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Haitian girls adapting here one year after devastating earthquake

Kim Lewen adopted Sandin2 her sister Bencian4 from Haitian orphanage one year ago just as country was devastated by an

Kim Lewen adopted Sandina, 2 and her sister Benciana, 4, from a Haitian orphanage one year ago, just as the country was devastated by an earthquake. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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◆230,000 people died in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

◆1 million Haitians are still living under tents.

◆Only 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared.

◆2,600 people killed in a cholera outbreak that began in October.

Source: Oxfam

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Updated: April 26, 2011 4:45AM

Dressed in pink Dora-the-Explorer playclothes and gleefully cuddling a giant teddy bear at their toy-filled Willowbrook home, 4-year-old Benciana Lewen and her 2-year-old little sister Sandina look like any other cute preschoolers.

They’re too young to remember or understand the devastation an earthquake wreaked upon their homeland of Haiti a year ago today.

Images of death, destruction and suffering broadcast around the world from the impoverished Caribbean nation in the days following January 12, 2010, provoked an international outpouring of grief and support.

But for the girls’ proud mom Kim Lewen, the earthquake’s anniversary recalls mixed emotions.

“I haven’t watched or read too much about Haiti since — it’s too painful,” Lewen, 41, said.

Benciana and Sandina were among 17 children evacuated from an orphanage in the mountains above Port-au-Prince just nine days after the quake hit. Matched months earlier with Lewen and other U.S. parents by the Oak Park-based agency Adoption Link, the children were airlifted from the mountainside by helicopter before flying to Miami.

For an agonizing 12 hours in the quake’s aftermath, Lewen did not even know if the girls had survived. “I was scared and didn’t know what to think,” she said. “We couldn’t get through to anyone.”

In the sleepless days and nights that followed — and with the orphanage just hours away from running out of food — Lewen frantically prepared her apartment for the girls, before rushing to Miami with her mother. The girls are biological sisters Lewen met in Haiti but hadn’t expected to take custody of for months.

Lewen and her mother waited at the airport with other nervous parents-to-be, watching TV news reports of their children’s evacuation.

“When I saw Benciana on CNN in Port au Prince, smiling for the camera, I lost it and broke down,” Lewen said. “It was a surreal whirlwind and I’d had no sleep for four days, but it was amazing to see that they were finally coming.”

“When they got off the plane and Benciana saw me she just lit up.”

The feisty girls have adapted remarkably well to their new lives in the U.S., according to their mom, who credits the work of the orphanage’s director, Gina Duncan, for preparing them for the transition.

Though both girls were raised by Creole-speakers, their English is excellent and they both love to eat — perhaps because of the shortages they endured in Haiti.

“Popeyes chicken is my favorite treat!,” Benciana says.

Thousands of children orphaned by the earthquake need adoptive parents, too, according to Adoption Link’s director Margaret Fleming. The adoption process — which normally takes about a year — has been delayed by the group of Idaho missionaries convicted of “stealing” Haitian children who turned out not to have been orphaned, and by the recount in the Haitian presidential election.

“It still looks just like the blitz,” Fleming said of a recent trip to Haiti. “It’s heavy work and it’s close to the bone, but the kids are amazing.”

That’s a message echoed by Lewen. “The hardest part has been learning to be a mom,” she said, “There’s so many kids that need help.”

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