Haiti: With help and solidarity, a thaw at the border assists humanitarian response

A visitor crossing the Haitian-Dominican border into the Dominican city of JimanÝ can be easily struck by the natural surroundings. The stark, chalky rock that borders ╔tang SaumÔtre, a strikingly blue, salt water lake that happens to be Haiti's largest body of water, soon melds into the lush green slopes of the Dominican Republic mountainside startling in contrast to the deforested hills and valley of its neighbor.

Jose Alberto Diaz
José Alberto Díaz at the SSID/CWS warehouse at the border crossing between Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Photo: Nils Carstensen / ACT Alliance

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

Read related story: Haiti: In acts of kindness after a disaster, two countries become closer

JIMANI, Dominican Republic –- A visitor crossing the Haitian-Dominican border into the Dominican city of Jimaní can be easily struck by the natural surroundings.

The stark, chalky rock that borders Étang Saumâtre, a strikingly blue, salt water lake that happens to be Haiti's largest body of water, soon melds into the lush green slopes of the Dominican Republic mountainside – startling in contrast to the deforested hills and valley of its neighbor.

Yet, in the weeks following Haiti's devastating January 12 earthquake, the stark visual contrast seemed all that separated the two countries whose relations have been shot through with conflict and tensions, often played out at the border.

Humanitarian aid got to Haiti with relative ease; not once in four separate crossings by a visitor and other humanitarian workers in the span of two weeks did border guards ask for passports or identification.

That ease of travel will not continue indefinitely and indeed, stricter pre-disaster border regulations are already beginning to again become the norm – something worrying to humanitarian workers.

Still, the initial change at the border, even briefly, signaled a welcome warming in relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. That thaw – something to be particularly savored during the Easter season of new beginnings – had long been sought, worked for and advocated by church and political activists on both sides of the border.

"The situation was always badly focused,"  said José Alberto Díaz, director of the Dialogo Dominico Haitiano de las Iglesias – the Dominican-Haitian Dialogue of the Churches -- a church-sponsored group of clergy and laity that for nearly a decade has pushed for closer ties between the two countries that share, often uneasily, the island of Hispaniola.

Haiti and the DR have been divided on a host of issues, not least of which has been social and economic tensions between impoverished Haiti and the more prosperous DR – tensions exacerbated by issues of race, immigration and even language: Haiti is Creole- and French-speaking, the Dominican Republic is Spanish-speaking.

The efforts by the dialogue group resulted in numerous people-to-people exchanges and peace-building efforts before the earthquake. That work helped ease the process by which the Dominican Republic responded quickly and compassionately to Haiti's massive humanitarian crisis.

Small but telling changes have resulted. "I had never seen a Dominican ambulance before in Haiti," Díaz said in a recent interview in Jimaní. "To see the frontiers (borders) open up was beautiful."

The idea originated from churches in the Dominican Republic and Haiti because it is a Christian ideal to reconcile and work together, Díaz said. "The churches help to promote the idea that dialogue needs to come from all sectors and also gives people a sense of community," he said.

Added Lorenzo Mota King, director of Servicio Social de Iglesias Dominicanas, known by the acronym SSID, an important supporter of the dialogue process: "We saw that through the churches we could make sustainable progress," he said.

The effort has since expanded to include businesses, journalists and political leaders.

"We began a dialogue and now we're reaping the benefits," Díaz said. "This is exactly why we've had a dialogue."

The result?  A humanitarian response that was able to move assistance quickly into Haiti and begin distribution because of established channels and relationships, particularly between SSID, an ACT Alliance member and a longtime Church World Service partner, and several Haitian partners. These included the Social Mission of Haitian Churches, known by the acronym MISSEH.

The efforts supported by CWS and SSID have resulted in the distribution of humanitarian supplies to some 26,000 people within Haiti by partners like MISSEH. (In addition, Dominicans and Haitians, with support from Christian Aid and Church World Service, are partners in providing assistance to displaced Haitians now living in a camp in Ganthier, Haiti, located just across the border from Jimaní.)

Díaz said these locally based efforts have paid off, as the Haitian partners are able to better respond to needs given their knowledge of the affected communities – creating what he called "better results" for everyone. "We got the food from the donors to the mouths of those needing it in less than three days," he said.

Those results have been noticed by the wider ACT network. "The role of the Dominican Republic is very, very important," said Erwin Garzona, ACT/Christian Aid's regional emergency officer for Latin American and the Caribbean. "The role of SSID is a key part in this effort."

The work by SSID in the Dominican Republic and in Jimaní has been a lynchpin – easy to overlook by outsiders and the media given that it is not in Haiti, but critical to the overall response's success.

A warehouse in Jimaní has served as a key element for shipments across the border; in addition, SSID has been a key partner in logistics, both for shipments and for transporting teams of ACT Alliance humanitarian workers into Haiti – more than 300 people from 13 countries in the first month.

According to CWS volunteer Alex Morse, who is based in the Dominican Republic, the transportation arranged by SSID between the Dominican Republic and the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince during the first month amounted to 15,000 miles of driving – the distance from New York City to San Diego and back three times.

These efforts have to be seen in several contexts – not only in terms of the success of breaking down barriers between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but also in an overlooked part of the overall international response in Haiti: the solidarity shown to Haiti by Latin American governments, humanitarian workers and volunteers.

This solidarity has shown itself in many ways – whether it be the medical work of Cuban doctors, the distribution of Brazilian rice to those living in displacement camps, or the immediate emergency response efforts of military personnel from Colombia and Venezuela, two countries that themselves have experienced political tensions through the years.

These acts of solidarity point to the issue of relations and interdependency – something  Haitians and Dominicans know all too well, as they share a single island. "What happened in Haiti could happen here," Mota King said of the threat of an earthquake or other natural disaster that could hit the DR. "Some day the Dominican people may need the support and solidarity of the Haitian people."

Like Mota King, José Alberto Díaz is keenly aware of the element of interdependency: Jimaní was struck by floods in 2004, and it is widely thought that Haiti's deforestation problems, being so close to the border, contributed to the severity of the flooding there. The issue of deforestation, Diaz notes, is now a shared problem between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and must be addressed together.

A long day ended and it was time to return to cross the border back to Port-au-Prince and witness the late afternoon sun against the waters of Étang Saumâtre. Díaz was philosophical about how a sudden earthquake and years of working to bring two neighboring countries closer came together in an unusual, singular and challenging moment. Amid tragedy, acts of solidarity unfolded.

"There have been a lot of little miracles that have happened."

How to help

Contributions may be made at www.churchworldservice.org/haiti or by phoning 800-297-1516 or by mailing to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515 (please indicate Haiti Earthquake).

Chris Herlinger of CWS was recently on assignment with the ACT Alliance in Haiti.

ACT Alliance Church World Service is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of churches and agencies engaged in development and humanitarian assistance.


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