Sylvie* left Port-au-Prince when she was pregnant with her first child, at age 18, because her boyfriend was beating up on her, and her mom decided that the best thing for her to do was to move to the Dominican Republic. At least over there there’s sekirite – security – and more job prospects. Sylvie didn’t know a soul here, when she arrived in San Francisco de Macoris nine years ago. But she figured out how to make a life for herself, amidst all the pain and struggling and seemingly endless little battles migrants must take on, day in and day out.
When I first met Michele*, I could tell she was sizing me up, as if to say, “What are you all about?” She spoke Kreyol too fast for me, but I understood when she invited me back to her little shop where she sells clothes, in San Francisco’s permanent market area on the other side of Avenida de Libertad, so we could talk. In retrospect, I think all that I managed to say in intelligible Kreyol was, “I’m here to do a project about problems, the problems the Haitians have, health problems, and I’d like to hear your story.”
Michele, like Sylvie, also dropped out of school in order to come here. She was 7 years old when she left Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. Her mother had already emigrated and started a rather decent business selling wholesale clothes, and so she followed after her. Ever since, she goes back and forth between the two countries. She lives with her little brother, her mom, and a group of other Haitians who all left together in the same car to come here.
I met both of these women while walking around looking for Haitians to talk to. Here in the Dominican Republic, Haitians can usually be pretty easily spotted – they look more African than their Dominican neighbors, and they also occupy rungs towards the very bottom of the economic ladder. This means pretty menial lines of work – carrying handfuls of pirated CDs in your hands that you’re trying to sell to passers-by; standing at an intersection trying to cell phone cards to drivers parked at red lights; mixing and pouring cement at a construction site; bent over in a rice field under the sun; or wearing a ridiculous neon-colored uniform that advertises the brand of pop-sickles you’re toting around on a little cart beside you. Haitian women tend to be found in markets, often sitting on plastic buckets or milk crates, next to a table with little bars of soap and knock-off brand sandals and clothes.
Traditionally, migrant Haitians have worked most predominantly in the Dominican sugar industry, namely, cutting sugar cane during the zafra, or harvest. The industry grew exponentially, thanks in no small part to the cheap labor that the Haitians provided. There are accounts of the Dominican authorities turning a blind eye to the illegal status of many of the laborers; of corrupt passeurs – intermediaries – misleading Haitians into contracts that bound them to work. There are accounts of second and third generation Haitians, born on Dominican soil, who still have no documentation of their birth, which would entitle them to automatic Dominican citizenship. And the poor quality of life on these sugar estates has been well publicized.
I write this only to gain some perspective. Haitians have been migrating to the Dominican Republic for decades now, and each country has contributed to the history and culture of the other. Everyone knows that Haiti is a poor country, and the Dominican Republic, in some ways, is decades ahead of it. It comes as no surprise that people would look for work here. The labor sectors that employ Haitians have expanded beyond the bateyes, or Haitian communities on the sugar estates. Now, rice, coffee, and cacao farms employ Haitians; construction sites in bustling cities depend on Haitians; and while they typically work in low-paying jobs, they have also moved up the economic ladder, steadily improving their lot in successive generations.
The tension, however, between the two countries can be palpable at times. While most Dominicans share some degree of African descent, and while I would argue that most Dominicans are not racist, there is a dark history of anti-haitianismo, or anti-Haitianism, that some would argue still contributes to a structural system that keeps Haitians down, that always highlights the differences between the two (and casts the Dominicans in a superior light). “They’ll treat a Haitian like a little toy,” said Sylvie, in describing interactions with migration officials. In order to obtain a cedula, or work permit – a permit that would enable its bearer to apply for more respectable jobs than selling bars of soap in a dirty street market or bent over in a rice field – the applicant must pay $225 – American dollars – a sum that is beyond the means of anyone who comes from a country where more than half the population lives on less than $2 per day. “I’m not trying to go to Miami, I’m not trying to go to New York, I’m just coming here to the Dominican Republic, and they want me to pay $225?” asked Michele. And without the cedula, they do what they can.
I’m here for six weeks to learn about the migrant Haitian communities in and around San Francisco de Macoris, the city where colleagues at the School of Nursing have long collaborated with their Dominican friends at the local university here, where they have worked together on community-based projects and conducted an annual Alternative Spring Break trip with Emory nursing students.
More formally, this project sprung from another that I was involved with last summer, in Haiti. There, I helped gather information about the perceptions of mental illness held by rural Haitians – what mental illness meant to them, how they explained the causes of mental illness, and where they went for care. Part of our project was to create screening instruments that lay community health workers could use in their own daily activities, so that they can identify persons with mental illness, and refer them to existing sources of care.
Here in the Dominican Republic, I hope to use those same screening instruments in the migrant communities to get a sense of their mental health burden. More broadly, I hope the information I gather from these screening instruments will be part of a larger picture of this community, one that includes not only mental health, but individual stories of migration, of working and living here, and where the biggest gaps are.
And yet focusing solely within the Haitian communities themselves would only give us half the story. To better understand what is happening here, we must talk to the Dominicans who employ Haitians, to the Dominicans who provide healthcare and other services to them, and to those who help create the policies and set the political tone for them.
There’s no way in the world I could do any of this alone. I’ve already been enormously assisted by my Emory faculty mentors, namely, Dr Jenny Foster and Dr Brandon Kohrt. Before departure, Yvonne Hewitt, Martir Herrera and McLain Mallory helped me with translation work, and Sarah Gossett helped me obtain letters of support from in-country partners at the public hospital.
Since I’ve been here, my “host mom” Rosa Burgos, a nursing school professor here and one of Jenny’s closest friends and collaborating partners, has literally taken me by the hand and helped me get to where I need to go. And just today, Dir. Rafael Alvarez, director of the local university, personally took me on a drive into two migrant Haitian communities, discussing what could be done. Finally, I’m working closely with a hired research assistant, Jean-Peter, himself Haitian, who studies civil engineering at the university and, thanks to him tolerating my capacity to mix three languages in the same sentence (Spanish, French, and Haitian Kreyol), manages to get the job done.
In the spirit of an on-going collaboration with our Dominican partners, this is really a project whose aim is to lay a foundation for more work, for increased attention on the needs of a population that is nearly invisible. What we learn from the next six weeks is to be shared and made available to all interested, and to all who could benefit from it – including ourselves as nursing researchers, our Dominican partners, and of course, members of the Haitian communities themselves.
*I’ve changed the subjects’ names to protect their identity.