Sisters in Catastrophe
Elizabeth Eames Roebling
SANTO DOMINGO, Jan 15 (IPS) - The Dominican Republic, which has historically regarded its Haitian neighbour with suspicion, has turned toward Haiti with a tremendous outpouring of aid and love since a devastating earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.
All of the major television stations have news teams in the Haitian capital. Regular programming is interrupted to announce another collection point for canned food and medicines. The three major phone companies have all opened text messaging services to support local charities.
Unedited images of the dead lying covered with sheets on the western third of their shared island, along with compassionate commentaries, run almost constantly. An estimated 50,000 people were killed.
The day after Tuesday's earthquake, which was felt mildly throughout the entire island, the Dominican government dispatched across the border mobile kitchens capable of serving 100,000 meals a day, 39 trucks with ready-to-eat food, 46 doctors, including 10 trauma specialists, eight mobile clinics and tonnes of water, vaccines, rehydrating solutions, and painkillers.
Also on Wednesday, the Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Service at Centro Bono sent out a massive email appeal for canned food and medicines. The Jesuits have long been staunch defenders of the rights of the Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic and assist more than 50 organised groups of Haitians here.
By four o'clock in the afternoon, the eight young volunteers at Centro Bono were discouraged that only 50 donors had arrived, despite the boxes of medications and food that were stacked up on the walls.
One woman arrived with two boxes of saltines, saying "It is not much, but it is all I can do." Several of the volunteers assured her that the important thing was that she came. Shortly after, a couple arrived with 10 boxes of medicine from their lab, which kept the volunteers happily occupied with sorting and labeling.
By Thursday noon, however, a passing line of 40 volunteers was needed to offload the pick-up trucks that were arriving with boxes of food and water. The gym-sized room, close to empty the night before, was nearly full.
Despite all the international rescue workers arriving from overseas, Dominicans understand that their country is the closest source of food and water for their island neighbours. Even the food to supply the U.N. peacekeepers, the MINUSTAH force, has always been bought here and shipped there.
Most Dominicans are not wealthy, with a median annual income just above 6,000 dollars and an estimated 42 percent of the population living below the global poverty level of two dollars a day. Dominicans survive because of their strong family structure and generosity.
An estimated one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, most of them without visas, many without passports, and some with no identity papers whatsoever. There has been a growing public conversation about the arrival of more and more Haitians as their home situation worsened over the past year, calling it a "pacific invasion". Now the television and radio announcers consistently refer to Haiti as "our sister nation".
Deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, which have been condemned by some human rights groups for their lack of due process, have been halted.
At the Red Cross Center, which is the main staging operation for transport of donations of goods, more than 40 Dominicans were seated waiting to give blood specifically for Haiti. There was only one Haitian among them.
Gracion LaShelle sat with two Dominicans who appeared as affectionate as parents.
"I have been here for four years. I study at the university and work for these two Dominicans who are with me here. I call them my family even though my true family is back in Haiti. But they are my Dominican family," LaShelle told IPS. "I am from Gonaives, but most of my relatives are now in Port-au-Prince. I have not been able to reach anyone by phone so we came here to donate blood. Because it was all we could do."
Sergio Vargas, director of the Dominican Red Cross, explained their operation.
"We have people in Haiti who have already crossed the border," he said. "They have started to make their first assessments. We will start the operation with the people who are now there. We are the main assembly point for donations from the public which are coming in."
"We have room for volunteers, but they must come from their local chapters of the Red Cross. They have to know how the Red Cross operates," Vargas said. "We are now receiving staffing help and funds from the international Red Cross. We will send all the supplies to the border at Jimini and will start distribution as directed by the teams on the ground there now."
"We do have room for doctors and nurses," he added. "The main problem is the language barrier. We have some Haitians here who have been trained by the Dominican Red Cross. We are asking the international public to donate funds designated for Haitian relief and we will get part of that."
Richard Goughnour, head of USAID, when asked about satellite phones for the Jesuits, said: "Thus far, we have not received any additional funding for this operation. We are getting calls from many organisations here on the ground but we are unable to respond as yet. When the money does come in, it will most likely be used for food and transport."
A message went out from the Haitian Embassy that even President Rene Preval is in need of five satellite phones in order to help his government coordinate relief efforts. Despite some early reports that President Preval would be evacuated to the Dominican Republic for fear for his safety due to the aftershocks, he remains in Haiti.
President Leonel Fernandez went to the border at Jimini and then by helicopter on to Port-au-Prince, where the two leaders conferred.