I marvel at the Best Buy Express vending machine, knowing that in other places in the world like Japan I could do almost all my shopping via this medium. I check out the cost of a USB cord and it’s actually reasonable. As I go to purchase, both out of necessity and novelty, I can feel someone watching me. I turn around and see no one, until I look down and there is a 5 year old with impossibly long lashes looking at me with fascination.
“Where are you going?” he asks in the eager way of a child. “I’m headed to the Dominican Republic.” He jumps up and down a bit, “Me too! We are going to the same place.” I scan the gate to see where his parents are. As much as I adore speaking to inquisitive and wonder-filled children, I am overly cautious about what it looks like when a non-related man speaks to a child. “Have you been before?” I shake my head no. “Me, neither. This is my first time. My Mom was born there.”
“Wow, you get to see where your Mom lived when she was a girl your age.” He squealed a bit with delight and continued speaking as if he was a balloon that needed to let the air out. “I am going to see my uncles and my grandparents. I never met them.”
“A family reunion? Wow, are you lucky!”
“We are staying at a place that has a pool and we are going to the beach.”
“That’s sounds like a great.” I said.
“What are you doing in the Dominican Republic?” Before I could formulate an answer, his father came asking his son to “let the nice man finish his purchase.” As he walked his son away I could hear him say, “But he is going to the same place we are.”
I wondered if I was going to the same place. Even in the same city, there are often different worlds that are further apart than an international flight. As people swim in the pools and relax on the beautiful beaches, in another universe with the same address there are people living in fear. While the Dominican Republic economy has relied upon an “informal” and at times undocumented workforce from Haiti, there is an upsurge in violence and discrimination against them. Both those that have been citizens and those that are there as refugees have been rendered stateless.
Even if I desired to cloak myself in a veil of denial, it is MLK Jr Day and the weekly portion speak of the Exodus. There are many arrows pointing to repeating narratives. I have heard versions of this story. Last year, Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish Wolrd Service wrote and op-ed where she noted, “ In the Dominican Republic, where there is a prevalent culture of racism and discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent, the situation is sadly reminiscent of very difficult chapters in Jewish history. For generations, politicians have used Haitians as scapegoats, blaming them for problems such as poverty and disease. Now the situation is getting worse, including a sharp increase in attacks. A February lynching of a Haitian immigrant and other recent assaults reflect a culture of violence against people of Haitian descent, and it is common to see racist depictions of Haitians in Dominican newspapers.”
In other words as the very start of this experience, I am recognize that this is a familiar story. It is one where I have experienced connection to both sides of the narrative. As a Jew, the group massacres of Haitians in 1937 sound uncannily familiar. As an American, I see our checkered history and current treatment of immigrants and how much racism is still prevalent and I know what fear can do. So I do not come with anger or rushes to judgment, but to witness another complex problem unfolding.
I do believe AJWS often does good things here and can continue to do so--but the answers are not always so clear cut. Before the strategy of it, at the beginning of the journey I come because I have the capacity to be Pharaoh-like and protect my heart by hardening it. I can be Pharaoh-like and declare that my heart has borders. I can be Pharaoh-like and mute the cries as not to be confronted. And so the journey begins with me.
This is my heart practice so it does not become calcified and numb. I choose to confront the materialism and comfort in my life to find some productive discomfort. I come to listen, to witness, to honor and to break open the shell of complacency. I witness the dark places and how even there the human spirit illuminates these seemingly hopeless tangles of human greed, distrust and fear. I see my shadow and the potential of my spark. The time for “good” has not come. Rather, this is a spiritual practice of becoming human.
In the long line of customs across the room at the end of my flight, I stand on Dominican ground. My journey is beginning. Across the room, the little boy is in line, but he sees me and starts waving profusely. I wave back; he smiles a huge grin and satisfied, he turns back around. We are going to two very different Dominican Republics--and yet, we share the same excitement meeting family we have never met, I begin this journey by becoming human.