2,000 Displaced Haitian Refugees Is Not The Tragedy

In the United States right now we have our own complicated battles that we are fighting against racism and inequality. The people who are a vital part of our society but happen to fit into a racial category that isn’t treated as justly as others are the victims that are leading the fight to be seen as human beings and not have to live in fear. As the battle grows into a nationwide struggle for justice and understanding, many allies from outside of the racial minority categories are joining the fight to ensure all citizens live with the same amount of liberty as each other. It is a battle that will take time and has been going on for years already. But the battle is being fought. It is being fought to change systems and redefine symbols and break down institutions all to tread the seemingly impossible path that leads to racial equality. It is difficult and discouraging at times, but there is hope for change as citizens begin to stand up and demand justice.

IMG_0589Meanwhile, on the island of Hispaniola, a much different racial struggle is raging. Here, no battle is being fought. Outright discrimination is being carried out by the racial majority in the Dominican Republic, led by its government, upon the racial minority of ethnically Haitian inhabitants of their country. The majority is exploiting its power to cleanse its country of the minority: the blacker, poorer, Haitians. And the minority, are being forced, whether physically or emotionally, to give up and leave. They have no power to even attempt to challenge the system or hope for any change. They have no choice but to leave the place that they’ve called home for years and return to a country that they know no more and that doesn’t know them. After the earthquake of 2010, multiple political crises, hurricanes, droughts, aid, development, tourism, and so much more that has occurred in the last 20 or more years, it is not the same place that they left behind. But now they have to pray that they are able to find a way to fit back into it.

But so far, that place to fit remains elusive. Since June 17th, the deadline that the DR gave Haitian inhabitants to apply for legal status, it is estimated that more than 40,000 individuals have crossed the border back to Haiti in an attempt to escape the impending humiliation that they have been promised to face. The numbers, as always, are impossible to project accurately, but a large percentage of this 40,000 have done so “voluntarily” as most news stories put it. But this simply means that they weren’t picked up in the middle of the street, thrown in the back of a truck, and driven to the border to be dropped off and expected to fend for themselves. This, has happened to some, however, the majority have seen it happening and decided to do it on their own while they can still pack their things and go with their families. Others have simply grown overwhelmed by the blatant hatred that they have to endure everyday, and have made the choice to remove their families from an absolutely unlivable situation. They have grown tired of being called dogs everyday and suffering physical violence and treated like absolute animals. So they have indeed, made a choice, but it is in fact, the only choice that they had.

IMG_0554This is a very simplified version of a very complex situation that is made up of uncountable layers of political, social, racial, and economic histories. It is a situation that has led to these thousands and thousands of Haitians ending up across the border in towns that were never prepared to receive them among people who have no responsibility to welcome them. And some of these border towns have been able to receive a minimal amount of aid and international attention because of their location and accessibility. There is one border town, however, that is so isolated and off the radar that the crisis occurring there has gone largely unnoticed.

Last week I visited this town, called Anse-a-Pitres, which is located on Haiti’s southern coast directly on the border with the DR. The only paved road into or out of the city comes from the DR which has been inaccessible since they closed off the border recently. To get there from Jacmel, we had to take an 8-hour boat ride from the port of Marigot, overnight to reach the city the next morning. Due to this extreme isolation, it was a city that already suffered from a lack of resources and infrastructure that affected the lives of the more than 27,000 people that call Anse-a-Pitres home. Add to that a year long drought in the area and the increasing hostility from the DR side of the border which they have always depended on for their trade and economy in the area, and you already have a local emergency situation without adding on any refugees to the pile of needs. Yet, in the last month, nearly 2,000 Haitian refugees from the DR have landed there, as they escape or are kicked out of the DR, and that’s as far as they’re able to make it.

Yes, I called them refugees. I’m not a journalist and I don’t have to tiptoe around any politically correct language that the media and organizations have to use. These people are there because they are trying to seek refuge from a situation that they know will eventually put their lives and the lives of their children in danger. They have seen their neighbors and friends beaten, and ripped away from their families. They have been harassed themselves, threatened, and left without options. They have seen young men who share their skin color lynched in public and killed for who they are. These people are refugees who are now suspended in an indefinite survival mode where they have chosen physical suffering in place of racial discrimination. The Haitians as a people have one of the most indomitable revolutionary spirits of any culture on the planet, and yet in the face of such egregious hatred, they have seen that there is no hope to overcome in this case, only to run away from it.

