On July 3rd, 2015 a group of 12 students and 3 chaperones from Cristo Rey Brooklyn traveled to the Dominican Republic to build a basketball/volleyball court. However, our experience and hard work began several months before. By December of 2014, the team of student participants had been chosen and they began the work of preparing for the trip. In order to make the trip possible our students, who all come from low-income families themselves, had to work for months planning and executing several fundraising events to raise the necessary funds for travel, lodging, and court materials. Through a blessing and amazing opportunity, the students were able to secure a donor who helped them to make the trip a reality. Students who had traveled to the Dominican Republic the year before on a Courts For Kids project began to speak to the group about building community relations, accommodations, and the actual physical labor that would go into building the court. Although, these talks engendered some nervousness most of all they created an excitement that would carry into the trip.
Although four students were of Dominican descent and one of Haitian descent, all had been raised in the United States, and so the time before the trip was really a chance to learn about the history, political climate, and relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The students spent time reading articles and talking to family members and friends about their upcoming trip, but mostly they spent time spreading the news about how everyone in our community could be involved in helping to make the court a reality for a small community in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, I’m still not sure if the pre-trip preparations would fully prepare the students for what was to come when they finally arrived to Santo Domingo at 2 am the morning of July 4th. One student, who was returning for her second year of service, recounts the tale in the following way:
It is the chance of a lifetime when you can help out just one person, but when you can help an entire community the blessings are almost incomprehensible. During our time in the Dominican Republic, that is exactly what we did and I’m not even sure we have fully taken in all that we have learned from our experience. Not only did we help a community by giving their youth a fun legitimate place of play, but they also gave us their friendship and invited us into their daily lives. We built a relationship with the entire community, from the kids to the elders; we saw them all in their true essence while they worked, ate, and played. Having been on this trip last year prepared me for some of the things we did but the two trips were completely different experiences for a variety of reasons.
We arrived at Santo Domingo airport exhausted, hungry, and slightly irritated at 2 in the morning. Immediately, we knew that this would be no ordinary Fourth of July celebration. We knew that we would have a bus ride from the capital to our worksite but were not quite sure how long we would be on that bus. From the stories of our classmates and the encouragements from our chaperones, we did know that this may be the last solid opportunity for air conditioning and in the muggy heat, we were prepared to take full advantage of it. After a six hour bus ride, we arrived to Los Cerezos, a small village in the Dajabon province of the Dominican Republic. Everything was on one road and we could see the court site from our house. Upon arrival we did not see many locals and because it was Sunday we knew that we wouldn’t begin work that day so we took the opportunity to set up our beds, mosquito nets, and look at the site where we would build the court. Then we headed to a local river about 20 minutes from where we were located and there ensued the fun. Luckily, we were able to bring along a small group of kids from the community and it was insanely fun. At first we didn’t talk much but soon after a series of mounting water fights, we began to open up and feel quite comfortable with the kids. The locals would be relentlessly splashing our group and we would open fire right back on them. By the end of the river trip everyone was spending time together as a colossal group of advisors, kids, and locals and it was just amazing how well everyone was meshing with each other–language barriers and all. On the way back from the river, sounds of bachata and dembo flooded the bus and we were able to see how the locals would (for lack of a better word to capture their carefree and happy energy) jam out to their music. There were many laughs shared this day. I was so glad we were able to go to the river on the first day because when we had come last year all we did was see the court and start work the next day, but this time we got a fun day. It would be the beginning of a week filled with learning new songs, dances, and information about the community and country we were serving in.
The next day, when the working commenced, all the returners were beyond excited to start. The land had been fabulously prepared for us so all of the picking of packed red clay and leveling the land inch by inch had already been completely taken care of, which was a weight off of our shoulders. During our work week we had to make cement for the flooring, build the wall that went halfway around the court, and make sure that the backboards were well positioned and could withstand the weight of a dunk! It took three solid days of rigorous work and long hours running water back and forth from the well, shoveling rocks and sand, and just being ready to do whatever it was Chucho, the contractor, needed us to do. After, there were two days of light work that included watering down the court so the cement could settle and finishing up the retaining wall. Although the work load was less rigorous when comparing this year to last year, we still had to be reminded to stay hydrated as many of us were not used to working in the heat. As a team we would remind each other to go get a drink even if we didn’t want to stop working. It was a nice flow of work because we had the freedom to choose where we wanted to be working as long as there was an even distribution of people at each station and there always was. We got things done in a surprisingly efficient manner and worked literally from start to finish minus our water and food breaks.
