For many in our community, the Dominican Republic (DR) is a magical Caribbean nation we contemplate visiting in the winter for beach time, gambling and relaxation. For those of us who spent 10 days there in June, the picture is starkly different: the DR is a place of poverty, discrimination, violence, potential deportation and increasing marginality. And yet, it is also a place of strength, dignity, principle and tenacity, and a warm welcome.
For 13 New York Jews, ages 21-74, and two staff members of the American Jewish World Service who made a human rights trip to the Dominican Republic last month, it was Jewish values that inspired us to explore a place where few Jews live and none suffer discrimination. We were part of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, and all of us Fellows were committed to learning and doing more to understand and help oppressed people in countries currently served by AJWS grants and expert assistance.
It is hard to do justice to the people we met and the organizations they lead. In each case, they address a pressing human need. In each case, they face a government and a society in which cards are stacked against them and decades of prejudice, corruption, homophobia, misogyny and violence have deprived many people of basic human rights, health care, schooling, safety, a livelihood and, now, an identity.
Our visit took place 18 months after the Dominican Supreme Court changed the country’s constitution and stripped citizenship from more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent; they were left stateless and exposed to deportation to a land that is, for many, foreign and away from the place they, and up to four generations before them, call home. Our trip coincided with the end of the period in which people affected by the decision were to declare themselves foreigners and apply for nationality or permission to live legally in the DR. This violation of the rights of the Haitian-descent population is motivated by many unsettling impulses — racial and ethnic discrimination, economic inequality, abusive labor practices, and the historic animosity between these two countries that share one island.
We met with a leading advocacy group — Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) — that defends and serves Dominicans of Haitian descent through the courts and in leading or joining organized protests. Most impressive was witnessing MUDHA’s work in the bateys, slum neighborhoods where the most vulnerable and marginal groups in the country live.
Palmarejo, just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo, might as well have been on another planet. This area was originally built to house cane workers, and the conditions were never good. Now, they are far worse. Many residents lack legal status within the country, which means no schools or health services for them or their children. Some residents journey to the capital to work as domestics during the week and return home, if they can, on the weekend. Those left behind have little. But there is a glimmer of hope for some children who attend the MUDHA-run school in the batey at modest or no cost.
When we entered the school, the kids swarmed around us. They were cheerful and energetic, eager to hug or be hugged. They sang and danced for us, and it was clear that this was a special occasion for them.
To our sadness, we learned that MUDHA could only afford to support the school through the fourth grade. Beyond that, some children stay around the school but many blend into the life, such as it is, of the batey and are then subject to gangs, drugs and other challenges.
Another day brought a meeting with COTRAVETD (Comunidad de Transvesti Trabajadores Sexuales Dominicana), an advocacy group working with trans people and on sex worker rights. This 10-year-old group strives to reduce violence against the trans community, advocates for basic rights, trains people to be advocates and activists, and educates people for careers or to prevent HIV (or to help those who are HIV-positive). As with MUDHA, a full agenda.
I met Nairobi, a trans female, who recounted her life’s path from being thrown out of her house at age 13 and living on the streets and in the sex trade in Santo Domingo, to drug addiction. Nairobi found her way to a female sex worker advocacy group (MODEMU — El Movimiento de Mujeres Unidas, another impressive AJWS grantee we met later) that helped her get off drugs and off the street. She started COTRAVETD and is now a leading spokesperson for this community, having met with the president and numerous public officials. Despite her path, she is upbeat and optimistic about prospects for the trans community.
Other days brought us to other groups whose work was equally inspiring and challenging, dealing with sexual health and rights, and against violence. What links the members of these groups, beyond their courage and tenacity, is that their work is funded and supported by AJWS, some since 2001. Twelve groups are currently being funded, and in addition to financial support from AJWS they receive advice in building capacity, crafting their communications and in other ways. Their members go on retreats together to learn new skills and compare notes.
We noted that the activists we met had trouble with the acronym, so they simply called AJWS “Ah-Jota,” Spanish for A-J … or simply J.
On reflection it occurred to us that the letters they chose to use underscored the purpose of our trip and the work AJWS does: “A” for American and “J” for Jewish. This endeavor is deeply American and deeply reflective of Jewish values. We traveled to meet people whose only connection to us is the value of their cause, and to seek to help others and maybe help repair the world, one organization, and one person at a time.
Stuart Himmelfarb is co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform and president of the board of The Jewish Week. For more information, visit ajws.org.