“Tè tremblé,” were the words our Creole-speaking students at Soehl Middle School in Linden, N.J., used to describe the event that devastated their homeland—literally: “The earth trembled.” Like many of us, I spent the Martin Luther King holiday glued to my television, watching the news in sadness and frustration. The island of Hispaniola holds a special place in my heart, both because of my many Haitian students and because of my connection to the Haitian immigrant community in the Dominican Republic.
For the past four years I have led groups of teachers on a human rights focused tour in the Dominican Republic. One of the key objectives of the annual trip is to broaden participants’ understanding of the root causes of extreme poverty. While many of the teachers traveling with us have done research at home on the global issues we explore, nothing prepares them for the intense emotional and intellectual experience of spending a week in some of the world’s most impoverished communities.
I have noticed that even the most well-intentioned among our group often revert to stereotypes about poverty in order to make sense of the misery around us. In our first debriefing, participants express sadness and sympathy for the people we have visited. Then some offer suggestions: “If only they had more education and fewer children.” “If only the extreme heat didn’t dampen their motivation to work.” “If only their government wasn’t so corrupt.”
By the end of our week together, through site visits with teachers, community activists, and ordinary citizens, they can see the bias inherent in their “suggestions” as their understanding of extreme poverty becomes more complex. We consider how the island’s legacy of slavery, military occupation, and colonization formed the foundation for these conditions, and how debt, trade, and other current policies may be working to exacerbate them.
Much of our learning occurs through visits with Haitian migrant workers living in unspeakable conditions on Dominican bateyes (shanty towns). Unable to sustain themselves in Haiti, these migrants have crossed the border to find meager employment as cane cutters or day laborers, joining families who migrated before them or living among Haitian-Dominicans who were born into the batey life.
They invite us into their homes, cobbled together from found materials. Inside there is a dirt floor, no running water, and no sanitary toilets. Without birth certificates, they are subject to many different forms of discrimination and are among the most marginalized people in the world. It is the familiar story of the immigrant worker: They are needed but not wanted.
The teachers met with a former batey resident, Sonia Pierre, who now leads MUDHA (El Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana), a human rights organization advocating for the children born into bateyes. Sonia explained the troubling effects that this widespread discrimination has had on the batey children: “The saddest part of it all is that many times these children grow up ashamed of their origins. What will they have without their identity, roots, and values? This is what makes us human.” When Sonia herself was a child, her mother told her, “I don’t know how to tell you this story, but someday you will learn the real history of your people and your country.”
It is not easy to learn the “real story” of Haiti; mainstream historical accounts are often told through a distorted lens of racism and colonial exploitation. Even today, in the aftermath of the quake, Haiti’s poverty is blamed on poor leadership, a lack of democratic traditions, and isolation due to language. Commentators describe it as a dangerous place requiring foreign intervention, its people incapable of running their own affairs. This lays the groundwork for those who will try to use the disaster as an opportunity to “reshape” Haiti’s government and economy in a manner that will further impoverish its people while continuing to deny Haiti its rights to self-determination.
So as the Haitian people courageously struggle to respond to the disaster with little besides their bare hands, there is something else we must learn, and teach, from this tragic moment in history. There are two kinds of disasters: natural disasters and human-created ones. Haiti has experienced both.
When natural disasters occur, they capture the attention of the media and the general public. Less often discussed are human-created disasters—the preventable deaths caused by war, hunger, and disease. Even before the earthquake, Haiti suffered the highest rates of infant, under-five, and maternal mortality in the world. As year turns on year, socially created disasters rival the human toll of an earthquake.
Like the teachers I take to the Dominican Republic, our students feel sympathy for the Haitian people. But that is not enough. If they aren’t asked to consider the legacy of racism and systemic injustice that underlies extreme poverty, students may revert to stereotypical understandings of the poor, blaming their situation on a lack of education, a poor work ethic, or some other personal shortcoming. When students recognize our common problems, struggles, and interconnected histories, feelings of sympathy can mature to ones of empathy and, finally, solidarity. We can move from talking about charity to working for justice.
Let this tragedy be a call for us to partake in the Haitian spirit of konbit, the Creole word for cooperative collaboration. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is no justification for poverty in our age.”