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The plight of Haitian migrants trapped in Dominican Republic shantytowns spurs students to take action.

Social Justice, Up Close and Personal

By Jody Record '95 Bookmark and Share

The story of poverty is the same everywhere. People who are hungry, who don't have running water, who need a doctor but can't afford it. In the bateys of the Dominican Republic, the story is complicated for a population of Haitians who have no rights.

For years, Haitians migrated east to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugarcane and, ironically, to escape the severe poverty in their homeland. They lived in shantytowns called bateys, collections of barracks and shacks each with only two rooms for as many as 15 people, made of salvaged cardboard and wood and corrugated metal. The migrants' children were born there, and their children's children. Wages were low, but there were wages.

Today, manufacturing and tourism have outpaced sugar production, leaving most of the cane cutters without work, and the bateys are some of the poorest communities in the county. The residents lack access to education, clean water, electricity and health care.

Denied citizenship by the Dominican Republic, many of the Haitian children don't have birth certificates, a vital document needed to go on to school after eighth grade, to vote, to receive government services. Their parents, indebted to the company towns, find conditions no better than what they came from, but they can't leave.

Matthew Toms '09G is confronted with this story every spring when he travels to the Caribbean island with students from the social work class he teaches at UNH, which focuses on issues of race, culture, and social justice in the Dominican Republic. And he's confronted with it on the service trips he leads there through the Batey Foundation, a nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2009 with Joshua Lawton '01 to help better the lives of the people in the bateys.

"Most people have an intellectual sense of poverty, but when you spend time in the bateys, you leave saying, 'Now I have a friend who is living in those conditions,' and your sense of poverty changes," Toms says. "Although working in the sugarcane fields was comparable to modern day slavery, at least there was some way to bring even minimal income into a family. In the bateys where we work, there is often nothing coming in."

Lawton took his first trip to the Dominican Republic with Toms after completing his master's degree in globalization studies at Dartmouth in 2004. "It took me about a day in the bateys to realize that my life dream would be to work with and for the people in the bateys," Lawton says. "The living conditions and human rights abuses are terrible."

The Batey Foundation is working to change those circumstances. It is a slow process; there is no paid staff. Both Toms and Lawton have full-time jobs at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H. When they can, Toms and Lawton lead service trips to the Dominican Republic with high schools and universities. They also started a scholarship program to help children in the bateys further their education, and have begun building a school and a community center.

During this year's spring break, Toms and his UNH students helped build a cistern in La Duquesa, a batey where water bought from a truck (the batey has none) costs 50 pesos (about $1.50) for enough non-potable water to fill a 50-gallon drum and 40 pesos for a clear plastic jug of drinking water. They also worked to finish a roof on the community center.

Ellie Wilson '12 is a social work major. The service trip to the Dominican Republic influenced her in such a powerful way that she has decided to focus on international social work.

"Seeing the effect extreme poverty has on the lives of children and adults living in batey communities was devastating," Wilson says. "I have spent years reading about the living conditions that individuals in extreme poverty endure. Physically seeing it puts life into perspective.

"It has been difficult adjusting to life back in Americ—the culture, and people. The children and families I met in the batey communities are constantly on my mind. I wonder if they are safe and happy. I want them to have all the things that I have been privileged to have access to—food, shelter, health care and education."

Toms is not surprised by Wilson's response, or that Sarah Ake, who is pursuing a master's degree in social work from UNH Manchester, says the trip has challenged her to think about the impact that poverty has on people, and what engaged global citizens can do about it.

"It makes you reconsider what you do in your own life, how to spread awareness and what the next steps are or could be," she says.

Lawton says that one of the reasons a visit to the Dominican Republic is so memorable is because it's such a mix of opposites. There is poverty and a lack of even the most basic resources, but the culture is "lively and inviting," he notes, "the children amazing, and island beautiful."

Adds Toms, "People who go come back with not only a better sense of what poverty is but a greater sense of self, and the role we all play in the world. Joshua and I take students down and introduce them to the people in the bateys and, without having to say anything, it's easy for them to see why they should get involved."

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