(Tiroli, Haiti) February 17, 2015 — After a weary 6 a.m. departure, I sat on a flight that would ultimately lead me to the Haiti — Dominican Republic border where colleagues and I would be visiting the site of a future project of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. The project will include a greenhouse, fish farming, a school, road construction and reforestation.
Behind me a young woman sparked a conversation with a local Dominican man on the contrast found on the border, "Yeah, you're right. If you Google map the Haitian border, all you see is trees on the Dominican side and dry land in Haiti."
On the Haitian side of the border I visited Los Cacaos and Tiroli — communities that lack the infrastructure for running water, electricity, schools and roads. During the week I encountered scenes and characters that painted much more colorful pictures than the statistics listed for the region. It was difficult to witness the insurmountable poverty, but I was most captivated by the community’s incredible resilience.
Our journey began by meeting Sister Maria Marciano, OP — a nun with the Dominican Sisters of Monteils order from Brazil. She describes herself as a "tecnica — a technician," but once I spent a few seconds with Sr. Maria the Jane-of-all-trades side of her personality was revealed. She's an engineer, an electrician, a bulldozer operator trainer and an agro-scientist among countless other titles.
About 20 years ago in Vallejuelo, Dominican Republic, Sr. Maria began Centro Semilla — the Seed Center, along with a group of community members. Through agricultural education initiatives and water projects, Vallejuelo was transformed from a town with the highest poverty rates in the Dominican Republic to a thriving paradise full of vegetation. Sr. Maria hopes to replicate this project on the Haitian side of the border in the communities we visited.
The magic behind Sr. Maria's work lies in her strong belief that community members should take ownership of projects — a tenet that leads to the creation of leaders within the communities. She describes the community members as "socio—partners," in the work. For each project the community has to form a 10-14 person administrative board to carry out the day-to-day operations during the building of the projects, and after. If any of the structures need repair, the responsibility falls on these board members.
During our first meeting with the Haitian community members, I met Thomas — a leader with a persevering character. Thomas was one of the most committed workers during the construction of an aqueduct system that would provide community members with running water — a project that led to a significant decrease in cholera-related deaths after an outbreak of the disease in the fall of 2010. Thomas' sons have also become leaders in the community — one is a teacher at a local school.
Community buy-in was even more present at our last meeting in Tiroli, where more than 600 students do not have access to a basic classroom. We entered a room with about 40 parents, teachers and leaders ready to discuss the new school project. I was moved by the level of engagement. I thought back to my years as an inner-city teacher in Philadelphia and the two to three parents who would show up for parent teacher night.
The meeting ended with the community members proudly showing us the land title they secured for the school. Afterwards we all walked over to the land where the school would be constructed. As we surveyed the land there was an indescribable energy in the air. The community members were ecstatic and eager to begin the construction project for their children's education. At the end of the gathering, Sr. Maria and the community members began singing a beautiful hymn in Creole.
That community meeting was also the end of our week-long visit. As we drove away from Haiti, I was filled with an unexpected sadness. Although the first few days with limited access to running water and electricity were difficult, I have never felt so attached to a social justice cause. I thought back to the nights when we would lose electricity and Sr. Maria would say "Grab your light Brenda, because you know we are poor," and realized that in reality Sr. Maria and the community members are the rich ones.
Every morning I would see Sr. Maria wake up with a purposeful to-do list and work towards incredibly meaningful ends. The same could be said for Pedro Cano, a human rights attorney who accompanied us during our trip and who works advocating for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent after a Dominican Republic constitutional ruling rendered them stateless.
The community members exhibited the same relentlessness as Sr. Maria and Pedro. Thomas once rode a full two hours in the back of a pickup through the treacherous terrain of the Internacional (International) road, so he could be present at a meeting to support a neighboring community. Sr. Maria, Pedro, Thomas and his sons all conveyed a boundless passion to improve Haiti.
I left the trip inspired by their relentlessness and resilience.
By Brenda Garcia
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA is an international Catholic non-governmental organization whose mission is to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.
To accompany means to be a companion. We are companions of Jesus, so we wish to be companions of those with whom he preferred to be associated, the poor and the outcast. JRS services are made available to refugees and displaced persons regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or religious beliefs. JRS advocates for just and generous policies and programs for the benefit of victims of forced displacement, so that those made vulnerable by exile can receive support and protection and durable solution to their plight can be achieved.
JRS/USA witnesses to God’s presence in vulnerable and often forgotten people driven from their homes by conflict, natural disaster, economic injustice, or violation of their human rights.
As one of the ten geographic regions of Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS/USA serves as the major refugee outreach arm of U.S. Jesuits and their institutional ministries, mobilizing their response to refugee situations in the U.S. and abroad. Through our advocacy and fund raising efforts, JRS/USA provides support for the work of JRS throughout the world.
JRS/USA gives help, hope, ear and voice to vulnerable people on the move by being present to and bearing witness to their plight; by relieving their human suffering and restoring hope; by addressing the root causes of their displacement and improving international responses to refugee situations.
In addition, JRS/USA inspires the Ignatian family and others to respond together to the needs of refugees and displaced persons worldwide and forges strong partnerships with like-minded institutions and agencies devoted to the cause of refugees and displaced persons.
JRS works in more than 50 countries worldwide to meet the educational, health, social and other needs of approximately 950,000 refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, more than half of whom are women. JRS services are available to refugees and displaced persons regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or religious beliefs.
Approximately 280,000 children, young people and adults receive primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational education services each year. JRS places the highest priority on ensuring a better future for refugees by investing heavily in education and training. Further, JRS undertakes advocacy to ensure all displaced children be provided with access to quality education. JRS services are provided to refugees regardless of race, ethnic origin or religious beliefs.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.