Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Street Census Redone

When Project Esperanza first came to Puerto Plata as a Virginia Tech student organization in the summer of 2006, we conducted a street census with the understanding that the results would be submitted to Integracion Juvenil, a Dominican foundation, that was opening up a home for boys on the streets. We created 140 profiles over the course of one month and submitted the information to Integracion Juvenil. We were told that Integracion Juvenil rejected the profiles as 96% of them were of Haitian youth and adolescents, and they did not intend on receiving Haitians into their home.

This is where our work began. The average age reported was 14. We were told that some of these kids were living with “bosses” who sent them out selling and then took their money at the end of the day. Very few reported living with family, and those who did reported living with a brother, a cousin, or an aunt, but not their nuclear family (mother, father, and siblings). The original profiles were lost in a damaged hard drive before we could collect the exact statistics, but it was remarkable to us that 0% of the Haitian youth reported currently attending school. Some had reported attending school in Haiti before coming to the Dominican Republic, while others reported never having gone to school before. Probably 85% reported living in the barrio of Padre Granero, where we began running a school shortly thereafter, whereas the other 15% reported living in the barrio of Agua Negra on the other side of town. When asked why they came to the Dominican Republic, they all said, “to search for life”. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, so it makes sense that so many venture over to the other country that shares the island with them in hopes of finding “life”.

At the end of the month long census, some found out where our volunteer house was located and they began coming by in groups asking to see the photos we had taken of them for the census profiles. We were sad that the home we thought we would be able to lead some of them to through Integracion Juvenil was not going to be a reality for them. So we began a lunch, tutoring, and recreation program at that time from noon to 4pm. We began learning much more about them and over time, some did disclose their stories.

Someone in Haiti, normally a neighbor, had convinced them to come with them to the Dominican Republic. Sometimes it was with a parent’s consent, and sometimes this person had convinced them to come in secrecy even when the parent did not consent. They promised the boy that life would be better in the Dominican Republic. They would find bikes on the ground easily that they could have and ride, radios as well. They would go to school and eat better meals. Then when they arrived, they were often made to live harsh street vendor lives where they wake up early, search for wood to build a fire, and prepare sweets to sell on the beach. They were taught a route they would walk all day long to sell sweets on the beach. When they arrived home, they would turn their money over to the person they live with, and do an accounting. Some reported harsh punishments if they did not sell all of their sweets. Some showed scars where they reported being hit with machetes. We went with one to the hospital where the doctors found he had internal bleedings from beatings.

Some boys had even reported during the census that they lived with their father, and then we came to find out that the man they lived with was not their father, but someone who had brought them here in this manner. Over time, we found out certain men who were involved in this trafficking business. Women were involved in the kidnapping and enslaving that was going on here as well. It was a quite common practice. It is for this reason that we sent close to 50 youth back to Haiti to be reunited with their families who they reported being tricked. Their families thought they were doing a good thing for them. The adults running these operations said that their parents knew what they were sending their kids to. They didn’t want them or couldn’t take care of them. That is why they sent them.

We did not do the street census again until this year, 2015. I had thought about it in the past and quite frankly the idea scared me. The need and sadness we found during the first census was overwhelming and running an organization that was attempting to respond to the need had taken over my life. We have some great success stories from the first street census. Some young men who had never attended school before are now close to graduating from high school. Some have steady jobs. Some have started families. Some have been more responsible in starting their families than others. Some are here in the Dominican Republic while others have settled in Haiti. But we have lost some as well. Others spend time in and out of jail. 

I wrote a tribute to two we lost, Anol and Etienne, in the book I published, but since then we have lost two more. We have lost two of the first three who we offered mattresses on the floor to in 2007 when they reported sleeping on the beach or on someone’s porch. Both were scarred and problematic boys but had they had the chance to be given a permanent and loving caregiver and secure home and family, they could’ve done great. I am talking about a foster or adoption situation. Yes, they were a part of our group home, but both fell back into the streets as they needed much more individual attention than we were able to give them at the time. Here is a group home video from 2015 memories. The last slide which mentions Michael and Tina Reeder is actually out of date. For family and health reasons they unfortunately were not able to stay for the year they had hoped for.

I won’t neglect to say that it saddens me that so many volunteers (although not all volunteers) came and met these boys and then returned to their lives in the U.S. without doing anything to better the boys’ lives. Maybe these volunteers had other things going on in their lives that kept them from doing that, but I just think that if I have dedicated pretty much my whole life, then more could have at least written from time to time to ask how so and so was doing. I am not saying this to pat myself on the back or put others down but it is truly something that I have a hard time understanding. We all (volunteers) have our nuclear families, quality education, secure housing, food security, and job opportunity. I don’t think anyone can say that their problems have been too great to spare an occasional check in. Anyway, what is done is done and I hope we can only move forward for a better future. 

Alin did not last long in the group home. When there were 18 boys in the beginning (we tried to help everyone) and lots of fighting and power struggle, he requested to be sent to Haiti to visit what family members he had there. Upon returning, we did not allow him back
into the group home because he had many accounts of stealing and
other vices. However, had he expressed extreme interest in coming to school each day as others did, he may have been given a second chance. He did not. He continued to come to soccer practice some. Then I didn’t see him for quite a while. A few years ago, Jonel told me that Alin was in jail in Santiago and needed someone to sign for him or represent him at his hearing. I said that I could not. I was just overwhelmed with responsibilities and he had not maintained contact as others had to the point that I felt like I could vouch for him in any way. 

