I traveled to the Dominican Republic with Global Health Outreach, a ministry of Christian Medical & Dental Associations. The organization provides short-term opportunities for medical professionals and students to use their skills to provide medical care in countries all over the world. I was asked to come along and capture both video and photos to be used by the organization for promotional content. This trip was the first part of a two-part collaboration; I'll be joining another GHO team to Nicaragua in August.
This was my first experience traveling to Central America: I enjoyed seeing the beautiful coastal scenery in Santo Domingo, ate lots of delicious rice, and got quite the Chaco tan from the intense tropical sun!
Anyways, on to the good stuff. For the majority of the eight-day trip, the team was working in communities called "bateyes," which are the temporary housing provided by sugarcane companies for workers who cut sugarcane in the fields. The majority of these workers are migrants from Haiti. The living conditions for these workers and their families is quite deplorable. In many cases they do not have access to a clean sanitation system, good education, and adequate nutrition. They live in small, crowded structures in small communities that are stationed in the middle of the fields.
The men who work in the fields often work 7 days a week, from sunrise to the evening. They are paid very little, some told us their pay is no more than $25 a week. It is hard labor - monotonously cutting down stalks of sugarcane, all day, in the vast fields.
I had the opportunity to go into one of the fields during our time in the area, to capture a glimpse of the working life of the people the GHO team was serving. I was devastated by the difficulty and deplorable conditions that these men were working in - especially considering how little they are paid. Because of their low wages and lack of education, it's nearly impossible for these Haitians to break out of this unjust system and make a better life for themselves and their families. Plus, they risk the chance of deportation back to Haiti if they venture out into other parts of the DR.
Despite the poverty and despair seen in these communities, I was struck by the beauty I found in the midst of the mess. It was sometimes as simple as a small vine trained up over the porch of one of the barracks, or old paint cans turned into planters for a array of lovely foliage. Elderly folks played a game of dominoes under a shady tree, and afternoon sun lit the golden fur of a pet cat perched on a rock. I saw were tender moments between parents and children and majestic cloudscapes hovering over the vast fields.
My personal philosophy for my work is to always look for the beauty, no matter how hidden it may be. I was actually surprised at how easy it was to see the beauty in the bateyes - maybe because it contrasted so starkly with the extreme poverty.
My main focus was to document the medical clinics that the GHO team ran in three different bateyes during the trip. Each day, we loaded everyone onto a couple of buses and rumbled down the dusty dirt roads to reach the isolated communities, each planted in the middle of a sea of sugarcane. The clinics were set up in either small schools or churches, which were quickly converted into a basic medical facility. I was touched by the selflessness and authenticity that this team of doctors and students embodied in the way they cared for the people that came to the clinic. Many of these Haitians may have never had access to medical care, and there was a sense of desperation in their desire to be seen and treated.
One thing that I love about GHO is that they partner with local churches or organizations in order to support and strengthen ongoing work in the countries they visit. On this trip, we partnered with Oasis Church - which has an ongoing ministry to the bateyes. They provided all of the logistics, transportation, translators, and care for our team. Basically, the team could not have done the work they did without this partnership, and it's encouraging to know that the local church will continue to support the communities we visited during our brief stay.
Some of my favorite moments were when I was able to just wander through the crowded, bustling clinic and look for those serene, almost magical moments happening between doctors and patients. A quiet squeeze of the hand, heads bowed in prayer, cuddling with a sleepy baby... not to mention the stunningly gorgeous faces of the patients, both young and old. The kids especially enjoyed having their portraits taken, so that they could see their face on the back of my camera screen. I even broke out my Instant Film camera - sadly, I ran out of film long before all the kiddos had gotten their picture made. But it was fun to see their enthusiasm, nonetheless.
One unexpected treat was the chance to deliver Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes to the children in the bateyes that we visited. Oasis Church had procured the boxes to deliver, and we got to help hand them out. I can remember packing up shoeboxes filled with small toys and toothbrushes for many Christmases throughout my life, but the opportunity to see them delivered on "the other side" was pretty incredible. The value of a box full of dollar store items to children who literally have nothing was indescribable. Even the empty cardboard boxes that were used to deliver the boxes had value - children would carry them off to their homes as soon as they were emptied of all the shoeboxes.
The most popular toy was definitely the pull-string helicopter launcher, in case anyone needs ideas for their shoebox next Christmas :)
I saw incredible pain and poverty, but I also saw incredible beauty and hope. I firmly believe there is always light to be found in the darkness, and love can heal the deepest of wounds. I'm thankful for the opportunity to see and capture the bateyes of the Dominican Republic and the people who dwell there.
~ Isaiah 61 ~