About 14 years ago I spent the summer with an incredible community of people in the Dominican Republic who changed my life. The friendships that began that summer have enriched my life deeply. This past November a beautiful opportunity arose to visit these amazing people again and celebrate! We celebrated the graduation of a very special young woman named Loisa who not only completed her nursing studies, but did so with honors. Monumental for Loisa, her family, her community batey Libertad, and Education Across Borders; she is the first to graduate from a university with a profession. Loisa quietly confided to me that she knew this was something larger than herself, that many people were counting on her to succeed and to show others it is possible, while she felt pressure she did not doubt that she could realize this dream. I met Loisa, who was 12 years old then, that summer when my friend Kate Barrett and I had the opportunity to work with the community of batey Libertad on issues of health promotion. Loisa patiently attempted to teach me Kreyol, repeating each word slowly and clearly. I remember she was one of a large group of kids who would come to the local school in batey Libertad where we painted pictures, drew maps, played soccer, shared stories in Spanish and Haitian Kreyol and simply learn from one another. Loisa struck me as someone who was serious and sincere, who held great responsibility. Her father was a leader of the batey, someone Kate and I would meet with regularly to plan lessons and strategies for teaching. He taught the children how to read and write. I knew Loisa wanted to be like him. Returning to the Dominican Republic after 14 years proved to be an emotional and beautiful experience. The country had changed physically with a new airport and lots of development, but the people’s warmth, openness and hospitality remained the same. When I arrived to the batey, I felt at home immediately. The kids circled around and Nanota and Papito were ready with open arms. The small children I knew were now young adults. Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to meet individually with many of these young adults who are Education Across Borders students in the batey. What struck me is the dedication these young people have toward strengthening their community. A young man, Yanlico will be graduating from Business school in March with plans to help the community’s local rice cooperative. Johnny is studying to be a doctor, and told me he has plans to improve the health of the people of the batey. Milanda is studying to be a nurse – she said she wants to start a clinic in the batey and change the circumstances for the younger kids, so they might grow up healthier. With her nursing degree now, Loisa is planning on improving maternal child health in the batey as well as work in a clinic in the city. Toward evening, I was lead by one of the children into the church where the ceremony was beginning to honor Loisa’s graduation. A few candles lit the darkness and the singing a mix of praise and thanksgiving. Yanlico lead the ceremony, commanding the attention of young wiggling children with wide expectant eyes. “Loisa showed us we can achieve our dreams!” one of the younger students shouted. Middle school children got up to read poetry and sing songs they had composed for the occasion. The elders were visibly proud. Yanlico gave thanks on behalf of all the Education Across Border’s students for the opportunity to realize their dreams. He gave thanks to the community for their encouragement, elders responded with a song. Loisa spoke eloquently about how pursuing your dream takes hard work, a mountain of people supporting you and faith in God. I think when I first met these children 14 years ago, I was not sure how and if these children would survive. The conditions these children grow up in are of extreme poverty- without access to clean water, crowded living spaces, lack of latrines, lack of protection from human rights abuses etc. While these conditions are still present and are slowly changing for the people of batey Libertad, what really has changed is HOPE. This graduation paves the way for the younger ones to dare to dream. It is a great achievement for Education Across Borders, as together we have been able to show that yes this is possible! There is fire in the eyes of the younger children who now tell of their dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, lawyers, and business men and women- this tells me that real change is possible. The gift of friendship with Loisa over the years has changed me through her example of constant faith and optimism. She has shown me what it means to have faith, even when it would be so easy to point to the daily injustices (i.e. lack of clean water, food, decent housing) and blockades (political, social, economic) she and the people of her community faces daily and wonder where is God. What she and the other students teach me by their example is that faith is facing injustice with dignity, grace and perseverance to overcome. Overall the community felt very different this time, yes there is poverty, desperateness and hunger- but changes are being made, many of the houses are better, sanitation is a priority, kids are going to school, there is hope. I find great strength in the friendship created with Loisa over the years of writing letters and emails. My daughter Elena (3 years old) knows Loisa through photos, stories and writing letters and emails with me back and forth to Loisa. As a parent I think this is a valuable seed to plant, as I have been given this gift from my parents as they have shown me the power and hope in reaching across many borders to form friendships with people from all over
In the aftermath of the horrific January 12, 2010 earthquake in southern Haiti, EAB is providing support to our community leaders, scholarship students, and partner organizations to assist in immediate relief operations and rebuild for a safer, more just and equitable future on both sides of the island.
The day after the earthquake (7.0 on the Richter scale, which has claimed, as of this writing, an estimated 50,000 lives), Dominican church leaders nationwide organized collections of food and water to be trucked immediately to affected areas in Haiti. In Batey Libertad and Franco Bido, poor communities both, residents came together to purchase and donate hundreds of liters of water and many boxes of ready to eat foodstuffs.
One of our scholarship students, Wilson Senfo Michel, immediately answered the call from Cruz Roja (Red Cross) and went to Port au Prince as a translator for a team of Dominican medical professionals. In the following days, two of our tech school graduates, Juan Sosa and Roberto Rafael, went with our current medical scholarship student, Johnny Belarme (pictured at right) to Leogane, one of the most devastated cities, to help a Dominican and Cuban medical team stationed there. Many such teams have been mobilized, providing emergency care both in Haiti and in Dominican facilities along the border. Few of those professionals speak Kreyol, the dominant language in Haiti, and the need for translators– and bilingual medical assistants like Johnny– is dire. In addition to these four, many of EAB’s scholarship students in Batey Libertad, fluent in both languages, have volunteered their services, and in the coming days they will dispatch to where Cruz Roja sends them, with their food and transportation covered by EAB.
One of our partner organizations, One Respe (based in Santiago and Haina, DR), has already begun to see an influx of Haitian immigrants into their communities in the southern part of the DR. (Batey Libertad, though it is in the northwestern DR, will soon experience this same phenomenon.) These survivors, shell-shocked and destitute, need food, shelter, medicine, clothing, and psychological services. Many, if not all, of them will have nothing to return to in Haiti, and will need employment, and schooling for their children. EAB is sending funds to provide those services now in Haina, and is preparing for the needs that will later arise in Santiago and Batey Libertad.
Some of those refugees will make their way into the Dominican coffee areas, and to Franco Bido and its environs, looking for work. When they are there, they will inevitably turn, at some point, to EAB’s clinic for medical services, since it provides the only immediate care for miles around. We are preparing to bolster our medicine supply there in the coming months.
The rebuilding effort will require not only funding, but solidarity. A wise Haitian once said, speaking of Haiti and the DR, “We are two wings of the same bird.” What affects one half of the island affects the other. The success of the rebuilding effort depends, to a significant degree, on how Haitian victims and refugees are treated by Dominicans. Will they find welcome, as brothers and sisters in need? Will they find water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine? Will they find employment, both to sustain themselves until they can return, and to send remittances to those left behind?
Education Across Borders– with our long-term mission to provide homes, health care, and education to those in need– will play a small but important role in that rebuilding, which begins now, and will require a years-long, vigilant effort. We are determined to help “Build Back Better,” in the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, to do our part to construct communities where decent homes, healthy living, and professional educations are the norm, and help transform us all for the better.
For helpful perspectives on the disaster, read the following articles and commentaries: