By Jerry Gard – Member of the Mountaintop BAZ, with Lee Rainboth after their trip to Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, with a delegation from The Haiti Initiative, Jacmel.
I am a Haitian. I have always thought of myself as such. Even though I was born in the Dominican Republic and lived there until I was 12, I was raised with an awareness of where I came from. Although my parents were legal residents of the DR and made sure that all of their children had papers as well, we spoke Creole at home and were always made to believe that our place in the DR was temporary. My father had moved there to find work, which he did, with a plastic flower company and he was responsible for transporting the flowers to the Haitian border to be sold and distributed. We enjoyed a comfortable life in the DR, but just as we were taught at home about our roots, every time we left the house, we were also reminded that we were not Dominican. I became fluent in Spanish at a young age and have a lighter complexion than some of my siblings, so I learned that as long as I dress nicely and act appropriately, I could fit in with the children around me. But I had other Haitian friends whose parents worked in the fields and who never learned Spanish and who were born with darker skin and who were never able to acquire the proper paperwork that were always looked down upon. Still, when I was a child, I always felt that the DR was a place that welcomed people like my family who were just searching for a better chance at life.
The Dominican Republic that I see today deporting Haitians and treating them like animals is not the Dominican Republic that I remember from my youth. The Dominican Republic of today has grown hard and mean. They think that everything bad in their society is the fault of the Haitians that are there. Last week I saw the effects of this change first hand as I visited the city of Anse-a-Pitres. I met the victims of the coldness that has taken a hold of the heart of the Dominican Republic. And it has touched me deeply and hurts my own heart to see the situation that has resulted from the government deciding that Haitians are not welcome there anymore. It makes me question what my fate would be if I was still there. Just 3 years ago I was in the DR again, seeking refuge after my family lost our home to the earthquake that devastated Haiti, and even then, the DR welcomed us. But now we are back in Haiti, living life in my father’s home region of Mizak, and thousands of my fellow Haitians who had been living in the DR are now clinging to life on the border under tents made of garbage. They are there because the Domican Republic that they had counted on to provide them a better chance at life is now denying the right to pursue that life that they were searching for. It is heartbreaking.
We rode on a boat to get to Anse-a-Pitres, spending 8 hours on the sea. The boat was crowded, uncomfortable, and rough. It was a large wooden boat made for transporting cargo to the DR border for commerce. On top of the barrels of gas, sacks of rice, and coolers of ice, over 60 people squished in for the night to sleep until they arrived on the shore of Anse-a-Pitres. But the thing is, you can imagine, it is hard to get any sleep in a situation like that. My body was contorted on an uneven surface being pushed and shaken by the many other bodies trying to find comfort. I spent the night failing to find rest. When we arrived at 6am the next morning I had not slept and my body was in pain.
But the pain that I felt after one night on that boat was nothing compared to the pain that the families in the camps outside of Anse-a-Pitres must feel every night and every day. They are living in conditions that can only be described as Hell. They call the place that they are living “Plas Kado” but I think “Lanfe” would be more appropriate. And the families and their children are living under torn tarps with no beds, only the hard, dusty ground to sleep on. And they do that every day because it’s better than enduring what the DR was doing to them. They go to sleep on that hard, dusty ground every night with empty stomachs and no hope for the coming morrow. I know what hunger feels like, but I can’t imagine the extremes that they are living through there. This hunger and this pain is beyond what I can relate to. It hurts my heart for them because I can imagine how close I could have been to being in their shoes.
Even though my family was always legal I have heard the people in the camps tell me stories of how it really doesn’t matter if you’re legal or not. If you look Haitian, if you are too black, if you are dressed in dirty clothes, if you are speaking too much Creole, if you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can be arrested and deported without a chance to even prove yourself legal. If my family had not chosen to return to Haiti when we did, it’s very possible that we would have been forced into the same situation as all of those people in Plas Kado. So it hurts.
It hurts because it makes me think of my little brothers and sisters. I see the children in this camp who had absolutely no choice in the matter. They were born in the DR and have never known a place called Haiti, and yet that is where they are now expected to call home. They were living in nice houses and ate regularly when they lived in the DR but now they are here in this desert and their hair is orange from malnutrition and their bellies are extended from the hunger. Because of the ugliness of mankind, these children are suffering. And something must be done to make these children believe that life exists and that their future is worth hoping for.
I encountered one little girl of about 6-years-old, who was bald, her hair having been shaved because of disease, who took my hand and led me to the tent where she lived with her father, two siblings, and a grandmother. Next to the hut made of plastic sheets and scraps of fabric was a pot sitting on top of a fire made of cacti lit on fire. Inside the pot was a tiny bit of white rice with no lid. Within the few minutes that I sat there and spoke with the girl’s father, the wind blew so much dust up that I was sure there was more dirt than rice in the pot. The dust was the only seasoning added to the rice. And it scared me to think about how they were actually going to divide that meal up between the family. It was less than what I was used to eating by myself back in Mizak. And this was supposed to feed this whole family. My family is not wealthy by any means. We live in a one room home that was built by the Red Cross and given to us after the earthquake and my mother and father still struggle to find jobs in the fields or with commerce in the city to provide for me and my siblings. But when I saw how the people are living in Plas Kado, it made me feel like a king back in Mizak.
And now that I am back in Mizak, I can’t stop thinking about those people in Plas Kado and what my responsibility to them is. Ultimately, the solution to the problem is not easy. It has to start with the government. For years they have been playing petty political games with salami and eggs, thinking that boycotts and rumors would somehow lead to justice between the countries. But now that real people are suffering real consequences, there is no greater crime than allowing the suffering to continue while the political games continue. Real action must be taken to help the people who are the victims of this decades old conflict. We share an island, we are all children of the same land. We must find a way to resolve our own conflicts between each other and help each other move forward stronger than before.
As elections near this fall, I hope that more Haitians start to take notice and educate themselves on the situation occurring at the border. I will be doing what I can to talk with leaders within my own community to let them know what I have seen there so that we can discuss together what we can do to help our fellow Haitians who are now suffering. We have so many families in Mizak that have children, or siblings, or other family currently in the Dominican Republic, we can’t pretend that it doesn’t affect us. If it doesn’t affect us directly now, we need to be aware that it will certainly affect us in a very real way soon enough. And we must prepare ourselves by being informed and being actively petitioning for change starting now.
I am proud to be Haitian. But I am hoping for a day to come when those thousands of people now stuck at the border can also say that they are proud to be Haitian rather than confused and suffering at essentially being no body. When I was younger, the Dominican Republic welcomed me and my family. Now I hope that Haiti can find a way to welcome these other people in need of a place to call home.