Students and faculty from the Rutgers School of Public Health have visited the Dominican Republic since 2003 to provide public health services to impoverished Haitians living in “bateyes”. Bateyes are extremely poor communities of former sugar cane workers and their families who live without potable water or toilettes in cement barracks and tin and cardboard shacks. They have little or no access to schools, health care or social services. This is because, although born in the Dominican Republic, they are denied birth certificates and exist as stateless people.
This field experience is one part of a 3-credit course “Public Health Applications in Developing Countries” offered by the Health Systems and Policy Department of the Rutgers School of Public Health. For the course, students spend the first part of the semester preparing for the trip, doing assigned readings, planning public health projects (prevention, health education and primary care) and collecting materials and donations to bring into the field. The team then travel to the North Coast of the DR for a week where they work in the bateyes and other poor Haitian communities. Upon their return, students prepare papers and projects on various aspects of their experience in the bateyes.
Since 2006, the Project has expanded to a year round effort that provides educational, nutritional and health supports to Haitian orphans and children of impoverished single parents. This aspect of the project is undertaken in collaboration with residents of Costambar , a small international North Coast community, and project supporters from Canada and the US. Known as “Blanco's Kids,” the program is named after a Haitian informal community leader who has devoted his life to caring for impoverished and abandoned infants and children. Currently, 35 children have been placed in school and receive monthly food packages. Blanco's Kids is coordinated by Claudia Docker, a Costambar resident, who also has donated a land parcel to the project. A small home to house some of the children has been built and an adjacent school is nearing completion.
Since the early part of the 20th century, Haitians have been brought by sugar companies to the Dominican Republic to provide a cheap source of labor for the sugar cane industry. Desperate Haitians were recruited with promises of good wages, only to find deplorable living and working conditions equivalent to slavery. These work camps, known as “bateyes,” were built by the cane companies and government as temporary work quarters. Over the years, the camps became year round communities housing workers and their families, as well as those no longer able to work. The conditions in the bateyes were and remain poor to horrific. They lack toilettes, potable water, schools and health care. Able bodied men and children earned less than $2 per day cutting cane during the harvest season. Workers had no choice but to stay due to the presence of company guards and fear of deportation should they escape to try to find other work.
The situation changed in 2004 when the company that leases the two plantations on the North Coast stopped the harvest of cane for economic reasons. This had mixed consequences for Haitians living in the bateyes. One the one hand, they became free from the oversight of armed company guards, but, on the other hand, they have no work. The lack of work has lead to a partial depopulation of the bateyes as men move out to seek employment in the construction and agriculture. Their illegal status and fear of deportation allows employers to hire them for wages far below those acceptable to Dominican workers. This has left many women, children and the elderly in rural bateyes to fend for themselves.
The lack of work in the bateyes and the influx of Haitians escaping conditions of extreme poverty in Haiti have spurred the growth of Haitian enclaves in the backwaters of poor Dominican barrios and squatter communities of young Haitian men. While poor Haitians and Dominicans live in relative peace, the long standing national attitude of “anti-Hatianismo” remains and may be increasing as the number of Haitians in the country grow.
The January 12th 2010 earthquake destroyed the fabric of Haitian society. As anticipated this tragedy has increased the flow of illegal Haitians across the border into the Dominican Republic, as well as opened the door to sex and child trafficking by Dominicans and Haitians alike. The recent cholera outbreak in Haiti has made conditions even worse. Long standing fear and prejudice have been inflamed by concern about disease spread and the economic impact of a growing poor and homeless population on the country. Since January 2012, over 4,000 Haitians have been involuntarily deported to Haiti. They included women and children who were born in the Dominican Republic and who know no other home. Because of their lack of Dominican papers, they have no protection from being pulled off the streets or out of their homes and put into buses or the backs of trucks and involuntary dumped across the Haitian border.
Students and faculty work stay in the community of Costambar, located just west of Puerto Plata. We work in the bateyes and barrios that lie between Puerto Plata and the town of Imbert. Most are located within or near to the Amistad sugar cane plantation. The communities range from former work campus (bateyes) located in the midst of the cane fields, to poor Dominican barrios that in recent years have experienced an influx of Haitian residents.
Since 2004, the project has shifted from "drop in public health" were services were provided on an hoc basis in various communities, to ongoing community collaborations. Currently, we work in three bateyes - Loma Blanco, Canambra and Amistad - all located on the Amistad plantation, to provide parasite control and hypertension programs as well as other health education and primary care services. In addition, we give health education classes and parasite medication to Dominican and Haitian school children living in poor urban and rural areas. Students also work with Blanco Kids. They arrange for a one day beach party for the children during which they conduct a health assessment on each child and offer a range of health education and craft games and programs. Student efforts have been instrumental in providing school uniforms and supplies for the children as well as contributing to the construction of "Blanco's Place."
Upon return from the Dominican Republic, students are required to complete a research or service project. These projects have been invaluable in the development of health education materials and other resources for future trips. Student reports and publications have served as means of informing the university community and public at large of the social, economic and health conditions of women and children who are born and live in a country that forces them to exist as stateless people.