Category Archives: Citizenship

Living in limbo

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Photos and words by Shelby Wolfe

The first thing that strikes you about Bernadette Pierre is the way she bundles her long skirt together when she walks, tiptoeing around her own family members to avoid drawing attention. She glances at her husband and kids, smiles sweetly and looks away. She spends most of her day in her small, crowded kitchen mashing plantains and cooking rice. She serves her family first and takes whatever is left for herself, sometimes only a fourth of the first three portions.

Even though she hasn’t felt accepted since she decided to come to the Dominican Republic, taking care of her family and members of the community comes first.

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This is a story about a family that is both Dominican and Haitian in a country that says, officially, you can’t be both. They live on a bateye, a community where generations of Haitians were housed to provide cheap labor in the sugar cane plantations. The family members own their land now but they are still poor subsistence farmers. Both parents want a better life for the children but the new law denying Haitians citizenship threatens their ability to break the cycle of rural poverty by denying the children access to higher education. However, the family still has faith that somehow their lives can change for the better.

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David is the youngest son and was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Most days he walks 14 kilometers from home to help his father harvest plantains, yucca and potatoes as a source of income. His dream is to become a lawyer so he can help people achieve justice and peace, but the law won’t allow it. When he returned home one day after work, he laid down in the middle of the concrete floor next to the worn and feeble dining set. He stayed like that, staring at nothing, for a long time as if he was stuck, knowing he’s destined to follow his father’s footsteps in the plantation fields.

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Johnny Pollera

Words by Anna Gronewold
Photos by Andrew Dickinson

“Little Fockers” is playing on TV.

The voices are dubbed to Spanish and the black and white picture mixes with static. But Ghertha rearranges a couple handfuls of live wires – electricity borrowed from neighbors – and Ben Stiller joins the family all morning.

Gherta and Juan Roberto live in El Cercado in a cracked wooden house that sits a couple meters back from the street. “Johnny Pollera” is painted in peeling letters on the side. They’re not the only Haitian family in town, but they are Haitian, so they stick out.

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The kids lose interest in the movie. Ten-year-old Berlinda dances in and out the door, and 2-year-old Julia slides around the floor on empty charcoal sacks, screaming and giggling. Five-month-old Diefly naps and endures Berlinda’s pokes. He doesn’t cry.

Diefly was born in El Cercado in July. He has a birth certificate, labeled “extranjero,” or foreigner. I ask his mother if Diefly is Haitian or Dominican. She doesn’t know. He was born in the Dominican Republic, Ghertha says. That doesn’t answer the question.

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For the past decade the courts have shifted and blocked birthright citizenship laws for children of Haitian parents. A child born in the Dominican Republic is not automatically a citizen. Citizenship goes only to those who can prove they have one documented parent. Finally in September, the Dominican Republic’s high court legalized the policy that ruled citizenship can only be granted to children born to one Dominican parent since 1929.

Diefly is neither Haitian nor Dominican.

The infant’s father had been traveling back and forth between the two countries for years before he brought his family to live in El Cercado 18 months ago. Life is better here, he says.

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It’s a slow rhythm of shelling peas, greeting neighbors and making sure Berlinda’s games don’t injure other children. There are about two weeks of construction work for every two months of unemployment, and Juan Roberto fills the time with Dominoes and farming a few acres of rented land.

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But if you’re Haitian, and you’re poor, you are nothing, Juan Roberto says.

“Our only value is to work.”

I ask Ghertha what she wants. Not what she needs, but what she really wants. A house, she says, of my own. Johnny Pollera, translated “Johnny hencoop” or “Johnny chicken run” is rented for 600 pesos a month. Ghertha does not know Johnny or his pollera, and neither does Maricia, her neighbor. But I can’t stop staring at the foreign label, on a house they’ve worked to make a home, in a country that won’t really take them in.

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“Home is here”

I spent the day yesterday at Hato Nuevo Bateye, a rural slum in the northeast part of the island, interviewing generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent who have lost their citizenship. The people welcomed me, and approached me, anxious to tell me their story. These people are all facing the same issue, but it affects them in many different ways.

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Alicia Bili is a 50-year-old Haitian woman who has lived and raised a family in the Dominican Republic for 25 years, and according to the new law, she and her children don’t belong in this country. “Not having papers is like a disease for me.”

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Yesenia Camilo, a 28-year-old mother of five, was denied a birth certificate for her newborn son, even though she has never lived anywhere else. “We have no family in Haiti, so we have no place to go.”

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Bernadette Pierre, a 50-year-old woman from Haiti, came to the DR to work in 1994. Here, she met her husband, Deriuse Augustine, 48, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. The couple has three children ages 17, 16, and 13. Because the children are half Dominican and half Haitian, they have also lost their citizenship. Without papers, they cannot get IDs, or receive an education. “We have been living here our whole life together and now we have nothing.”

 After hearing these people’s reactions to the new law, I asked them what they loved about this country. They answered, in general, that they love the people here because they treat each other with kindness, and they all have faith in God. When I asked each of them where their home is, they all answered, “home is here.”

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"Not having papers is like a disease for me."

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20131229_Wolfe_Bateye_177– Shelby