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Helping Haitians in a Refugee Village

Written by Danielle Paccione
2/5/2010

Haitian children in a Dominican refugee camp.

Danielle Paccione ’10 found devastation even before the earthquake.

It happened on my first day as an international student volunteer.

As I shuffled through a Haitian refugee village in the Dominican Republic, I was thinking about the black mud adhered to my formerly white sneakers and whether or not I could receive cell phone service in a Caribbean jungle.

It was then I heard the words that would change my perspective forever.

“They’re born in the mud, and they die in the mud,” our leader said. Her voice echoed as she jabbed her walking stick into a puddle of rainwater.

I looked up from my feet and saw extreme poverty for the first time. Disease, malnourishment, and pregnant teenagers were no longer statistics but a harsh reality right in front of me.

My heart began to pound as children climbed up my legs to be held, fighting to win over my one free hand. My heart was broken. And this was before the earthquake.

Last summer, I traveled with 20 college students from across the U.S. -- including three friends from IC -- to Puerto Plata to volunteer at Crossroads, a Dominican ministry.

For the next two weeks, we were up at 7:00 a.m. and working in the villages by 9:00 a.m. Our days were divided into two segments: construction and education.

During the morning construction hours, our group worked together to build cinder-block homes under the beating sun and windless air of the Caribbean.

Despite using gloves, our hands blistered from the hours spent passing the cinder blocks in an assembly line, up and down the rocky hills of Nazareth village.

We painted windows and doors, crafted framework with metal bars and wire, and shoveled dirt that would be pounded into a level floor.

Although it was hard work, every swing of a pickax was worth the excitement on the faces of the onlooking villagers. Barefoot, half-dressed children would drag cinder blocks twice their size just to help us along.

During our lunch hour, which divided each jam-packed day, we feasted on la bandera (the flag), a combination of rice, beans, stewed chicken, salad, and fried plantains that is the most popular national dish.

It was difficult to eat while starving, parasite-ridden children peered through the cracks of the windowpanes, an image that still revisits me every time I pick up a fork.

The afternoons were dedicated to education, teaching math and English to children as young as two.

When we went back to Crossroads at the end of the day, the children went back to the reality of their impoverished community.

I became friends with a six-year-old named Julia and a seven-year-old named Carolina. Every day after school, they would race to find me.

Despite my subpar Spanish, they welcomed me into their homes, offered me what little food they had, and introduced me to their families.

Carolina’s mother, whose tired eyes and creased skin made her look 40, was only 21.

Julia’s mother had been raising two young children on her own since her husband left to find work in the city.

I cherish my memories of helping these girls, even if it was only to put a temporary smile on their faces as we sang and danced along to the limited Spanish music on my iPod.

In my short time as an international student volunteer, I provided shelter, education, a happier morale, and a sense of dignity to some Dominican and Haitian people.

What I didn’t expect, however, was what they gave me -- a different perspective and a set of values that will stay with me forever.

I now appreciate the importance of my education more than ever and hope to continue to help people -- around the world and in my neighborhood -- to reach their academic potential.



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