“Once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.”
My father used to teach me this Jewish concept when I was young as we would march for social justice causes in New York City, as we would fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews, rally against the war in Viet Nam.
My parents instilled within me the notion that as a Jew, as a human being, I am morally obligated to use my voice to speak out for those who could not speak for themselves. My parents showed by example that if I witnessed evil or wrong-doing or injustice in our world, I needed to act.
I recently went to the Dominican Republic on a human rights journey to bear witness: to see with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the powerfully moving stories and struggles of so many Dominicans.
“What!? There are human rights violations in the Dominican Republic? You aren’t going to Punta Cana to the nice beach resort?” I was asked this many times prior to my journey.
I travelled to the DR as part of a six-month Rabbinic Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). We went to meet with people from a number of human rights organizations, to listen to their stories, and to figure out how we can best accompany them on their journey of justice, their journey of perseverance, their journey of truth, their journey of finding humanity in the face of great difficulty.
As one of my colleagues so eloquently said, this was a journey about “becoming human.” Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, humanitarian, Torah scholar and professor, once stated: “To remain human in the face of absurd inhumanity is the real message of Judaism. And to act upon what we see is critical. Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”
I was privileged to be present and witness deep moral courage expressed by human beings living in the midst of discrimination, poverty and pain.
The Dominican Republic government is perpetrating great human rights violations. In 2010, the government changed their constitution to revoke the citizenship of any Dominican-born person of Haitian descent. This is a complicated situation which perpetrates a cycle of lack of birth certificates, lack of ID cards, lack of ability to enroll in schools, lack of ability to obtain employment. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty, anguish and despair. It perpetrates fear of deportation, depression and lack of will-to-live.
I went to witness the discrimination that women and girls face by a society that values a “macho” culture, where gender-based violence is the “norm” and goes unpunished. I went to hear testimony from the LGBTQ community about how the Catholic views on sexuality, combined with the “macho” culture, join to form attitudes of hatred, alienation and gross miscarriages of justice toward the LGBTQ population.
And while I went to see, listen and witness, I knew this experience would be so much more profound than all of that. Why? For even though our bodies have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, we cannot overlook the senses of our souls. The differences between people lie in their individual use of these senses OR in their reliance only upon their physical senses.
My senses were on overdrive during this entire trip to the DR – both my physical senses and my senses of the soul: my heart and my mind.
What I physically touched, smelled, tasted, saw and heard moved my heart, touched my spirit and deeply stirred my soul.
I am a very visual person. I notice colors, shapes and small details all around me. From the moment we arrived at the Santo Domingo departure gate at JFK airport in New York, my eyes were acutely aware of the brightly colored clothes and iridescent make-up the Dominican women seem to prefer.
The vivid orange curtains in my hotel room gave color to an ordinary and plain space. We stayed in Santo Domingo’s Colonial District. On our first day there, we walked through these narrow, old streets to our first visit with our first NGO. I was struck by the brightly painted buildings, the way the colors liven up every street, every corner, every shop.
Many of the NGO’s we visited didn’t have running water. Each and every one of them was working on serious and critical issues: the problems of statelessness, gender-based violence, deep discrimination against the LGBTQ population, women’s issues, and so much more. And yet, each office was filled with beautiful and richly hued artwork – a feast for one’s eyes.
And even the poverty-stricken Palamerjo Batey was wrapped in color: fuscia bougainvillea, vibrant painted tin and concrete shacks, women dressed in hot pink, electric blue and grass green. A batey is a slum for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Originally, the bateys were for those who came to work in the sugar-cane fields. Often, there is no running water, no electricity, no garbage/waste removal, houses made of corrugated tin with tin roofs, sweltering in the hot sun. Dominican citizens of Haitian descent have been denied their basic rights and have no ability to gain access to education, work and other daily necessities. The DR has always discriminated against those who come from Haiti, even as they depend upon them for labor. In 2010, when the Dominican government changed their Constitution and stripped Dominican citizenship from anyone who was born in Haiti or has a parent born in Haiti, the situation of Dominicans of Haitian descent became even more dire. (Click here to read more about this: NY Times Sunday Magazine Article, January 17, 2016 In Exile or here: AJWS – Dominican Republic)
I found this sense of color reflected all over the DR – in the colorful buildings, people’s clothing and makeup, the blue of the water, the dramatic hand gestures, the wide, welcoming smiles. Despite whatever is happening there politically, socially, economically, it seems to me that the strong, bold, vibrant colors, the big gestures and bright smiles reflect a resiliency of spirit and attitude that say: “Notice me! I am here! I am not going away or fading into the woodwork. You can try to take away my identity, but you cannot break me and I WILL get noticed!”
My eyes also saw beyond the bright colors: the extreme poverty in the Batey, the naked children playing in the dust near barbed wire, the listless dogs lying in the dirt, the families in homes made from tin with corrugated tin roofs baking in the hot sun – with no running water and many without electricity. My eyes saw this….and my heart cried.