It was maybe a year later that I asked Chinaider about Alin and he said that Alin had been shot and killed in Sosua. The police shot him as he ran away from a theft. In law school, I learned that deadly force cannot be used to stop someone from theft or anything that doesn’t create extreme deadly risk to others. Someone running away from a theft should not be shot. However, here you hear of this sort of thing without repercussions to the shooter. I did not learn about this until after he was buried. Chinaider thought that he was buried in Sosua. 

Luis did not return to the group home after he stole a laptop from the administrative space he broke into in a separate building in 2008. He lived in town ever since and lived a fairly calm life. I never heard of any more problems from him and he did not seek any more help from me or any teachers or employees. He seemed to play a lot of Nintendo and eventually found a job with the trash truck. He even attended the public night school in town regularly and would have started 8th grade this year. He was very scarred. I wrote about him in this blog post. Luis is the boy I was referring to who was said to have been used by the police for violence in Port-au-Prince.  

Jeres told me this past summer that Luis had gone to Haiti and was very sick. I was busy and did not ask and was not told anything further for over a month. Then one day recently we drove through the area of town where he lived and I asked Chinaider, who was in the car, for an update on Luis. He replied with, “Luis died”. He said that someone had taken him to family members in Haiti and he died within a few days. When I asked what sort of sickness he had he said that he became extremely thin and had no appetite. That is all I know.  

Rest in peace Alin and Luis. 

Bobby is someone who was in the group home until 2009 when we made contact with his mom and heard of the true story that he was pretty much kidnapped. We sent him back to her and she was so grateful. He came and went after that. He basically lived in between our group home, his mom’s house in Haiti, and another area where he had contacts in the country and worked in agriculture. Every time he came he had a really hard time living in a group setting and managing resources in a humble manner. By this I mean that he always ended up getting into a conflict because he owed someone money or took someone’s stuff. He is an extreme people person and makes friends everywhere but gets into conflicts when he owes money, etc. He didn’t deny his involvement in drugs from a very young age before he was ever in the group home but I do know he was clean for the most part before we sent him to his mom’s house in 2009. But it looks like at some point he fell back into that. 

Normally when he would go to work in the country, people would then report him buying drugs and stealing things. So this may be the root of his problem. 

The last time he was here and left was not even a year ago but without going into too many details, I didn’t want him to come back and didn’t plan on talking to him when he did come back. He turned 21 in January which is the age that we completely kick someone out of the home. At 18, they stop receiving aid with food. However, we had not let him back in the home for quite a while because of these reasons. He stayed with another young man who had graduated from the home, named Biby. Biby knew I did not want to see him, but nonetheless, came with him to my house when he arrived again. My house is next to the group home and was just one street over from Biby’s house at the time. I did not go outside to talk to him when they called me. They eventually left. Biby then saw me leaving later on that day and approached me. He said that he was not planning on accompanying Bobby to my house, but had done so because he sees that Bobby is now crazy. He arrived this morning and isn’t making any sense. It also seems like both of his thumbs are paralyzed. I listened, was surprised, and went on my way. 

The next day Bobby approached me when he saw me on the street and I was able to converse with him and see what Biby meant by “crazy”. He made some sense and remembered everyone, but did seem handicapped. A day later he had a tank top on backwards… one with a scoop neck and high back that was very apparently on backwards, but he did not notice. He speaks quietly and is unable to completely convey his thoughts, which seems to frustrate him a little. He walks around during the days and looks for work. He was caught stealing a bag of bread at a colmado down the street but they went easy on him when people told them that he was crazy. So we’ll see what happens. I am not sure what I can do for him unless someone really wants to take on his case. And even then, I don’t think I should personally be too involved with him directly as I would not like to give him any sort of welcome into my personal space. But someone else in the organization could perhaps help. 

9 years after the first census, I realized that it was time to delve in again. We started with winter break volunteers sitting in spots around town with a clipboard and a camera. This time we gave out bags of rice, beans, and a packet of oil as a thank you for participating in the census. Spring break volunteers participated as well up until May. Our summer volunteers did other activities but I still got a few profiles going around town in the summer as well. The results are quite different than 2006. In 2006 we divided into two groups and did it for one month, so probably 22 weekdays. We conducted the census in the afternoons. This consists of 44 half days. This year we did 15 half days and then I did a bit independently. Therefore, more time was spent on this in 2006. But it was very clear that in 2006 there were simply more youth working on the streets. Tourist police have completely banned two touristic areas to such street vending among youth: the Malecon or Boardwalk, and Central Park. Also, attempts have been made by the government to eradicate child labor in general. Of course we find many teenagers street vending and do profiles on anyone who reports being 18 or younger, and those older ages don’t count as child labor. But there was a significant lower amount of 10 and 11 year olds on the streets during this census. Additionally, it might be due to the fact that we did send around 50 kids back to their families in Haiti and started registering kids in school, and rewarding them with things for going, but the men who were highly responsible for the child trafficking in Padre Granero when we first began seem to have stopped doing that altogether. I haven’t heard of such activity in years.
The most alarming thing we saw during the 2015 census was not kids who were estranged from their families and living as servants, but two cousins and a sister. They live with their parents and say they go to school, but they can be seen often in the dark far from home selling peanuts. I drove the two boys home one day as it was dark and they were at La Sirena when they live far away from La Sirena. They fell asleep in the car and I made it to the area where they said they lived, then asked people on the road if they knew where the boys sleeping of my car lived. We eventually found their family. I talked to them about why they sent their kids out to work on the streets like that alone and until very late at night. They said that an adult usually went with them and would go with them in the future. They have financial needs. I said I would try to find some help to get them some groceries each month. And not to send the kids out anymore! Especially alone! I still see the kids very often, sometimes accompanied by an adult, and sometimes not.