March 17, 2016

A river of death

Photo by Andreas Boueke

Gustavo Lendi, founder and pastor of the newest congregation of Iglesia de los Hermanos (the Church of the Brethren in the Dominican Republic), had to study all weekend for his Greek exam on Monday. Thus, he did not have much time to prepare his sermon for the Sunday evening service in the small wooden church in San Luis, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Pastor Gustavo decided to improvise and speak about his latest visit to the western part of the Dominican Republic: “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “often times we forget how privileged we are.”

Pastor Gustavo Lendi

About 20 faithful church members were congregated on cheap plastic chairs standing on a dirt floor. They live in the huts around the church, which are surrounded by darkness. On most evenings there is no electricity for hours. The church is illuminated by light produced by a dieselmotor generator, which is rattling right outside the building.

Pastor Gustavo kept on sharing his experiences with the congregation: “Last week I went to Pedernales, a small town right next to the Haitian border.”

The Dominican Republic and Haiti are neighbors. The two countries share the same island, but their culturally very different societies have gone through separate stages of development. The Dominican Republic is a poor country that has been successful in taking economic advantage of some of its natural resources and international tourism. Parts of the Dominican society are thriving, and there is hope for continuous economic growth.

Haiti, on the other hand, is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has often been struck by natural disasters, suffers mismanagement, and has few prospects to get out of a state of constant crisis.

“Last week I crossed into Haiti several times,” said Gustavo Lendi, who himself is a Dominican of Haitian descent. His grandfather came to San Luis in search of a better future, working on the sugar fields of rich landowners. “I didn’t have to go far to reach the first of several camps that have grown right next to the border. The name of this camp is Parc Cadeau.”

Parc Cadeau

Parc Cadeau is an unofficial camp, not organized by the United Nations, the Red Cross, or any other national or international institution. The migrants themselves have set it up. Hundreds of people brought cardboard, plastic bags, pieces of wood, and trash to build their huts. They moved into this valley of a contaminated river in search of a place to live. But what they found is a place to die.

The people of Parc Cadeau are the victims of the passivity of Haitian lawmakers and new Dominican migration laws. Over the past decades hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants have entered the Dominican Republic and found a new home in this neighboring country. Many live in the DR as third- or fourth-generation descendants of the original Haitians ancestors who migrated there, but have never been granted Dominican citizenship.

Family in Parc Cadeau

Eventually the Dominican government decided to regularize this situation. On Sept. 25, 2013, the Dominican courts issued a ruling denying Dominican nationality to children of undocumented migrants born or registered in the country after 1929, and who do not have at least one parent of Dominican blood. This came under a 2010 constitutional clause declaring these people to be either in the country illegally or in transit.

People of Haitian descent and migrants and their children were given 18 months to get permanent permission to stay in the DR and eventually gain Dominican citizenship. But the applicants had to go through a lengthy and difficult process, pay lawyers, and get papers from Haiti.

Much of this process was impossible for the poorest of the poor—and there are many of those. And much of the required documentation was impossible to obtain. People who did not comply with the requirements before the end of the deadline were obligated to leave the Dominican Republic, and leave behind their homes and livelihoods. Many fled the DR because they were scared by a social atmosphere heated up by racial tensions.

“They endure deplorable conditions,” said Pastor Gustavo. “Never before have I seen something like this. They have no food and drink dirty water.”

Dominican officials have declared a sanitary crisis for the region. Dozens of people have died of cholera, but neither the Haitian nor the Dominican officials have reacted adequately. There is a hospital close by the camp, in the Haitian town of Anse-á-Pitres, but treatment is expensive.

“I met a girl, Brenda, 14 years old,” the pastor said. “She is very bright and used to be a good student. But she had to interrupt her studies in January when her family left the Dominican Republic. Brenda does not know if she will ever study again. Her grandfather was the first cholera victim in Parc Cadeau. His daughter brought him to the hospital, but the doctors charge 1,500 Dominican pesos for the treatment, more than $30. How should such a family get $30? Two days later the grandfather died.”

Parc Cadeau is situated in a type of desert, almost without any source of income. There are no trees left. The whole valley was deforested a long time ago. Some cactus give a little shade. One of the ways a few men earn some money is by digging up the roots of trees that once stood here. They use them to make charcoal. Middlemen with big trucks bring this cheap source of energy to the markets of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. What is left in Parc Cadeau is dirt and dust.

“It makes you sad to see the naked children,” moaned the pastor. “They are hungry, they are starving. But in some way it is even harder to see these weak men hitting big stones against the old trunks of trees to get out the roots. If you take out the roots, you take away the last hope.”

San Luis is one of the poorest areas in Santo Domingo. But this evening the pastor made his people feel privileged because of their access to clean water, because they have a roof of corrugated iron that they can sleep under, because they have an identity as Dominicans of Haitian descent, and they have a future. Their fellow Haitians in Parc Cadeau have none of this.

Lending a hand

Iglesia de los Hermanos (the Church of the Brethren in the Dominican Republic) is working to naturalize ethnic Haitians and help them stay in the country. As of late 2015, the DR Brethren had helped register more than 450 people of Haitian descent for naturalization. The Church of the Brethren (US) provided financial support to the effort through grants from the Emergency Disaster Fund and Global Mission and Service.

Photos by Andreas Boueke.

Andreas Boueke was a Brethren Volunteer Service worker in Nebraska 1989-1990. He is German and majored in sociology and development studies in Berlin and Bielefeld. For 25 years he has reported as an independent journalist from Central America, where he is married to a Guatemalan lawyer. They have two children.