How would you feel if you did not exist? If you had no country to call home? If you had nothing but a mold infested shack to return to day after day. Praying for a better future, but recognized as nothing but an illegal immigrant, you could be removed from the land you have come to know as home at any moment. The very same land which was meant for four hundred, but is harboring nearly two thousand. Tell me, how would you feel if you were put in their shoes?
You are Haitian. You trek through fields and rough terrain, beneath the scorching sun and torrential downpours, for five days with little food, water, or rest. You cannot find work in Haiti, this place you call home. You are forced to leave to ensure your survival and the survival of your family. You do not want to leave by any means, but you pray for a better life and hope you will find something on the horizon to begin a new life. You take your daughter with you.
Across the border in the Dominican Republic, you now have nothing but the clothes on your back and the worn shoes on your feet. You have just committed a crime by illegally crossing the border and could be thrown back into Haiti at any time, but you trek on. Word spreads of factory work, perhaps some stable income, but when you find work, the factory closes down.
You live in a squatters’ village. You do not own this land, but you have no other place to live. The government has shut down the sugarcane factory, your only means of work, and you are forced to choose between prostitution and hard labour. You pick the latter. You spend six out of seven days a week picking through the garbage dump; piles of maggot infested garbage, rotting food, and all matter of ruined debris. The government does not like you, they do not want you in their country, but this is the only work you can find.
Your life has turned into a twisted treasure hunt, or so you believe, at least for your daughter’s sake. She is only eleven and she works beside you, searching for plastic bottles and bags. You can make between five and ten dollars a day, but the money does not make your situation easier. You pray for a better life for your daughter. For her to be educated and given a bed she can sleep soundlessly in without rats nibbling at her fingers and toes. You do this for her, yet
she has been brought into this life with you and it weighs heavily on your shoulders.
You harden your persona because you have no other choice. You cannot survive easily with carefree notions when your survival is dependent on the trash others throw away. Bottle after bottle, bag after bag you collect but you wonder if it will ever be enough. The sunken garbage becomes old, and you wish your life was not so routine. You wish you had never gotten used to the life you have now.
You rise before the sun and trek through the heat and humidity for thirty-five minutes to the dump. You know you are close when the smell hits your nostrils and the gravel road inclines sharply. Discarded trash litters the roadside and surrounding foliage, but you do not stop, you know there is nothing useful there. The sun rises as you reach the top and see the rolling piles of garbage before your eyes. You keep your daughter close to your side because you never know what could happen to her if she disappears behind a pile that is too high for you to see behind. You remember she wears shoes when you wear sandals, yet you both pick garbage gloveless. You have long since questioned using your bare hands, perhaps you never even learnt the dangers and diseases you could endure; but, you have seen them on others and you pray your daughter will be spared. You have seen too many small cuts turn into infections, things you are not educated on how to treat. You do not know how to fix the unfortunate accidents others face so you pick on, hoping one more bottle will be enough to get your daughter and maybe even yourself out of there.
The sun rises higher and travels across the sky, you have taken little to no breaks and your back is throbbing with a pain you have come accustomed to over the years. Your daughter works tiredly beside you and you wish you could send her back to the shack you call home, but you know it is hardly better there. The tin roof is rusting, filled with countless holes, and only truly gives protection from the sun. The rain finds a way through despite your best efforts and floods the room, splashing water sometimes even up around your ankles. Mold has taken over the mattress you and your daughter share every night, and the wooden frame that makes up your home is rickety from bugs infesting the walls. In a couple more hours, you will return there and find a sanction even amongst all its defects. Some say home is where the heart is, but you know yours will always belong to Haiti.
Despite the endless sorrows weighing down your shoulders, you are strong. You have a strength in you unknown to most people because you are able to work seemingly effortlessly in the eyes of others. You do not work to a punch clock; no one counts the hard hours you work each day, instead you are paid by the bag of plastics you collect. You have no stability, but you work anyway when others may not.
Even despite your hard exterior, you still have your morals intact. Your beauty, inside and out, rivals all things beautiful in the world, yet you know appearance is not everything. You know what you need and what you want, you know when to choose which is the best in any situation. You are courageous beyond measure for leaving everything you have known behind and traveling into uncertainty. Starting a new life out of hardly more than tin sheets and scrap wood is sheer bravery.
Above your courage and audacity, you are selfless even when others cannot see it. You work with your community, and put your daughter before yourself every chance you get. When your days get hard, it is her smile that lights up the sky as if she were a descendant of Apollo himself. Even amongst the piles of garbage and your worn home, she is the light that moves you forward.
This is your life, as bleak as it may seem sometimes, you still have hopes and dreams to rise each day and work to the best of your ability. Regardless of what others believe, you do exist in this world and should be recognized as such. You are worthy, determined, and know what you hope to accomplish in this life. You are no different than others believe you to be, but merely born in a tough situation you work to overcome. So tell me, after all this time, how does it feel to be put in someone else’s shoes?