What does it take to be a survivor?
Danielle Derisse has gone through more than any of us can ever imagine. She was sold by her Haitian father, raised in an orphanage during a time of civil unrest, told her parents were dead, and then adopted by an American family.
Even then, life didn’t get easier. Just five years ago, she found herself in a homeless shelter with her two children, having escaped an abusive marriage.
Then came the phone call.
Her family was alive.
And they’d been searching all those years to find her.
What does it take to forgive the past? How can we turn trauma and pain into redemption and triumph?
This powerful interview sheds light on why we should care about the refuge crisis, what it does to children to be separated from their parents, and the extraordinary resiliency of the human spirit.
What You’ll Learn
Danielle Derisse was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in a time of civil unrest.
She was the product of a love affair between her mother and a church pastor. Her father didn’t want her. He had a reputation to maintain as a man of God, so he couldn’t let anyone in the church know what he had done. Her mother was afraid of him and what he might do, so she hid Danielle at an aunt’s house.
One day, the pastor showed up at the aunt’s house and said he was taking Danielle for a walk. They never returned. Danielle’s father sold her to a taxi driver.
It could have been much worse. The taxi driver’s wife owned an orphanage. The orphanage was for children whose parents were deceased. When Danielle’s father found out where she was, he falsified papers showing that Danielle’s mother was dead so she could stay in the orphanage.
So Danielle grew up in the orphanage, thinking her mother was dead and her father couldn’t take care of her.
It was a difficult time. She remembers rebels coming to the orphanage with machetes and rifles. The children all knew what to do: run and hide. They would hide under the bed until it was okay to come out.
When she was about 8, she was told that her father had been killed, leaving her without family.
Danielle was eventually adopted by a family in America, but she kept in contact with the orphanage director. One day, the director told her that her father had come into the orphanage looking for her. Danielle was in shock. She broke down in tears and wrote him a long letter, including pictures of her growing up.
She waited and waited, and finally heard back from him. As they emailed back and forth, she discovered that her mother was alive. “Are you sure?” she asked her father. “You’re the one who said she was dead. I have her death certificate.”
She was very much alive, he told her. In fact, she lived near him. But times were difficult, and Danielle’s mother needed money. He needed money, too.
Danielle sent him the money, which, of course, never made it to her mother. But that didn’t matter, because her father had told her mother she was alive and where she was.
One day, she got a call from an aunt in New York.
“I am your mother’s sister-in-law, and we have been looking for you for years,” her aunt told her.
Because of the earthquake in Haiti, her mother was able to come to the U.S. and settle in Florida. Danielle flew to Florida to surprise her. There, she met not only her mother but her grandmother and the rest of her family for the first time.
It was an emotional reunion, but Danielle didn’t know the whole story. That would have to wait until her mother flew out to visit her. Danielle discovered that her father had told her mother, all those years ago, that she’d died. The family would have had a funeral for her, but they didn’t have a body.
So her mother had thought all those years that her daughter was dead, and Danielle had believed her mother was dead.
It was then that she realized the extent of what her father had done.
He disconnected me from my family. He lied to me. I believed for so many years that he was trying to protect me. It was the opposite.”
Her father kept reaching out to her for money. The knowledge of what he had done felt like a weight on her shoulders. Despite the anger, despite the pain, she knew what she had to do.
I had to talk to him and say, ‘I forgive you. I don’t think you did the right decision for me… but I forgive you.’”
She had to stay strong, because she knew that she needed to make it. “You have to change how your mind is thinking. Because there were still days where I just felt down.” She became homeless, got divorced. It was one thing after another. “After you cope with so many things, you just give up,” she says.
She wouldn’t allow herself to feel her feelings, but it eventually caught up with her. Now she knows “it’s okay to feel down. It’s okay to feel hopeless at times. It’s okay to feel like you don’t have the answer.” But after processing those feelings, she knew she had to do something positive.
What is a step you can take that will … make yourself feel better? Because, at the end of the day, you have to take care of yourself. You cannot take care of your kids if you don’t take care of yourself. So what are you going to do?”
She started with little things, like watching a movie. Now she knows the benefit of writing down a plan and checking items off the list. It keeps you focused on what step you need to take next, rather than the enormity of your situation.
I lived in a shelter with two children. That was scary; that was hard. But I got through it. And when you get through it, that is what makes you strong.”
While watching the news about immigrant children being separated from their families at the U.S. border, she had a very personal reaction.
When children are that young, she explains, they don’t understand. They think things like, “What did I do to be taken from my family? Did my family fight for me? Do they want to see me?” Those were all questions she had growing up.
All you understand is, ‘I love my family, and they’re being taken away from me. Why?’ … It’s a burden, and it’s really hard to get through that.”
Today, Danielle speaks about her experiences. She works with survivors of sexual and emotional abuse, as well as with agencies and organizations trying to help mothers with nowhere for their children to go.
“A lot of what I do is for my children,” she says. She remembers back when she’d just got out of the shelter. They had nothing, so they all slept on the floor. Then someone made a donation of bunk beds for her kids. “And to this day, it was the most amazing feeling … that my kids had bunk beds.” It’s her goal to give back that feeling to others.
Ultimately, her message to anyone struggling with hardship is to not give up.
You are strong enough to get through whatever you have to get through. And you’ll be amazed.”
Jump to Topics of Interest
2:20 Danielle’s childhood
4:22 Sold by her father
5:55 Rebels at the orphanage
7:25 Adopted by an American family
9:06 Discovered her mother was alive
10:23 Phone call from New York that changed everything
12:03 How she forgave about her father
14:21 How she coped through it all
18:21 Her thoughts on what it’s like for children to be torn from their families
21:20 Danielle’s work with abuse survivors
22:20 Her work with children
24:10 Don’t give up
About Danielle Derisse
After being sold by her father in Haiti, it was over 20 years before Danielle was reunited with her family again. She was adopted by an American family, but her struggles didn’t end there. An abusive relationship landed her in a homeless shelter with two children. Yet she used those hardships to become a strong survivor, and now Danielle is helping others through their struggles. Find out about Danielle’s speaking work.