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Last Bell - From Charity to Justice in Haiti

Let’s teach about disasters caused by people, not just nature.


by Kevin LaMastra

“Tè tremblé” were the words my Creole-speaking middle school students used to describe the event that devastated their Haitian homeland: The earth trembled. It took weeks for many to learn if loved ones survived or perished.

The earthquake captured the attention of the world, but Haiti is also the victim of disasters caused by humans—an on-going catastrophe that students need to understand.

For the past four summers, I have led groups of teachers to Haitian migrant camps in the Dominican Republic called “bateyes.” Last year, for the first time, I also took students. Regardless of age, nothing can prepare them for the intense experience of a week in some of the world’s most impoverished communities.

“It completely changed the way I look at life,” said one student. “I can’t even shower without thinking about how much water I am using.”

Even the best-intentioned of our group often revert to stereotypes to make sense of the misery: “If only they had more education and fewer children. If only their government weren’t so corrupt.” After a week, our understanding becomes more complex, more nuanced. We consider how slavery, military occupation, and colonization led to these conditions, and how debt, trade, and other modern policies may exacerbate the problems.

We visit free trade zones established through international agreements. There we meet Dominican workers earning just 60 cents an hour. Managers warn them not to ask for more because Haitians will do the work for less. Trade should alleviate poverty, but here trade seems to deepen poverty. Textbooks rarely discuss this aspect of globalization, but students need to know about it.

Unable to sustain themselves in Haiti, many migrants cross the Dominican border to find employment as cane cutters or day laborers, living in unspeakable conditions in shantytowns. They invite us into their homes, ramshackle shelters cobbled together from found materials, with dirt floors, no running water, and no toilets. Without birth certificates, they are subject to many forms of discrimination, but people continue to come because, unbelievably, life in Haiti can be even worse.

When the earthquake struck, educators and students took part in relief efforts. We recognized our common humanity. But we must also respond to the preventable disasters of war, hunger, and disease.

Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that 24,000 children under the age of five die each day from preventable diseases. The death rate in Haiti is among the worst, but for this, the world does not band together to help.

Our students feel sympathy for the Haitian people. Let’s help them move from talking about charity to working for justice.

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Kevin LaMastra teaches ESL and French in Linden, New Jersey.

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  • Haiti: Educators Speak