Today, we feature a post from Jane Lorenzi, a Starfish volunteer, who reflects on her immersion experience in the DR this past winter break.
I recently returned from an 8-day immersion program in the Dominican Republic through IMAP (International Marquette Action Program). Our group, which included 10 Marquette students and four staff members, spent the majority of our time in Dajabón, a bustling town on the Haiti / DR border. We encountered and sought to understand the complex social, economic, political, cultural, and historical realities of living on this border.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to share journal entries and reflections from the experience. The following is a journal entry from 1/12/16, the day we had the opportunity to cross into Haiti.
We — the 14 of us, plus our translator Aleibi — are standing in a one-room school for orphaned and abandoned Haitian children.
Why is there no school today (a Tuesday)? we asked, naively curious.
Today is a “holiday,” he replied. Or at least, that’s how our translator interpreted it. The teacher added something else in Creole, and then Aleibi clarified: today is a day of remembrance, he said.
And then it hit us.
The day we crossed over into Haiti marked the sixth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destabilized an already precarious, extremely impoverished state. The significance of the date of our crossing was tragically ironic. Haiti was dangerously vulnerable before the quake, and the natural disaster only highlighted and magnified those vulnerabilities — among them, widespread extreme poverty, inequality, political instability, violence, and corruption, and a history of foreign intervention, occupation, and aid.
It was surreal to see Paul Farmer‘s book on Haiti and my Human Security class lecture literally come to life before our very eyes. This kind of suffering I had only read about in books and articles — and to know that the destitution only grew worse. So many questions whirled through my brain when I saw the MINUSTAH U.N. peacekeeping mission sign outside the police station (hey! we even took a picture with it). The failure of the mission, the cholera epidemic, the militarization of aid, the role of the U.N., the U.S., and the international community, the overwhelming presence of NGOs (they don’t call Haiti a “nation of NGOs” for nothing) … it felt like a living (3-D) version of my midterm paper on reconstruction in Haiti.
My soul cringed as I thought of what this community might equate “white foreigners” to — have we done more damage than good? Pictures of well-to-do U.S., Canadian, and European families dotted the dilapidated wooden shack of a school room. Toddlers waddled around without underwear, exposed to the elements. Small, malnourished young boys continuously begged us for money, pointing to their swollen stomachs and expressing their incredible hunger. One boy even remarked: “I know you have money!” in perfect Spanish (because he had seen us purchase expensive, relatively speaking, artisan products at the school store). Another young boy tried to punch the van as we drove away. There was intense anger and hurt in his eyes — a sentiment reflected in so many of the Haitians we encountered. Unlike most of the Dominicans we met who tend to greet even strangers with a friendly “Buenos” and certain warmth, the Haitians were noticeably disengaged. Few made eye contact, fewer waved back. There seemed to be something clouding their vision, as if they were staring helplessly into oblivion. It was chilling.
I felt even more uncomfortable at the border today than at the binational market. At least at the market, the workers were selling goods and there was actually a chance of us buying something. Parked on la calle internacional (an unpaved road which divides the two countries long ways down the middle), our white passenger van was like an enormous elephant in the room. It really felt like a spectacle this time, and we were an obnoxious imposition to someone’s daily routine.
This is not to degrade the experience in any way. I cling to these feelings and thoughts because I think it is extremely important to do so. I acknowledge the discomfort, the sense of being an imposition… at the same time, recognizing how incredibly valuable that border experience was. I will never be the same. The confrontation with a reality, the intense learning curve, the righteous anger, the thirst for justice, the motivation to seguir adelante. How heart wrenching and transformative it was for me as an individual, who strives for personal growth and always seeks to learn magis, more.
Despite my negative feelings towards certain aspects of the visit, I do wonder: If I don’t stand up for my fellow brothers and sisters — using my voice, education, skills, connections — who will? Not in a selfish way, but more so, how can I use the talents and resources I have been given to empower those who are burdened? (And this could apply to any human being, anywhere.) How can I lessen their burden without arrogantly imposing? I never want to create a culture of dependency. Yet I wonder how to address the dire, basic needs of these people, especially when the state itself is so weak. How do we strengthen institutions and locally-run organizations so that Haitians can help their fellow Haitians? Or, is an outsider needed sometimes to get things moving, to make people pay attention? What are we to “do” with countries like Haiti, when in too many ways it appears and feels broken beyond repair? It’s a constant source of reflection.
And I have no answers.
But I do keep this phrase close: Esos caminos hay que andarlos. These paths/journeys/ways/roads (depends on the translation, which makes the Spanish so beautiful!), you must walk them. Someone must walk these caminos and know these realities.