The bright colors did not remove the reality of pain and suffering of the daily existence, nor the great discrepancy between the “haves” and “have-nots”: those who are Dominican-born and of Haitian descent have been suffering tremendously since 2010. They are among the “have-nots”. The contrast of seeing a Porsche dealership so close to the entrance to the Batey is evidence of the great disparity of wealth that exists here.
My ears listened to stories of heartbreak, disappoint and hope:
Elena: Her story is one of the many of the 200,00 Dominicans of Haitian descent. She’s 27 years old, born in the Dominican Republic to parents who came from Haiti. Her citizenship and documentation were all revoked after 2010.
She wasn’t able to complete her education because of her lack of financial resources and her lack of status. She married young, to a man who emotionally, sexually and physically abused her and they have four children. She was on the verge of suicide when she met someone from one of the local NGO’s supported by AJWS who showed her that they will advocate on her behalf, help her to get documentation. She left her husband and is now working on trying to obtain her identification papers with the assistance of the NGO.
Jenny: Is a lawyer who is the Executive Director of Mudha. Mudha has been advocating for women and women’s issues in both the DR and in Haiti for over 32 years. Jenny shared how Dominican culture is a “machismo” culture, where women are second-class citizens. Women of Haitian descent tend to have deep black, ebony skin (a negative trait in the DR). Black skin, poverty, being female, all lead to greater suffering and more discrimination.
Mudha “takes our voices to other places where we can’t arrive”. Mudha creates schools in Bateys where no schools exist, they offer workshops to provide skills for women so they can provide for themselves and their families, they teach women how to use their voices, how to speak up for themselves and so much more.
Rose Iris: Another human rights lawyer. She travels great distances to advocate with the government on behalf of Dominican men and women of Haitian descent who have no documentation and no identification. She helps give these people the tools and resources to fight for their rights and she fights for them as well.
Jenny accompanied us to the Palamerjo Batey where we listened to more voices share their stories of exclusion, pain and love of this beautiful land. (Everywhere we went, no matter how much people were suffering, we heard tremendous love expressed for the DR). We heard Juliana, the Director of the Anaisa School (the school started and funded by Mudha). Juliana, with her presence, her every fiber, her very self radiates love for the sacred work in which she is engaged: educating and empowering children, Dominican children. She shared that only 10% of Dominican children of Haitian descent are able to continue on to high school. Only 1% of those ever continue on to university. In the Anaisa School, many children come to school with empty stomachs: there is simply no food at home. The school has no food to offer them and only enough funding to provide six snacks/month. No funds for books, no funds for supplies, no funds for learning games. We sat in chairs in a playground that had four broken and unusable swings. Yet, the children were all clean and smartly dressed in their school uniforms: blue pants/jumpers/skirts and coral shirts/blouses. There’s great pride in their appearance.
Juliana told us that as teachers, their greatest satisfaction is when the parents come to thank them for what they are accomplishing with their children.
The school has 175 students, three teachers and one assistant and only goes up through 4th grade. So few resources to help build a strong future.
We listened to more stories:
Baneiras: the 25-year old President of the Youth Group who dreams of going to university, but cannot because she cannot obtain her identity cards: she was born in the DR and her parents are of Haitian descent. So she volunteers as a community organizer to change life, to influence the world around her, to promote a better world. With the youth, she discusses violence, sexual and reproductive health and gender; she raises awareness about how the issue of no documentation affects the social mobility of the youth and how they must use their voices to change this situation; she uses the dramatic arts to create change: she’s one of a 12-member theatre group (three people from her Batey and 2 other Bateys participate as well) that used drama to highlight the issue of “garbage and waste reduction” in the Batey (the town refused to collect garbage/refuse from the Batey. Thanks to their play, this is beginning to change).
We listened to beautifully poised, graceful and articulate schoolchildren in the 4th grade as they put on a small performance for us, singing songs and reciting poetry. At first we thought: “this is so lovely. How beautiful!” But we wondered, “why aren’t they smiling while they’re performing? They all look so serious.”
And then, our interpreter translated the children’s words:
“I was born here, why are you kicking me out?”
“I am trapped like a bird in a cage, I cannot move?”
Children in 4th grade should be playing sports, worried about learning. They should not have to worry about whether or not they can even attend school, about whether or not they or their parents will be deported, about whether or not their parents can earn a living to put food on the tables, about whether or not the country they love will consider them fully human with full rights?
It immediately brought to my mind an association from the not-so -distant past of another beautiful and articulate group of children, whose citizenship was also wrested away from them, who also could not attend school: the Jewish children in the Holocaust. And I thought of the children poets of Terezin, who wrote: The Butterfly:
The Butterfly (Pavel Friedman, 4.6.1942)
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.
The Palamerjo Batey is also a ghetto, like Terezin. It is a slum, with no way out. With state enforced sanctions, violating human rights. We bore witness to the wonderful work the NGO’s were able to accomplish, thanks in part, to subsidies they receive from AJWS.
