Meatpacking plants were among the first coronavirus hot spots in Missouri. Across the country, at least 45,000 workers in these plants have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. More than 200 have died.
Annessoir Annelus — a refugee and pillar of the Haitian community — was one of them.
For the 27 years that he lived in the Kansas City area, Annelus never lost his connection to his home country, Haiti. And he passed that connection down to his kids, going so far as to bribe them, if needed.
"We used to love going to Ameristar buffet,” says his youngest, Angie. “I remember (one time) he was like, ‘OK, if you can learn how to count to 20 in Creole, we can go.’”
That’s all Angie needed to hear. She studied up and figured it out.
Like a lot of refugees, Annelus would have preferred to stay in his home country. It’s where he spoke the language, where his family was and where he worked in small-town politics.
But in 1991 Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country after a coup, and his political supporters became targets. Annelus was among them.
He was captured and beaten. Annelus’ face would be permanently scarred, but he escaped and was eventually allowed to leave the country. The family packed up, and American immigration sent them to Kansas City in 1993.
At the time, the only person Annelus knew in Kansas City was a friend he had worked with in Haiti, who had arrived a month prior. Marie Roche, who came to Kansas City with her family months after Annelus, says there were only a handful of Haitian families here at the time.
Annelus’ oldest daughter, Londy, was just a baby then but remembers their first apartment vividly — a one-bedroom near the Della Lamb Community Center in Pendleton Heights.
“It was six of us at the time — my sister wasn't born yet,” she says. “We were actually really appreciative of that because we were coming from Haiti where we were living in, you know, a house that was made out of dirt. Straw was on top of it. So to be in a building, we felt like we were in a mansion.”
The kids say he would sit them down and give them history lessons about his life and about Haiti. If he wasn’t wearing a beard, he’d show them the scars — a reminder of the danger he’d fled.
Annelus wasted no time finding a job, and he worked relentlessly, sometimes 2 or 3 jobs at a time. But with very little English his options were limited.
He was a janitor at hospitals and casinos, he changed car tires and oil at Sam’s Club, and he later got a job at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Martin City, which temporarily closed in April 2020.
His paychecks didn’t just go to support his family here. Like many in the Haitian diaspora, Annelus regularly sent money to his family back home. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and last year received more than $3.3 billion in remittances.
All the work and responsibility weighed on Annelus.
“He was extremely stressed all of the time, and he barely got rest,” says his daughter Londy. “And that's just not healthy, you know, all that stress and all of that worry.”
Annelus also opened doors for others. He helped newly-arrived Haitians find work and gave them a place to stay. Roche says people in the community knew him to be reliable, honest and funny.
When he wasn’t working he was at home, talking with his wife or driving her to and from work. Annelus watched sports, played pick-up soccer and sang Creole gospel songs. In the car, he always listened to NPR.
His hard work paid off and, eight years after arriving, he was able to buy a house in Grandview. To him, the suburbs meant better schools, a safer environment and more opportunities for the kids. Education, he preached, was their path to a better life.
The sermons mostly worked. Four of his kids would graduate from college. But in 2015, his youngest son, Adlet, was shot to death in Kansas City at the age of 22.
Family in Kansas City and Haiti was devastated. Oldest son A.J. says they still haven’t recovered.
“You know, that's his baby boy. It just blindsided him,” A.J. says. “It's to the point where he was like, you know, he wished it could have been him.”
But it was the coronavirus that would take Annelus’ life.
It began in February with a cough that didn’t go away. By now, he’d worked for years at Smithfield, but he told his wife they weren’t given masks to wear or proper physical distance.
In a statement, Smithfield says they took early and extraordinary measures to protect employees from the virus and met or exceeded federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment.
Annelus’ wife, Bertha Dorvilus, says her husband didn’t feel safe there anymore. He would come home from work, take his clothes off in the garage and rush to the shower, hoping to protect his wife.
“I'm not going (to) hug you. I'm not going kissing you. I want to stay away,” she remembers him telling her. “Don't (be) mad at me.”
His energy faded, and he went to the hospital to get tested for COVID-19. When it came back positive, he isolated himself in a room but continued to deteriorate.
On April 17, an ambulance took him to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he spent most of 3 months in critical condition.
In that time Dorvilus got multiple calls telling her he was about to die. She’d rush to see him — on his stomach, on a ventilator, unresponsive. Dorvilus says doctors asked if they should take him off life support, but she said no.
By July, his condition had worsened. Dorvilus didn’t like seeing him like that and, toward the end of his life, she wondered if maybe he didn’t want to give up in front of her.
On the day he died, July 22, Dorvilus visited, but struggled to stay by his side.
“If I'm not here, if God wants to take him, he go and take him,” she told his doctors. “Don't worry. I know if he gone, he go in a better place.”
Before she arrived back home, Annelus was gone. He was 51.