An Alexandria family trapped amid violence in Haiti met Sunday with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who helped them get out.
Rhyan Buettner-Desmaret and her Haitian-born husband, Peterson Desmaret, and their five children had been living in a Haitian hotel under armed guard amid violence that erupted after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.
Because the process to adopt their three oldest children was not quite finalized due to the temporary closure of Haitian courts, the U.S. did not recognize the adoption, and so they were unable to enter the U.S. as a family. The parents and their two youngest, their biological children, were free to travel to the U.S., but the Desmarets would not leave their oldest three behind.
“Everyone is trying to leave Haiti,” Buettner-Desmaret said. “It’s a war zone.”
The U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Haiti right now “due to kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest,” further urging U.S. citizens already there to “depart Haiti now in light of the current security and health situation and infrastructure challenges.”
Buettner-Desmaret said she had been working with Klobuchar’s office for more than a year searching for a way to bring their entire family into the U.S. They were in Haiti because Buettner-Desmaret founded and runs a family aid nonprofit called Middle Ground . The focus is on restoring starving children to health and helping them stay with their Haitian families.
The solution Klobuchar’s office found was to declare the three oldest children refugees, and allowing them to stay in the U.S. for up to two years. That time limit won’t affect their family, Buettner-Desmaret said, because the court handling their case has resumed some functioning, and she hopes to return as soon as the country stabilizes to complete the last step in the adoption. That means their children will become U.S. citizens.
The process is the same used by Ukrainian refugees to come to the U.S., Buettner-Desmaret said.
“We had to show our children’s lives were in danger if they remained in Haiti and they very much were,” she said.
To leave Haiti, the family traveled by armed guard one day to the U.S. Embassy, and were able to process paperwork there without incident. The day they left the country, they traveled to the airport, again with armed escorts. Buettner-Desmaret had been watching reports of violence along that route and was prepared to fly to the airport by helicopter if necessary. She was well aware of the risks. One of the country’s many kidnapping victims included her clinic’s pediatrician, who was held for six weeks and beaten until her family paid ransom, she said.
Until they left the country, the children had not been able to leave the hotel compound for five months. In the hotel, they heard constant gunfire, she said.
The children have gotten their first taste of a Minnesota winter. They left Haiti in November, when the temperature was 88 degrees. It snowed their first night in Alexandria, and they awoke to a winter wonderland. The kids have been skiing and building snowmen.
“I always had it in my mind that I wanted my kids to experience snow,” Buettner-Desmaret said.
The Desmaret children have started public school in Alexandria, where their mother was struck by how plentiful food is for all children. It’s a marked contrast from Haiti, where they have seen starvation first hand.
Haitian supply chains are so disrupted that grocery store shelves are empty, she said. Middle Ground has had to temporarily close its in-patient program for starving children because it has been unable to obtain supplies, although it has been able to continue some of its other programs, she said.
Middle Ground is now being run by Haitian nationals, although Buettner-Desmaret continues to serve as executive director. She said she will be planning some fundraising activities for the nonprofit in the Alexandria area.
And though her family escaped, others remain in similar situations, she said.
“I’ve got friends whose husbands are still stuck in Haiti,” she said.
After meeting with Klobuchar, she said she sensed that the senator has a special interest in Haiti. The U.S. government recently announced a new path for immigration for those in Haiti, as well as for those in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, something that Buettner-Desmaret called “a great step.”
“To me it was an encouragement that they’re acknowledging that Haiti is in crisis and something needs to be done,” she said.