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Haitian man grateful for help, family he found in Sewickley area

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Tassy Fils-aime poses for a photo in Sewickley on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. The Haitian was brought to Pittsburgh from Port au Prince to undergo life-saving surgery to remove a tumor from his jaw.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Tassy Fils-aime poses for a photo in Sewickley on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. The Haitian was brought to Pittsburgh from Port au Prince to undergo life-saving surgery to remove a tumor from his jaw.

Tassy Fils-aime said he doesn't know what would have happened to him if he hadn't heard the one word that ended up changing his life.

The word was “yes,” spoken by Ian Rosenberger in Haiti about four years ago.

Rosenberger of Friendship was in Haiti taking photos after the January 2010 earthquake and met Fils-aime, then 18, who had been suffering with a baseball-size tumor on the left side of his face since he was 9.

The tumor grew back after a prior treatment and Fils-aime was about to have another surgery with money raised from a concert performed by his four-member, a cappella Christian band.

That's when the earthquake hit, and the hospital was destroyed. Doctors were treating people in tents, and there were no resources to do Fils-aime's surgery, he said.

Rosenberger told his new friend that “yes,” he would try to find a way to help. In November of that year, Dr. Jeb Blaugrund of Edgeworth performed a successful surgery on the benign tumor at no cost and recruited a plastic surgeon and anesthesiologist who also volunteered their services at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side.

Fils-aime, now 22, attends Community College of Allegheny County and is about to get his high school equivalency diploma. He hopes to transfer some college credits to La Roche College in McCandless, where he wants to study to become a physician's assistant.

Fils-aime, who grew up speaking Creole and French and didn't learn English until arriving in the United States, recently told his story to students at Sewickley Presbyterian Church who will visit Haiti on a mission trip in June. He hopes to speak again at the group's fundraising dinner on March 9.

He said he wants to prepare the group for how different it is to meet the people of Haiti, rather than seeing them in pictures.

“The people will have an impact on them. They'll feel like they want to stay there,” he said.

Fils-aime came to the U.S. after Rosenberger raised money for the flight and expenses by selling Haiti photographs at one of the Sewickley's annual gallery walks and through other fundraisers.

Rosenberger also founded and is board chairman of Team Tassy, a nonprofit that helps to find jobs and provide medical access, education and food assistance for about 70 Haiti families.

Vivien Luk, executive director, of Los Angeles, formerly of Regent Square, said Team Tassy has raised about $300,000 since it was founded and officially became a nonprofit two years ago.

Rosenberger recently completed a fundraiser with Chris Murrer of Washington, D.C. They both ran 155 miles in the Sahara Race, moved from Egypt to Jordan this year. The race is one of four that comprise the 4 Deserts Race Series.

Blaugrund said members of his family have organized fundraisers for Team Tassy.

Team Tassy hosts an annual Great American Water Balloon Fight in the summer, which was held at Highmark Stadium in Station Square last year.

Since coming to the area, Fils-aime has stayed with Rosenberger, who lived in Shadyside at the time, and with the Irwin family of Leet ,who he met at North Way Christian Community, a non-denominational church housed in Osborne Elementary School.

He also lived with the Cooper family of Bell Acres.He now lives with the Blaugrund family in Edgeworth. He has returned to Haiti several times to update his visa and visit his mother, two brothers and three sisters in Port-au-Prince, and plans to move back after graduation to “make a difference and pay it forward.”

He said he has people who he loves and misses and who love and miss him in both Haiti and in the Sewickley area, so he will continue to travel back and forth.

Fils-aime's Haiti home is close to Cité Soleil, where he went to school.

He said he heard gunfire and saw gang-related gun fights in the streets as he grew up.

Without his mother's encouragement, his faith in God and Team Tassy, he said, he might have been lured into gang life like some students he knew in Haiti.

Fils-aime said he feels like he has a family in the Sewickley area. “People here don't just say it, they show ‘I'm with you.'”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-324-1406.

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