help her, she said. She said she has been calling the agency with an emergency appeal since last week Wednesday.

"They have been responsive and helpful, but their timeline is still inexcusably slow," she said. "They said it could be up to a week before I hear from them."

Desmaret said she has reached out to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office for help, and the senator's office confirmed that they are aware of the case.

"My office has been working closely with the Buettners, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti and U.S. immigration and adoption officials to reunite this family and bring these children to the United States safely," Klobuchar said in a statement released by her office. "I am focused on cutting through these delays and finding a resolution.”


The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson for the Minnesota region did not return a phone call from the Echo Press.

Another Minnesotan with a nutrition clinic in Haiti, Mickey McRoberts, former executive director of Children's Health Ministries, said the violence in Haiti is too severe for her to live there currently. Her son-in-law recently got out of Haiti by going through the Dominican Republic, as it is too dangerous to fly out.

"The gangs are controlling the roads," she said. "If you're not with them, they may kill you; they may kidnap you and hold you for ransom."

She knows Desmaret and met her oldest child. She said the girl's biological mother was unable to care for the girl when she was born, and so Desmaret took custody of her. She was unable to think of any solutions for the family, especially since the courts aren't functioning and the adoption has not been finalized.

“She won’t be able to get those kids out unless they have the legal papers," she said. "They would have to find someone to do those signatures.”

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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