Ariel LeconteTEANECK, N.J. (WOMENSENEWS)–I come from that 20 percent of Haiti’s destroyed capital currently dominating the news.

It’s the home my parents left as children, as they followed their parents here to the United States. It’s the city where my parents’ families still live. Our part of Port-au-Prince is a neighborhood called Champ de Mars, a place I have visited almost 10 times in my 17 years growing up here in New Jersey.

As I’ve watched on in disbelief and sadness at the horrifying news images that have unfolded since Jan. 12, I find myself closing my eyes, preferring the pictures of a warm sunny Haiti.

While I may not physically live there, setting foot in my family’s Teaneck, N.J., house is like being in Haiti. Walls display Caribbean artwork in bright beautiful colors and bold rich wooden carvings, all collected from numerous trips back. The melodic sound of Creole rings through the household daily. I never fully learned my native tongue, but I always knew enough to know which words meant my mother wasn’t happy with me.

I’m the first generation of my family born in America, and now, at 17, the doors of a U.S. college will open to me in a few months.

Disaster Hits Home

But still, the disaster that for most Americans is only on TV, hits home for me.

Days after the devastating earthquake we were still unable to contact my family in Haiti. When we did get through, we learned that we had lost a few distant relatives, at least two who were children or teens. Some relatives are still missing.

Fortunately, my close relatives, the ones I know best, have all survived. But they went without food or water for eight days after the earthquake. Now they have nowhere to live.

Amidst the intense pain and emotions of these past two weeks, happy memories surge forth creating a reality that has felt more solid than the ground I walk on.

I was 8 when I took my first trip to Haiti, accompanied by my mother who warned me of the poverty I might encounter. With my pink Gameboy in hand, I stepped off the plane into the hot sun and thought to myself, "This will be just like a Florida vacation–warm and sunny, with a pool!"

While my first trip to Haiti yielded no pool, I found better riches.

Family Means Everything

A young Haitian girl sleeps with her mother and brother on a bunk after receiving treatment at an ad hoc medical clinic at MINUSTAH's logistics base after an earthquake.I met my young cousins for the first time and, although they spoke no English and I didn’t know Creole, we became like sisters. It’s true that people in Haiti have little and my family is no exception. But my cousins openly shared what little they had with me, giving freely their time and company, food and whatever else was in their possession. Family meant everything and the community offered a vital support system.

My favorite memory is of Friday nights in the park. We ran barefoot along the warm stones, danced, played tag and jumped rope. We ate rum raisin ice cream, made up of rum more than anything else. The bands played and we watched the adults dance under the starry night sky.

It breaks my heart to think those parks are now covered with rubble. Will I ever be able to go back there and dance barefoot again?

Yes, I tell myself.

The world’s first black-led republic is an essential part of my heritage and the people of Haiti are my family. This is where, to make any sense of my identity, I must take my own children one day.

Ariel Leconte, a Women’s eNews development intern, is a senior at the Academies @ Englewood high school in N.J.