Trip Dates: June 27- July 14, 2016
Places Visited: Dominican Republic
Highlights: kids camp, finishing a house, party in the bateyes, baseball game, beaches
Through Rustic Pathways, I flew into the Dominican Republic and started my journey. The first several days of the trip we worked and learned about the bateyes, which are Haitian immigrant communities. These immigrants sneak over from Haiti with dreams of a better life, only to be shoved into bateyes as back-breaking sugar cane workers. The labor is incredibly hard, with the men waking at 4 AM and working until 5 or 6 PM under the hot Dominican sun. They are paid less than $2 for a full day’s work, and that’s all they have to support their entire family. We got a chance to cut sugar cane while we were there, and it’s an incredibly physically demanding job that I could never imagine doing for hours each day, which is the reality for many people here. The children can’t afford to attend school, not only would they need Dominican citizenship, but they would also require expensive school clothes. We went into the bateyes, specifically Monte Coca, and got to play with the children, as well as work on infrastructure projects.
We had a house that was already started that we worked on throughout the week, finishing the walls, and we also made many cement floors for the huts. The huts in the bateyes all have dirt floors, which are really poor for hygiene and can spread diseases, so we worked on creating several cement floors. We also built and painted a latrine in the batey, which is essentially an outhouse. One day, the sugar cane workers took us into the field so we could watch them work and try cutting sugar cane ourselves, and I found out that it is a very grueling task, especially under the hot Dominican sun. One day, as we neared the end of construction on one of the houses, the entire batey had a party to celebrate. There were speeches, and lots and lots of dancing. It amazes me how these people can have so much joy and kindness in their hearts, not once when I was there did I feel unwelcome at all. I loved every minute of being in the batey, even though it was truly heart-breaking at times. It taught me so much about being strong and independent, and whenever I felt my arms getting weak from shoveling cement I just looked at the kids all around us, wearing the friendship bracelets we made them, and was reminded about all the good we were doing. That kept me going and allowed me to keep working strong.
Another impact we had on the community was not purposeful or immediate, but definitely there and that was gender equality. Many woman in the Bateyes don’t work and mainly care for the home and children, but half of my group was girls and so when the men in the Bateyes saw us pick up a shovel and work, it started conversations. They would often talk about what a woman’s role is and what it should be while we were working, and I always worked my hardest to hopefully empower the girls and woman in the Bateyes to do the same. Another project that we started is a black water treatment system, which we actually built at our home base of ASCALA. That stands for something in Spanish, but more or less it’s an organization that helps Haitian immigrants get access to legal documentation (when they cross the border they are stripped of their identities and considered stateless, meaning they don’t legally exist under any government) and education, and they also use their resources to teach others to be more sustainable.
Most people in the US don’t actively think about where their food came from, and I think it’s really important that you know what conditions people have to work through to get you your food. The US is the largest importer of sugar, and much of that comes from the DR where the sugar cane workers receive no rights and little pay because they aren’t even recognized under the law. I’m not telling anyone to boycott sugar, but I think it’s important to think about it and help if you’re able to.
After the bateyes, we held a day camp so the children from the bateyes could come to us and learn. We set up groups, to teach them English, art, sports, math, and more. It was incredible to watch a busload of kids eagerly unload in the morning, teeming with excitement at the possibilities of the day. It’s incredible how sweet and friendly each and every kid is despite the hard life they have had to endure growing up in the Bateyes. I was able to get really close to some of the kids here and communicate with them, despite me not speaking any Spanish. We had originally planned to just do stations and switch off groups of kids, but that didn’t work out so well. So, for the second day of the camp, we did an olympic theme and had two teams, rojo and azul. It was such a fun, friendly competition, and the kids all really loved it!
One of the other volunteers had collected a bunch of baseball equipment and brought it down to the Dominican Republic, so we spent a day driving to baseball camps to hand out the equipment. One of the only hopes for young boys in the DR to escape to a better life is to get recruited for baseball, so nearly every boy plays baseball. The US teams come to the DR to recruit and train new players, and it was kind of crazy to see how serious everyone took it. We gave our equipment to a team from the batey, and got to play a game of baseball with them at the same time. We had to cancel early due to the rain, but it was a fun time.
For the rest of the trip, we did some beach hopping all around the DR. All non-touristy beaches, and they were beautiful. One day we went on a 3-hour hike to a beautiful waterfall, and found out only after that there was a much quicker 20 minute walk instead. But, the waterfall was well worth it.
Overall, the Dominican Republic was an incredible, dare I say life-changing, experience. There’s one quote from the sugar cane workers that really stuck with me, “Living without justice and equality is like living in a tomb, it’s hell.” Knowing that some people live with so few basic human rights, keeps me doing what I do. Volunteering and hoping that maybe just something I do will make a positive difference allows me to keep volunteering. I’m super grateful that I have supportive friends and family that allowed me to come over to the DR and help these people, as well as learn about their situation. I also want to thank my trip leaders, Hunter, Nancy, Camille, Carissa, and Carlos, who helped teach me about the Bateyes and made the whole experience very memorable, and all the other teens that went on this amazing journey with me. It truly is an experience I’ll never forget.
Lots of love, Leonie