We listened to members of COTRAVETD, an organization dedicated to supporting the rights, health and well-being of trans sex workers, a most vulnerable community within the larger Dominican population. To be transgender in the Dominican Republic is to face unprecedented discrimination. How can one live life being trans in a society that values “machismo” above all? I sat with Jairo, Juliette and Cassandra, all trans sex workers.
Juliette introduced herself first by her birth, male name. The DR insists that all people present as their birth identities and their birth genders for their State ID’s, for all official functions. They stigmatize trans individuals as “monsters” and “aliens”. There are limited employment opportunities, barriers to healthcare and government sanctioned violence. Juliette’s father and brother kicked her out of her home when she was 10, which was when she landed up on the street for the first time. Often, sex-work is the only opportunity for earning an income that’s available to trans individuals.
We heard the stories of leaders and volunteers who are part of REVASA, an
organization working for equality, advocacy and support for the LGBT communities. I listened to Deivas, who is running for political office — as an openly gay man and a devout Catholic. In a moving campaign-style speech, Deivas said, “What we want is not just for ourselves but for the whole world. Ours is a message of love.
Our journey continued to Haina, the most polluted town in the Western hemisphere. We learned how the Free Trade Agreement with the United States deprived people of earning a living wage, because Free Trade is unregulated: no rules for wages, working hours or conditions. The plastic and rubber that is manufactured in Haina and brought back to the US grossly pollutes the air, water and ground. People have extraordinarily high rates of cancer and other illnesses, extremely high rates of abject poverty, and lives that are sorely compromised.
In Haina , we listened to the women of the Junta de Mujeres Mama Tingo who have organized as an umbrella organization to support one another and their communities. They defend their rights and confront gender-based violence, especially violence in the family, they advocate for themselves in the political process and work to teach boys and men about the “new masculinity.” At Mama Tingo, solidarity and working together is very important. Everything is done in teamwork. Their successes are impressive. We met with young girls, teenagers, women young and old. While there, we learned that one of our interpreters who had been with us all week was ready to share her story: Arsi’s mother was a victim of “femicide:” when her mother was 35, her husband killed her, leaving Arsi mother-less, scared and vulnerable. The people with whom we met throughout the week, the stories we heard, gave Arsi hope, raised her spirit. When she heard about the good work being accomplished at Mama Tingo, she cried, wishing that no other women will ever have to experience what her mother and she went through at the hands of her father.
And then the women sang, the girls danced. They lifted their voices, their hands and their hearts to us and we heard words of hope, smiles of solidarity.
Throughout the time we were there, we tasted and smelled the scent of hope in the actions of those who are dedicated to changing the world in which they live: Luis, AJWS’s “man on the ground in the DR” and so many, many people who touched me with their courage, their strength, their generosity. Facing incredible hardships and assaults on their dignity, they are standing up, taking risks, acting in solidarity, committed to systemic change, basic rights and human dignity of all people.
They remind me of Nachshon, based on a rabbi’s tale (called a midrash) written about the the Torah portion from the week we were there, Parshat B’Shalach (from the Book of Exodus, the Song of the Sea). When Nachshon arrived at the Sea of Reeds, he saw the deep water in front of him, and Pharaoh’s army, horses and chariots chasing behind him. He knew if he waited for someone to do something, we would either drown or be killed. So he took one small step on his own, to save his own life. He walked into the water. It came up to his ankles. Then he waded in more deeply until it came up to his knees. Then he walked further until it came up to his waist. Pharaoh’s army was drawing closer and closer. So Nachshon continued walking into the depths of the sea. When the water was up to his nostril’s God said: “Now I know that this people is ready to be saved. When I see that they are ready to help themselves, I can now walk alongside and do my part.” And at that moment, God had Moses raise his staff, the waters parted and the Israelites walked safely to the other side.
The people we met during our visit are the Nachshons of our day. They are wading deeply into the waters, knowing and hoping that they must be the agents of change, one small step at a time. We are the ones who must walk alongside, holding the waters back, making it possible for them to get safely to the other side.
We touched the hands of those with whom we spent time, knowing that this physical touch will profoundly touch our hearts, minds and move us to action. We saw how AJWS touched so many by engaging with others in the meaningful, important and good work they do.
Now that I am back home, I ask that you join me on this journey. That you serve as witness as well, as you hear the voices of Jenny, Baneiris, Elena, Juliette and all those who are fighting for their basic rights. As you read their tales of darkness and despair, of injustice and hope for a better world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible if they do not speak up and act out against injustice.”
Click on the link below to sign the petition, asking the United States government to pressure the Dominican Government to end the crisis that is taking place with the issue of statelessness:
Together, you and I can make a difference. As the prayer we recited at the very beginning of our journey in the DR says:
Let us remember that we travel not for the sake of travel alone, but to have our perspectives on the world transformed.
Let us take responsibility for our own actions and words as we study and work, listen and learn, struggle and grow.
Let us arrive safely at our destination and leave secure in the knowledge that we have helped to create change: change that is meaningful, lasting and real. (AJWS “Reflection”, Tefilaft Haderech, Travelers Prayer)
Watch this space for further “calls to action.”