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School offers hope to Haitians

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Pedernales, Dominican Republic, 04 May 2011 — Outside this small town on the southern coast, Jesuit Refugee Service is supporting an education project of the Altagracia Parish in the Diocese of Barahona.

Two migrant-worker villages in the area are home to Haitians and Dominican-born people of Haitian descent. Following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti the area witnessed an influx of Haitians displaced by the natural disaster.

Alcoa once operated a large bauxite mine in the area, and the road the company built there still provides the main access to the inland area, but the mine closed in 1982. Although odd formations still dot the landscape, nature has mostly covered the mine's scars and the overall view of green mountains descending gently to the blue Caribbean Sea is a tranquil one. But life here can be far from tranquil.

"Haitian migrant life here is very difficult", said Fr Antonio Fernandez Rodriguez of Altagracia Parish.

"Fifty percent of what they grow they have to give the owner of the land. Sometimes they take loans at high interest (a 15 percent to 20 percent monthly rate) to buy fertiliser for the land. If there is no good harvest, they are saddled with many debts which cause them additional problems", he added.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, and although Haiti is about half the size of its neighbour, it has a slightly larger population. The increased population density and the centralisation of the population in Port-au-Prince have resulted in additional challenges for food security and sustainable agriculture initiatives.

In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the writer Jared Diamond notes that the Haitian side of the island is drier because the "barrier of high mountains blocking rains from the east … Compared to the Dominican Republic, the area of flat land good for intensive agriculture in Haiti is much smaller, as a higher percentage of Haiti's area is mountainous. There is more limestone terrain, and the soils are thinner and less fertile and have a lower capacity for recovery."

"In this area there is no drinking water, just rain water …. There are no official medical services, just those provided by the parish. There is no public transportation, and the closest school is many kilometers away," said Fr Antonio.

Fr Antonio asked the local Dominican government about providing educational services to the migrants, but the government declined to intercede, stating that, by definition, the migrants and their Dominican-born descendants may be here one day and gone the next.

"But I told them that these children have been here for many years and they've had no education at all," he said.

"What I want is for those children to go to school and learn a little, and if the schools remain open here one or two more years, I pressure the Dominican government take over the administration of the schools. Even if this group of children doesn't stay here, another group will come. And the parish will continue to provide this service, to provide education for the children," said Fr Antonio.

Further complicating Fr Antonio's hopes for public education for the children of the area, the government does not view the Dominican-born children of Haitians as Dominican citizens, and a 2010 constitutional change codified what was once ad hoc denial of nationality to these young people.

Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent are among the most marginalised people in the country. Though there are Dominicans living in conditions of extreme poverty in the country, Haitian migrants and persons of Haitian descent born here face racial discrimination, exploitation and mass deportation.

Along with anecdotal evidence, the experience of Jesuit Refugee Service has demonstrated that the experience of many persons in the Dominican Republic born to Haitian parents, or whose last names denote Haitian ancestry, is characterised by limited or lack of access to education, health care, employment and due process before the law.

With its mission to protect the human rights of Haitians on the border Jesuit Refugee Service believes providing education in any circumstance will lead to a more stable future for the migrants, their children and their country at large.

To start this new programme in Pedernales, semi-permanent buildings rather than more expensive permanent structures are being built to serve as classrooms to provide basic literacy education to the children of the migrant workers.

"I know that education does not just teach a person how to read and write. An educated student is more open, and has a bigger vision for the future," said Fr Antonio.

"And I really want to thank the Jesuit Refugee Service, because I used to have the school under a tree, and it was like that for five months. And now with your help we have started this little school, so rain or shine the children can be in the classroom. The children feel they're in a more dignified setting, and the parents feel their children are actually going to school", Fr Antonio added.

Christian Fuchs, Communications Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service USA