Volume 19 Number 3
Hope for the Children of Palmarejo
01 June 2006

Pedro Aybar (text) and Ingrid Guyon (photos) visit a small school with a big mission.

This year is the tenth anniversary of La Escuelita (the little school) in the shanty town of Palmarejo, in the capital of the Dominican Republic. It provides education for children of Haitian descent who are often refused admission to state or private schools because they lack birth certificates or other documents. It started out with 50 pre-school children and now teaches 383 pupils through to the last year of primary school.

For decades, Haitians have crossed the Dominican border, fleeing repression and insecurity in their own country or searching for work. They are often recruited by agents of the agricultural and construction industries. The immigration authorities regard them as perpetually ‘in-transit’. Haitian migrants and their descendants are unable to register the births of their children, to gain access to health and education, or to enjoy many of the rights stipulated in Dominican law.

After a dangerous journey (25 Haitians suffocated earlier this year in the back of an overcrowded truck), the migrants are settled in bateyes, purpose-built plantation villages, such as Palmarejo. These communities are barely reached by the rule of law and lack such basic services as running water, sanitary facilities or electricity. They provide the backdrop for appalling abuse: labourers work 11 hours a day, six days a week, earning scarcely enough to survive.

Over the last two years a series of mass deportations have increased Haitians’ vulnerability. People are arbitrarily rounded up in the streets or fields, or even hospitals, loaded into trucks and dumped at isolated border posts. Families may be separated for ever. Meanwhile, ultra-nationalist groups have been fuelling anti-Haitian sentiments among the local population, and violent attacks on Haitians have increased.

La Escuelita celebrates its first decade in this context of increased violence and xenophobia. It was founded by the Movement of Haitian-Dominican Women (MUDHA) to apply holistic solutions to the needs of Palmarejo’s children. As well as teaching the children, it attempts to regularise the status of those with no legal documents, educates parents about the issues faced by their families, and provides health care, daily meals and legal advice to the community. ‘People need to recognise their rights in order to begin the process of change,’ says Solange Pierre from MUDHA. ‘Although international NGO aid from outside is very important, we don’t want to live forever depending on outside aid. We need training to be able to ensure future self-sufficiency.’

Because of her work for the Haitian community, Pierre and her two children have frequently received death threats. Last October, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Dominican Government to provide protection for her.