And the physical suffering where they have landed in intense. The city of Anse-a-Pitres had no where to receive them when they started showing up so they sent them out into the desert surrounding the city where nothing but cacti and dust can survive. Ironically enough, the place where they have established the refugee camps is known as “Plas Kado” or “The Gift Park”.  Having shown up there with very little possessions, and having spent the only money they had to make it that far, families now set up shelters made of cardboard boxes, scraps of tarps or old bedsheets. There is no food and there is no water. They are completely dependent on what little aid they might find to scrape by an existence for their families. The well to get drinking water is a long walk away and the earth is so hostile there that nothing can be planted. The cacti that surround the camp are cut and used as fuel to cook or make charcoal. Even if any of the families would have money to purchase goods, walking into the city and back would take most of the day.IMG_0585

The way that they are living there is truly unimaginable. But the way they are living is not the tragedy. Yes, it is tragic, but it is merely a symptom of the real tragedy, which lies buried somewhere in those complex histories of hatred. The real tragedy lies in how it can be considered legitimate to steal the dignity and humanity of an entire population of people and then hide behind politics to justify it. The source of the tragedy resides someplace much deeper, someplace where someone sees their only choice to be made as choosing to accept starvation rather than discrimination. Choosing to live under a cardboard box rather than live under the assumption that you have the same amount of value as the dirt that their feet walk on. The tragedy is in how the rest of the world can find it so easy to ignore the suffering of these Haitians because everyone has become so desensitized to the suffering of Haitians over the years. The real tragedy is much more extravagant than the situation of the people in Plas Kado, and without treating the source of the tragedy, the symptoms of that tragedy will only continue to get worse. And yet, for those 2,000 people in Plas Kado and the thousands of others in other refugee camps up the border, something must be done to treat the symptoms. They are real people with real immediate needs.

IMG_0573They are real people, like Adolfite, a father of three and husband to a pregnant wife, Wendine. They moved to the DR in 1996 and Adolfite got a job in a store stocking shelves and keeping the place clean. The things they told me about what they lived through in the DR: the abuse, the contempt, the rejection; I don’t even want to write details about it because I don’t want to exploit their suffering for blog material. I don’t want to have to use their suffering to shock my reader. Because they are humans. They are humans living in Plas Kado under a blue tarp that is falling apart, fashioned into a tent, with absolutely nothing inside with 3 kids. And I just pray that they find a way to get out of that camp before the 4th one is born. In Adolfite’s case, getting out of the camp seems like it should be simple. He knows he has family in Belle-Anse, which is not far, respectively, from Anse-a-Pitres, but he hasn’t spoken with them in years and even now doesn’t know how to contact them, and has no money to make the trip even if he could. But he has faith that if he and his family were able to make it to Belle-Anse, then they’d be okay.

And this, essentially, is the story of most people now residing in Plas Kado. They are homeless, but they are not looking for homes. They are just trying to get home. Home to the place that they left behind years ago to the people that they left behind, and hope that the blood that they share is still strong enough to repair the bonds that have been broken. And once those bonds are repaired, they can begin to search for a way to move on with their lives.

I have no plans to save Adolfite or any of the others there. That’s not what I went to Anse-a-Pitres for. I wanted to be a witness to the situation and hopefully share some stories so that more people can be aware of the situation and find ways to help in the long run. I already went there from a place of incredible privilege and want to be as sensitive as possible to the needs and feelings of the people there. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk between effective advocacy and disaster tourism, between awareness and exploitation, but there are things that can be done. There are some organizations currently starting to take notice of the situation and some minimal aid starting to trickle in, while other larger organizations are still waiting for invitations and action from the government before they take action themselves. It is a very complicated situation without any clear or immediate solution, and I would not be an effective advocate if I tried to stuff it all into one blog post. So, in the next few days, I will be posting again hopefully with some specific actions that people can take to actually help the people in Anse-a-Pitres and Plas Kado, but also to pressure the governments involved to do their part in bringing resolution to the crisis. For now, all that I ask my readers to do is share this post. Get the word out there. Let as many people as possible know what’s really going on there. Set up a Google news alert to keep yourself informed on what’s going on. Talk about it with your neighbors at this week’s barbeque. As you read the daily headlines about racism in America, please keep in mind the people in this world who are making the difficult choice to escape racism because they don’t have the choice to fight against it. And stay tuned for my next post for more stories and ways to get involved.

One comment

  1. As always, eloquently, thoughtfully stated. Thank you Lee for sharing information and a story that needs to be told. Hugs to you from my heart. Will share your post as well. Shared Kara’s post and hopeful somehow with awareness more help will arrive and better decisions will be made. I realize there are thousands of people doing good, sharing their skill sets, listening and seeking to make a difference, at the same time, I am so saddened by systematic racism and hatred. Sigh. ❤

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