After my first day on the ground here, I find myself thinking back....about the home I grew up in, and the daily ritual of sitting down for dinner together that was a central part of my childhood.
Storytelling was a central part of that daily dinner experience. My sister and I, and then my parents, would share highlights from our respective days. Then we would widen the circle of conversation and share "gossip" about friends or extended family members. Finally - particularly as my sister and I grew older - there was always room in the conversation to talk about what was going on in the rest of the world vis a vis current events.
I'm not sure if the credit goes to my parents, for making that last space available...or to my sixth grade teacher Betty Wilson...who opened my eyes up to the world simply by encouraging me to watch the evening news and then come in the next day and talk to her about it.
I share this with you as a long way of spelling out a fundamental truism that I carry with me: that what is happening to other people in the world matters to me.
It shouldn't make a difference in terms of how many miles away they are. Or if their skin color or religion or language is different from mine.
What happens to other people matters to me.
Of course there is something fundamentally Jewish about that idea. We are all created in God's image. Every person carries a spark of God within them. Those are things I teach our young people regularly today. But I'm not sure I knew the Jewishness of the idea back then.
All of that is a really long introduction - a defense, if you will, of why what I witnessed and experienced yesterday matters to me. Why it changed me as a person. And why I hope it will change you.
Beyond the irrationality of racism...and the irrationality of the unique racism here that informs the way that too many Dominicans look down on Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent...the only word that I can describe what I experienced yesterday is "kafkaesque".
For a basic introduction to the problem, you can read about it here. And if you haven't already done so, of course you should check out the spread from the New York Times from a few days ago here. (We are hoping that the Times piece will spark new interest and concern in this issue.)
The painting, pictured above, illustrates the problem. The painting hangs on the wall of the Bono community center (run by the Jesuits) which we visited yesterday. if you look closely at the two workers bent over on the bottom left of the painting - the one on the right is carrying a Haitian passport. To his right is an Immigration bus that is rounding up Haitians to deport them. The paradox of the painting, of course, is its suggestion that the Dominican Republic was built on the backs of Haitians and those of Haitian descent....and that the country is literally lifted up and supported by/because of them.
I'll just share one story from yesterday to try to highlight the kafkaesque society I am temporarily living in.
His mother is Haitian. His father has long since left. Although Ignacio was born in the DR and has spent his entire life here, his birth was never properly recognized by the Dominican government because of his family's Haitian descent. He and his three brothers and their mother live a life of poverty in a batey - a closed ghetto-like community where they often stay to avoid contact with immigration authorities who have threatened to deport any Dominican who does not have proper papers.
The one thing Ignacio has going for him is his ability to play baseball.
I'm not sure if you know that the DR is a pipeline for Major League Baseball talent. Every year, MLB pumps more than $70 million into the Dominican economy to support an infrastructure that will produce the next generation of MLB baseball stars.
Ignacio could be one of them. He has been offered contracts by the San Diego Padres and the Kansas City Royals! But both have asked him to produce proper identification (to prove his identity) before signing the contract.
The Dominican Junta which has total authority over citizenship and over all national elections has refused Ignacio's repeated requests. They insist that he go to the Haitian Embassy to get his Haitian papers. But of course Haiti does not know that Ignacio exists! He was born in the DR and raised as a Dominican!
Ignacio is just one story out of more than 200,000 that have been rendered stateless by the longstanding racism of this country.
But this goes beyond racism and discrimination.
It is just one example of a larger program that seems to me to resemble ethnic cleansing, as the DR seeks to wipe its society free of anyone that isn't a "pure blooded Dominican."
It was heartbreaking and frightening to hear Ignacio's story - and those of others - yesterday during our visit with the incredible people at Reconocido, an advocacy organization here that AJWS helps to fund.
More later in the week about the advocacy we can be doing to address this terrible crisis. For now: just Ignacio's story. And the gentle assertion that his story should be our story.