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Local efforts making a difference: Quality of life improving for migrant workers

February 22, 2024   ·   0 Comments

By Mark Pavilons

Two Bolton women and Peel teachers were among a small group of volunteers, who travelled to the Dominican Republic in January to spread hope.

And they did just that.

Several years ago, students from St. Michael Catholic Secondary School in Bolton participated in an annual mission trip to El Seibo, Dominican Republic. The group assisted native Dominicans as well as the Haitian community there, staying at a missionary centre run by the Daughters of Mary (les Filles de Marie). Also joining them were students and staff from Father Michael Goetz secondary school in Mississauga.

A few decided to rekindle the mission, and headed back, extending their support to the cause.

Lexie Hesketh-Pavilons, a St. Mike’s graduate, went on the mission every year during high school. She is currently taking her Master of Disaster and Emergency Management (MDEM) at York University.

“The DR missions in high school have made me who I am today,” she said. “They’re the reason I’ve developed this strong of a passion to make helping others –  life long journey.

A school, located at the missionary centre, now receives government funding and the teachers are now being paid.

Sister Maude can use all of the financial donations to for the people and to expand her centre to house and educate more people.

“The highlight (of the trip this year) is her, her impact.”

The group donated bags filled with necessities to families in need, but Hesketh-Pavilons pointed out this is only temporary relief. The donated clothing will, eventually, wear and tear.

“Donations are temporary, but Sister Maude’s dedication and efforts to the people are long lasting and progressive. And being able to offer the assistance for her work and doing what I can-makes all the difference. Supporting someone you trust has a deeper impact.”

Things are finally improving for the migrant workers. Lexie noted housing has improved and workers’ rights are now posted on the front gate of the sugar cane office.

Whether or not rights are being guaranteed is unknown.

“The bigger problem lies in the system that fails to govern and prioritize the lives of a neighbouring country that is not livable (Haiti) and refugees who have fled to the DR have not fled by choice.

“There is a lack of refugee assistance in the DR. Haitian refugees are not considered citizens (still) but are being taken advantage of in the Dominican labour force because they are cheap labour.

“The flawed system remains, and we continue to live in a world that discriminates against refugees, depicts them as problems the world wishes it didn’t have, and rejects offering refuge to people who didn’t ask to be refugees in the first place. 

“Natural disaster strikes and someone has to provide refugees with hope to transition into a new life. The world needs to respond to refugees, and give refugees a chance to recover from a life they did not choose to suffer from.”

Urszula Cybulko, former Chaplain at St. Mikes, noted we are in relationship with our sisters and brothers in this world.

“We meet each other in our own ‘poverty.’ We came to ‘give’ but we always ‘receive’ more,” she observed.

Group members returned with very little “stuff” since they left most of the suitcases, but “we returned with so many blessings.”

“The joy we brought back is priceless. The encounters we had recharged our capacity to understand the value of human dignity and the need for community. The power of love is the most valuable currency that humanity needs to acquire in order build what is needed in this life.”

She said a “final exam question in this life” could very well be how is our relationship with the poor.

“To answer it, we need to understand our own poverty first.” 

Volunteer Bob Ryan shared his vantage point.

He noted the small band of travellers shared a humble residence with an order of Haitian nuns.

From a rooftop perch, the visitors shared thoughts of each day’s events.

They soaked in the sounds of a vibrant community.

“There are other realities, however, that underlie the outward signs of a thriving community,” he said.

“The majority of the sugar cane workforce in the DR are of Haitian descent and live in shanty towns called bateyes. They or their parents have left Haiti with dreams of a better economic future. Now, many live stateless in the DR without immigration papers and resigned to work as cane cutters under difficult working conditions while receiving substandard wages.

“We witnessed these realities on our visits to some of the most remote bateyes, distributing bags of basic foodstuffs. The yellow No-Frills bags (the irony did not escape us) contained essentials: rice, beans, flour, oil, spaghetti, brown sugar, corn meal, and sardines. Enough to feed a small family for one week.

“Living in such close proximity to the classrooms and seniors’ residence we were immersed in the life-rhythms of these Haitians on a daily basis. Despite the language barriers there was a willingness to interact by painting nails, braiding hair, shooting hoops, blowing bubbles and playing dominoes.”

The first-time volunteer extended a special thanks to Sr. Maude, who has a vision of what justice, creativity, and hope looks like now and in the future for Haitians living in the DR.

The situation on the island nation of Hispaniola is unique. It’s a case of the poor (Dominicans) oppressing an even poorer neighbour (Haitians). While the Dominican Republic enjoys certain economic and tourism income, Haiti remains impoverished (rated as the poorest country in the Americas). Conditions there were exacerbated by the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that left more than 300,000 dead and 1.6 million homeless. The country has yet to recover from this disaster.

Many Haitians have moved to the Dominican in search of a better life, yet it’s all within a developing nation, and there are limitations on Haitian immigration.

Though long known for sugar production, the DR’s economy is now dominated by services.

Unemployment, government corruption, and interruptions in electricity remain major Dominican problems. The country also has noticeable income inequality. International migration affects the Dominican Republic as it receives and sends large flows of migrants. Haitian immigration and the integration of Dominicans of Haitian descent are major issues.



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