After we finished working it was completely different from last year because we were given the rest of our time in the community to learn about the political and educational situation in the DR. We learned that, although on the surface the community (Los Cerezos in particular) seemed to be working together regardless of ethnic or national background, Dominicans and Haitians have been pitted against each other due to a complex historical trajectory. Dominican laws have been created that basically render several people of Haitian descent, who were living there for generations, illegal immigrants. Today that has sparked a movement to deport all Haitians living there “illegally.” Since these laws have been put into play and the Dominican government fully intends to enforce the law, there are many people who claim that unfair treatment may be a result of “nationalism”. We witnessed this first hand when members of our group that had darker colored skin and more tightly curled hair were stopped in the border town market of Dajabon. After experiencing some of what went on in the market, which houses both Dominican and Haitian merchants, I believe the animosity that looms the air is just downright racism. When the color of a person’s skin starts affecting their general wellbeing; guns or machetes will be placed in the faces of those who do not fit the “Dominican criteria” and threats will be made until offers are given; that is not nationalism or being proud of your country, that is using these laws as a means of making a quick buck. The guards would not let our students through and they knew they were American. I can only imagine that they did it to get the students to give them money. These students didn’t speak a word of Spanish nor did they speak Creole, yet the guards relentlessly hassled them. They would not stop until other students in our group refused to let the harassment continue and told the students being held to simply walk through the gate while the guards were not paying attention. It truly felt like honest politics in this country were nowhere to be found; it’s all about how much you can get out of a situation and many time it comes down to the color of a person’s skin. This was also made apparent when candidates for the federal elections literally gave out cows in a farming community in order to try and secure votes. We were told that this wouldn’t actually affect the election, but it seems that practices like this are a general mode of operation on the country side and I’m not sure if that will bring about fair politics.
We also learned about the education system. Although our education system in the United States is far from perfect some of the statistics presented to us about the DR were downright scary. There are children who drop out of preschool, fail middle school, and in numerous cases don’t even make it to high school. In this country it is not even required of students to make it past the 8th grade. The students are only expected to attend school until the 8th grade and whether or not they pass is thoroughly irrelevant given they will probably end up spending hours upon end in the fields or helping around the house. Working is extremely important to the people of the Dominican Republic because it is how they survive. They don’t have a good education system but it seems that it doesn’t matter because most of the work is either unskilled labor or trades that are passed down through the generations. On this trip we learned that life in the Dominican Republic is nothing like we would have expected. It is not only the lovely beaches and vacation attractions. There is a deep history and that history affects the daily lives of the people living there and even though the trip helped us learn about some of this history, there is so much more to be uncovered. I look forward to maintaining the relationships gained through the trip and will never forget the lessons and blessings afforded by my decision to serve with the community of Los Cerezos.
“I learned for myself that nothing is given to you freely. Not even the ones who really need it receive. People everywhere have to work for what they really need no matter what. I learned that poverty is everywhere in the world. It is impossible to go to another country and not see a sign of poverty. It’s up to us as humans to try and solve this problem in terms of social justice. By seeing the smiles of community members faces and the hard work that we put in makes me believe that there can be change in the world.” – Isaias
“This trip changed me personality-wise. I have become more open. I am a shy person and it takes me a while to open up to people right away. This trip also allowed me to better myself working with others. I have never really been the type to work well with others but this trip helped me to get past that obstacle.” – Zoisha
“The hardest part about going home I think will be dealing with the waste that is everywhere in America. I know as hard as I try I will fall back into those American tendencies and just hope this experience will push m to think differently about how I use resources and what is actually important.” – Andrew
“I understand now that there are people living in a completely different way and are happy. I have learned that hard work and not giving up pays off in more than just a court. It will get you confidence, relationships, frustrations and life long memories. Even though I am 24 years old this trip taught me things that I didn’t even know existed before coming.” – Emma
“The most difficult part of going home would be not being able to help more. I know I’ve only built a court, but being more informed on the Haitian, Dominican situation conflict makes me sad that I can’t do anything about it. It will always be in my head because of this trip. The fact that two races can be so close in distance but still have a major conflict between each other because of skin color is beyond wrong. ‘ – Diamond
“What I understand more clearly now is that the only way to make change in a system that so thoroughly brainwashed you would need a revolution ignited by the people. Changing a pre-defined system can only work if people under it are onboard with derailment. People can believe the pettiest things and getting it to let go of these false realities needs real convincing.” – Pierra
“What I definitely understand more clearly now is the issue about the Dominican/Haitian separation. After visually seeing it with my own eyes at the market, it’s pretty intense. After my teammates from America who showed their US passports were still being sent to immigration because of their skin color, it made me so upset.” – Kim