Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Dominican Connection

Line Wolf Nielsen, currently on assignment in Haiti for SOS Children's Villages, explores the relationship between two countries that share an island.

It is true what my guidebook says: although both are situated on the Island of Hispaniola, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are very much not alike.

In Haiti people speak French and Creole, in the Dominican Republic it's Spanish and there is a decidedly European-colonial flavor, whereas in Haiti the African roots from the times of slavery is ever dominantly visible in, say, voodoo religion and facial features. Also, there's the difference in political stability, levels of GDP, education and standards of living.

There have been decades of animosity and periods of war, but when the earthquake hit Haiti, the old foe immediately opened up airports and border crossings to allow for humanitarian assistance to flow. In fact, the morning after vans full of water, food, medical supplies and field hospitals were on their way across the border, on direct orders from the Dominican Government.

Also, in the border town of JimanĂ­ several emergency aid points were quickly erected and local hospitals were emptied of non-essential patients in order to make room for those Haitians who had managed to make their way out of the quake-affected area.

For SOS Children's Villages Dominican Republic, the emergency work in Haiti has meant something of a constant extra workload. A steady flow of SOS co-workers travel in and out, en route to Port-au-Prince and I imagine the SOS drivers know their way to the airport very well by now!

Buying cars, vans and food for the emergency operation has been an added task for the national office, which has also had to deal with customs paper work, flight logistics - and unaccompanied children arriving across the border from Haiti.

On a recent visit I got to meet 16 children from Haiti, now in the care of the SOS Children's Village Los Jardines in the Dominican Republic. They where all sitting on the front porch of a house learning Spanish and did not seem to mind being far from home in the least bit. In fact, when asked most said they felt reluctant to return to Port-au-Prince.

"In Haiti there is not much of anything. Here there are many schools and toys to play with," a girl of 10 told me - in French - before she skirted off to play with a new Dominican friend on the playground. I overheard the two girls communicate in Spanish - proof of a healthy and speedy integration - and later saw her share a tight hug with the SOS mother in the house she lived in. She will have a hard time leaving again, I am afraid.

All the Haitian children await investigations into their family situation and will, in due time, be repatriated to Haiti either in order to be reunited with family or - if fully abandoned or orphaned - to be enrolled in one of the SOS Children's Villages in Haiti for long-term family-based care. Whatever their situation, I hope they will think of the Dominican Republic as a truly good neighbor in Haiti's hour of need.