At the Haitian-Dominican border, a ministry to help the displaced who 'fight to survive'

Malpasse, Haiti - During Sr. Bernadette D'Souza's first visit to the Haitian-Dominican border, she cried.

She was surrounded by more than a dozen young men who were either Haitian or Dominicans of Haitian descent. They had just been deported from the neighboring Dominican Republic, a Spanish-speaking country with a long and uneasy relationship with Creole-speaking Haiti, which is now, because of what critics call racism against Haitians and the vicissitudes of internal Dominican politics, deporting hundreds each day.

The men were stuck at the border because they did not have the money to take a bus to rejoin their families in Haiti, many of whom live in the capital of Port-au-Prince, about 40 miles from Malpasse. Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) welcomes the men and tries to help them locate families in Haiti. The organization's mission is to help those who have no other means to leave the border area.

D'Souza, who is from India, joined JRS on a recent Thursday, as did her fellow sister from the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, Sr. Maria Maglene Pinto of Brazil. Pinto had been to the border before and knew its disorder, uncertainty and dread.

But D'Souza was startled, amazed and not a little incredulous that she and others working with a team from JRS were the only ones offering any kind of support to the young men.

"Why isn't UNHCR here?" she said, referring to the United Nations' refugee agency. "There is no other presence to welcome them."

The Catholic sister paused, wiping away tears.

"And where is the presence of the country?" she asked, referring to Haiti government officials who she said should have been here but, as is often the case in a country with a weak, understaffed and underfunded government, had left the job of determining what should happen next to a nongovernmental group — in this case, the Jesuits, helped by the sisters.

To Carolle Devaiene, a JRS border worker, the scene was all too familiar: "Here, it is a fight to survive."

D'Souza is not only new to the border, she is new to Haiti — here only two months. Coming from a lengthy time in Rwanda, where there is a now a sense of order and stability after the country's traumatic genocide of 1994, she has been amazed by Haiti's disorder: trash on the streets, unpaved roads, and Port-au-Prince's gridlocked traffic. And now this, a chaotic scene at the small border outpost of Malpasse, where the sun beats down relentlessly amid a desert-like backdrop: windy, dusty and oppressive.

Different paths, similar problems

Though anxious to welcome the young men and proud to be a part of a team that "affirms the dignity" of the deportees, D'Souza said she "wanted to go deeper" and ask them why they had left Haiti to live and work in the neighboring Dominican Republic in the first place.

In a small, enclosed area with two tables and a bench that serves as a JRS work station, three young men told their stories, which carried a similar theme: the need to make a living. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with 8 out of 10 people living in poverty. Half of the country lives in abject poverty.

All of the men also said they had been held by Dominican officials in a cramped, unclean space until they were deported. One of them estimated that 41 men slept one night in a 50-square-foot room.

Elinès Louis, 26, was born in Haiti and had lived in the Dominican Republic for six years. A construction worker, he was unable to find work in Haiti but found employment in the Dominican Republic for 400 pesos a day, about U.S. $9.

"Not bad work," he said.

The reason for his deportation? He did not have proper papers. His birth certificate was still with family back home in northwest Haiti.

Louis sent money regularly to his wife and 5-year-old daughter. In some ways, he said, he welcomed the chance to return home to see his family, and he also felt the weight of racism and discrimination in Haiti. He did not like "the way people [in the Dominican Republic] talk about us," he said.

Lucmane Rénélus, 25, had a similar experience. The carpenter was not able to find work in northern Haiti and had lived and worked in the Dominican Republic for two years. Immigration agents entered his home, suspecting he did not have legal documents to stay in the Dominican Republic. They were right: Like Louis, Rénélus did not have the papers — visa and passport — needed to stay in the country legally.

But unlike Louis, he is not looking forward to returning to Haiti because of the difficulty in finding work. He was also distressed because he still has family, a brother, in the Dominican Republic.

The third young man, Jean Charles Nickenson, 22, had been in the Dominican Republic for the shortest amount of time: five months, doing construction. He was caught up in a dragnet only the day before his deportation while going to work. Though he said he was happy to have had a job in the Dominican Republic, he said, "They don't treat Haitians well." Nonetheless, given his limited options in Haiti, Nickenson said he might try his luck and return to the Dominican Republic.

Two of the men had crossed the border into the Dominican Republic on their own. Another had used a trafficker to help him get across what is an unprotected, fluid border. One of the three admitted to having forged documents.

The stories did not surprise Jesuit Fr. Jean Robert Déry, who helps oversee the JRS operation at the border, including running a shelter for minors and young adults. JRS can't afford more shelters, and the one it does run is funded through support from other nongovernmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services and UNICEF.

