I must have met 100 children today; 200 maybe. I had children touching my skin, poking my nose, grabbing my ears, hanging off my back, arms and shoulders, poking their hands into my pockets and asking, always asking, to have their photo taken. I shot photo after photo of children posing for the camera, smiling and giving a thumbs up or “rabbit ears.” I’d show them their photo on the little screen on my camera and they’d laugh and point and run to fetch their friends. It’s a trick that didn’t ever seem to get old. We were in this small batey to see Compassion’s largest program—the Child Sponsorship Program.
As we did yesterday, we did two home visits today. We dropped into the homes of some of the children who are sponsored by Compassion International. Here we saw abject poverty—a different kind of poverty than we saw the day before. A shocking, terrible, unjust kind of poverty.
We arrived just after nine at a batey well outside the city limits of Santo Domingo. A batey is a plantation and in this case a sugar plantation. The people living there are perhaps not quite slaves but neither are they free. While I was not able to figure out the exact circumstances in this particular batey, a typical story goes like this. A man is wooed from Haiti and convinced to move to Dominican Republic where he will work at a plantation and improve his lot in life. The situation in Haiti is so desperate that many are unable to resist. But when they and their families arrive, they find that they’ve been lied to. They have revoked their Haitian citizenship and are unable to qualify for Dominican citizenship. As non-citizens, they have no real rights. And so they find themselves working at bateys, living nearly as slaves. Their wages are very low. They are forced to buy everything they need from company-owned stores that charge exorbitant rates. Soon they are in debt, unable to leave but unable to make a living by staying. They may live out their lives in this state of constant injustice. And all the while they are employed (or is it owned?) by American-owned companies—maybe the company which sold you your last bag of sugar.
The homes are tiny and dirty and decrepit. Many are falling apart but the company refuses to fix them. When asked about this, I heard one woman say, “Promisa, promisa, promisa.” The corporation promises, but never delivers; the poverty continues. In the first home we met an old grandmother who had ten children of her own and who had taken in several of her grandchildren after their mother had died. In the second home we met a mother and grandmother and watched their boys play together with my Nick. In both cases, these families had a child sponsored by one of our group. The second grandmother, who looked impossibly young to be a grandma, was asked about her hopes and dreams for the future and she had little to say. She had dreamed of being a doctor or a psychologist in her younger days, but her hopes had been shattered. Now she lives on this squalid batey. I don’t think she dares hope any longer.Yesterday I said that Compassion is in the business of stories—of writing stories through the lives of children. But today I saw that they are also in the business of giving hope. By meeting the needs of these children they are offering hope. In the midst of this sad little batey in a small and overlooked corner of the Dominican Republic I saw hope. I saw a school teaching children to read and write and to think bigger than the life they’ve always known. I saw children whose physical needs were being met, who were being told of a God who loves them, who were being educated and who are being given the skills they’ll need to make a real living. In the midst of dirt tracks running with refuse, in the midst of trash being picked through by mangy dogs, in the midst of such poverty; in the midst of all of this, I saw hope. It looked a whole lot like the faces of little children.