We are very near the border with Haiti, and many impoverished Haitians have made their way across the border to live as illegal immigrants in Dominican Republic. Several hundred of them found their way to an area on the outskirts of La Union Dump where they moved into abandoned shacks that once housed workers of factories that have long since closed. Here they have formed a community and try their best to look out for one another. However, because they are unable to compete with the locals for the scarce jobs that are available to the uneducated and unskilled, these people face an incredible challenge just to survive and they are considered the poorest of the poor in Dominican Republic.
Today, instead of going to our construction site, we donned our rubber boots and gloves, and headed to the dump to work alongside these Haitians who survive by sifting daily through the mounds of trash for anything that can be eaten, worn, or turned into cash.
I didn’t sleep last night thinking about what I might be subjected to in the morning, and I had known in in my heart before coming on this mission that this would be the most difficult experience of the whole trip. It turned out to be the most difficult day of my life! Indeed, it was life-changing!
As we approached the entrance to the dump in our open air bus on this swelteringly hot morning, the stench of rotten garbage and the swarms of flies were overpowering. But that did not hit me nearly as hard as the sight of the human beings, dozens of them, from toddlers to the very elderly, spread throughout the dump, bent down and rooting through piles of rubbage.
As our bus came to a stop and we got out, many of them stopped their work to come and greet us. I was immediately surrounded by a group of little children, smiling brightly and reaching out to hug me – right there in the middle of that most unimaginable place! I squeezed them and gave warm smiles back although inside I was in total turmoil. Nothing about this seemed real. Then, one little boy tugged my arm and pointed to a section of the dump, indicating I should go there with him. And then he did the one thing that always warms me like no other feeling when it comes to a child. He slipped his little hand in mine. In an instant, I was flashing to the familiar feel of my grandchildren’s hands in mine, and to us walking in a much different place – a trail in the woods behind my house, an aisle in the toy store, a street in the Magic Kingdom. Yet, here I was holding the hand of this beautiful little boy with the big brown eyes, gorgeous curly hair, and broken flip-flops in the middle of a place to which there is no comparison.
I tried to behave normally and not appear as though I was freaking out at the incomprehensibility of this scene. So, we chatted as we walked. He told me his name was Adolpho, and I pointed to myself and said “Barb”. In French, I asked his age, and when he said he was nine years old, the tears that I had been fighting burst forth, and I began to sob, This could be my precious Ethan! Ethan and I could be spending this day, and every day, digging through garbage to help make it through to the next day. I could not imagine such a fate for my grandson. How could I, how could we, be allowing it for this darling little boy? Yet, it was his reality! And so, I knew I had to compose myself and help him fill his bag with plastic bottles that could earn his family 15 pesos – the equivalent of about 40 cents. On the outside, I shared in his pride as he or I found and salvaged bottle after bottle. On the inside, I raged with anger at the unfairness of it all. And when our bag was full, we shared a high five and took our finds to the family pile. I then led him to our bus where a meal was waiting for anyone with whom we had worked today.
With a warm hug and a big smile, he was on his way, and I turned my attention to helping an elderly lady who at that moment was sifting through a garbage bag filled with used needles, syringes, and medical waste in her bare hands????