At the JRS shelter, several gathered at a table to share their experiences. The oldest man, Esteben Bertran, 33, is of Haitian descent but was born in the Dominican Republic. Bertran said he had every right to remain in the Dominican Republic, but authorities told him that the birth certificate he showed them was fake. The certificate he showed authorities was a replacement copy, but he said the document was, and is, legally valid.

"Being black in the DR means for many immigration agents that one is Haitian, and that is why he was deported," Déry said.

Bertran was frustrated at his predicament.

"It's a legitimate, good paper," he said.

His wife, Leomen Augustine, 28, also of Haitian descent, remains in the Dominican Republic and was upset about the deportation, Bertran said. The family of four depends on Bertran's income as a construction worker, as does Bertran's Haitian mother, who also lives in the Dominican Republic and has lived there for almost 40 years. A Spanish lawyer collaborating with JRS was working on the case.

In the meantime, Bertran, though calm, felt anxious and uncertain.

"It's like I am in limbo," he said. "Sentimentally, I'm Haitian, but under the law, I am Dominican." With a foot in two cultures, he appreciates both countries yet does not mince words about the experiences of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans in the Dominican Republic. "Dominican people are racist. They hate to see the black Haitians."

"There are problems all the time" for Haitians, he said. "Haitians are [seen as] the devil."

The good news for Bertran is that, after a little over a week in the shelter, nine days in all, he was able to return to the Dominican Republic.

Not so a teenager in the shelter whom Bertran had befriended.

Yakeldi Jose is a 17-year-old born in the Dominican Republic who, unlike Bertran, speaks little Creole. He has no family in Haiti. Jose's deportation stemmed from his having no legal papers at all: His mother, now deceased, did not obtain a birth certificate when Jose was born.

In the shelter, Bertran took Jose under his wing, trying to help the teenager but also worried for him.

"He's very innocent," Bertran said.

Déry said he remained optimistic that Jose would eventually be reunited with his family in the Dominican Republic — both JRS and UNHCR were working on the case. "The process is always long," he said.

The cost in disrupted lives and hardships to deportees and their families are what worry D'Souza, Pinto and Déry. All of the cases are troubling, but particularly worrisome are the cases, like Bertran's and Jose's, in which people are sent across the border without means or real ties in Haiti.

"If you can't speak Creole and you're deported, that is clearly discriminatory," Déry said of Jose's case. "And how can survive if you don't have family here?"

At the border, disorder and chaos

The deportations also worry human rights organizations such as New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In its country report on the Dominican Republic, it noted that Dominican authorities are still responding to a 2013 court ruling that "stripped citizenship from tens of thousands of Dominicans of migrant descent, mostly of Haitian origin." The ruling was a milestone in the often-tense relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The ruling, Reuters reported, retroactively denied Dominican nationality "to anyone born after 1929 who does not have at least one parent of Dominican blood or legal resident of the Dominican Republic, under a constitutional clause declaring all others to be either in the country illegally or 'in transit.' "

Though human rights groups have been chipping away at the law with appeals, deportations continue.

"More than 66,000 people voluntarily returned to Haiti in the summer of 2015, but some migrants told human rights groups they were forcibly removed or fled the country in fear of mob violence," the Human Rights Watch report said. A naturalization law aimed at restoring "various citizenship rights to those affected has been fraught with flaws, and many eligible people remain unable to resolve their status."

In one of the most sobering examples of violence, Amnesty International reported that in February 2015, "the body of a Haitian migrant was found hanging from a tree in a park in [the city of] Santiago. There were fears that he may have been the victim of a xenophobic killing."

Jesuit Fr. Lissaint Antoine, who heads the JRS operations in Haiti, said racism against Haitians is behind the deportations, as is the charge that Haitians are taking jobs away from Dominicans.

Whatever the cause, he said, the mechanics of deportation on the Dominican side are chaotic, arbitrary and deeply unfair.

"There is no real process," he said. "It's not right."

And with an uncontrolled border, many migrants return to the Dominican Republic at great risk, some using traffickers to assist them. Traffickers will bribe border agents to assist them, while other immigration agents "are connected directly with enterprises that work in construction and farming that pay them money to let the Haitians cross the border because they are good and cheap laborers," Déry said.

Déry said JRS believes migrants have the right to travel back and forth between the two countries, though he also said those without legal documents are taking a risk, as the Dominican Republic has a legal right to deport those without papers. But those who were born in the Dominican Republic "should have a right to stay," he said.

