Haitian youngsters play soccer outside Hogar de Cristo in Dajabon. Each night, 10 to 20 boys stay at the Jesuit run shelter. (Sean Kelly — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
(Dajabón, Dominican Republic) February 23, 2015 – Dajabón sits on the border with Haiti, across the Massacre River from Ouanaminthe. Haitians cross the border every day to attend school, work and build their lives. Unfortunately, they are not welcomed by many of their Dominican neighbors who harbor racist and xenophobic sentiments.
The Dominican Government has taken away citizenship from around 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, an act broadly condemned by the international community including UNHCR and the Caribbean Community. Human rights monitors report that Haitians are routinely harassed by the Dominican Republic’s border security force, or CESFRONT. Homeless Haitian orphans between the ages of eight and 15 living on the streets of Dajabón are among the most vulnerable migrants in the city.
There were very few street children living in Dajabón before Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, but since then the phenomenon has grown. Parents abandoned some of the kids, others fled abusive homes; many know the pain of their parents dying.
In Dajabón the boys work shining shoes for 30 pesos, carrying goods in the market, or placing cardboard sun shields on cars hoping to earn 15 pesos. The boys have big dreams to become doctors, teachers, priests or baseball players. They all acknowledge they must finish school, but none of them can attend one in the Dominican Republic. Their immediate desires are simple: playing soccer, having a quiet place to live, and going to school.
Last August, Fr. Mario Serrano, S.J. — National Director for the Social Apostolate of the Dominican Jesuits — noticed some Haitian boys hanging out and sleeping in the park across the street from the city’s Jesuit parish Our Lady of the Rosary. After talking with them, he learned that many were orphans living on the streets without anyone to care for them. He quickly mobilized some parishioners and began to feed the boys meals in the church’s courtyard. The parish took notice. Unfortunately, many people were uncomfortable with Haitian kids congregating and eating at their church.
A local radio show angrily criticized Mario for his outreach to the children. The host argued that the Haitians were thieves. One day during Advent Mario showed up at the radio station unannounced and asked to speak on the show. The host, surprised, readily agreed to have him on the program. Mario gave the station a gift, a nativity scene made by the boys. On the program Mario spoke about the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt in Matthew’s Gospel. He reminded the audience that Jesus was a migrant just like the children living on the streets of Dajabón.
In December, Solidaridad Fronteriza — with support from the local Jesuit Province, other Jesuit institutions in the Dominican Republic, and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA — opened a shelter for the boys named Hogar de Cristo. Fr. Mario took control of a multipurpose hall in another neighborhood that the parish was using once a week. A team of volunteers agreed to renovate the hall to make it suitable for the kids. A separate space was sectioned off for sleeping and wired with lighting and overhead fans. The bathrooms were upgraded so that they could accommodate the use of all the children. Finally, donated beds were put together and desks arranged in the main hall for seating for activities.
Today, the Hogar has bed space for 22 boys. It offers them a safe place to eat, bathe, learn, play and sleep. There are staff and volunteers who prepare meals for the boys and some who organize nightly activities such as Spanish lessons, painting and movies. Solidaridad Fronteriza and Fr. Mario hope to augment the programming with education and structured sports activities such as soccer. Hogar de Cristo affirms the boys’ dignity when many other people undermine it and tell the boys to go back to Haiti.