He agreed with D'Souza that the Haitian government needs to have a more robust presence at the border to assist those who have been deported.

"We don't see the government helping the migrants," he said.

Déry and the sisters also don't see the current Haitian government, which is headed by an interim president until early next year, doing much to help with the dire need for jobs and economic improvement. Pinto has been in Haiti for three years and has had countless people ask her to help get to Brazil.

"Even the children ask me that," said Pinto, who works with JRS in a volunteer capacity.

Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Brazil became a top destination for Haitian migrants, Déry said. Brazil welcomed Haitians, and they were "well received." They were able to receive legal status in Brazil, and the result is that "many Haitians are leaving Haiti to go to Brazil to look for a better way of life," he said.

However, with Brazil's recent economic downturn, the welcome has turned sour. As a result, more Haitians see Brazil as simply one stop in an arduous hemispheric journey that takes them through South and Central America and then Mexico before their final destination, the United States. That has prompted the U.S. government to resume a policy of deporting undocumented Haitians who enter the United States and warning Haitians not to attempt the journey.

'It's injustice, it's injustice'

For the moment, Pinto and D'Souza are trying to determine how to best assist JRS in its migrant ministry near the border while also trying to develop income-generating projects to "keep people from migrating," D'Souza said.

"It would be best to convince Haitians to stay in their own country, rather than be mistreated in a country that is hostile to them, and try to help them with some income-generating projects like goat-rearing, poultry-rearing or trying to be innovative in the use of the resources of the country," she said.

Though she is still doing research, D'Souza said she is intrigued by the possibilities in Haiti: "For example, cashew nuts, groundnuts, passionfruit are available in the country. Preparing concentrates of passionfruit and bottling it would help as people could be encouraged to cultivate the fruit to be sold."

With her nearly 30 years of experience in Africa, and with Pope Francis making the plight of migrants a cause for concern among Catholics, D'Souza sees the Haitian-Dominican situation as part of a larger global problem of helping and treating migrants with humanity and dignity but also seeking solutions to crises that cause migration in the first place.

That is in keeping with her congregation's charism, which she describes as being "like leaven in the dough and transforming society."

Her colleague agrees.

"It is difficult to give people hope, but we try," Pinto said, noting that Haiti's problems are connected. For example, persistent drought has made farming in the border areas almost impossible, requiring people to seek jobs that do not exist. So people look for ways to make do, often with great difficulty. The results? Poverty, certainly, but also hunger.

Another group of Latin American sisters working with JRS at the border see the similar problems and are trying to provide solutions. Members of an intercongregational mission — Comunidad Intercongregacional Misionera, or CIM — are working with a larger religious coalition to help build housing near Port-au-Prince for the deportees, as well those who remain displaced from the effects of Haiti's massive 2010 earthquake. The sisters are also working to develop income-generating microcredit programs.

A big part of what the sisters do is to simply provide a pastoral presence, listening to people's experiences at the border and the small communities near the border. The sisters' experiences with the migrants have made the sisters emphatic on the subject of the deportations.

"Oh, it's injustice, it's injustice," said Sr. Clemencia Rodríguez Hidalgo of Ecuador.

"Of course it's injustice. They are Dominican," said Sr. Maria del Carmen Santoya González of Mexico.

Sr. Rosa Maria del Socorro López Castañeda of Mexico said numerous migrants have told the sisters of unfair and cruel treatment in the Dominican Republic, including officials tearing up their legal documents and calling them derogatory, racist names.

Though the majority of migrants are men, a smaller number of women are also among the migrants, including those who are being trafficked for sexual exploitation. This includes minors, they said, who are sometimes sold by their parents.

"They don't do this because they don't love their children, but because the families are living in such a bad situation," Santoya said.

The sisters counsel those who have been deported that it is better to remain in Haiti than try to return to the Dominican Republic, though they say that no matter what they do, the migrants should always have legal papers if they do decide to cross the border.

In response, the migrants sometimes say the sisters don't fully grasp their reality. And the sisters understand why they say that. But in the sisters' modest "gestures of mercy and humanity" in accompanying them, Rodríguez said they have come to understand the migrants' dilemma.

The refrain among those, like the sisters, who work among the migrants? If we were in their situation, Rodríguez said, "we might try to escape, too."

After reflecting upon her first experience at the border, D'Souza agrees.

"I was emotionally upset as I empathized with the migrants and put myself in their shoes: 'I am hungry and have other needs. I try my best to work hard and then I am badly treated and everything is lost.'

"This hurts."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is]