Even though the flight had taken off to the Dominican Republic, I had not yet fully left Atlanta in my mind. Signing on to the in-flight wifi, I began to take care of some synagogue business. Before I could accomplish all that I hoped, the man sitting in the window on my row turned to me and the woman sitting in between us and asked us in a cheerful Caribbean accent, "Why were we traveling to the Dominican Republic--and if we were a couple?"
The woman quickly corrected the assumption that we were traveling together. "I am going to visit my friend, who is a doctor that has set up a clinic in one of the bateys. My church has been going down there for the last 10 years and I come to the DR three to four times a year."
A batey, were formerly housing villages that were built for the sugar cane workers to live. They currently resemble shanty-towns. Since the largest majority of sugar cane workers were (and still are) Haitian, most of the residents are Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants. My journey with the American Jewish World Service will include a visit to the batey.
I listened for awhile. He was Dominican living in the United States and he still had a home in the DR. He had such a big smile talking about the Dominican Republic. He must have been in his 70s. He and the woman next me traded restaurant suggestions and suggestions for sights. She was from a small Alabama town and fell in love with the Dominican Republic through her relationship to the people.
When I shared that I was going to the Dominican Republic with a group of rabbis to better understand the human rights concerns with statelessness. I could not finish my sentence before the man who had been so cordial and friendly, barked at me that there is no issue with statelessness. Simultaneously, the woman next quite surprised, asked, "Are you really a rabbi." I bit my tongue as my favorite response to that question, "Is no I just play one on TV." Her eyes grew wide as she too, noticed the severe change in tone. I was being chastised.
"They have ruined their country and they come to the Dominican Republic to destroy ours. They cross the border expecting to be citizens. It does not work that way. They will not turn the Dominican Republic into another Haiti. You have misunderstood the whole situation."
This was not the turbulence I expected and noted ironically that even though the seat belt sign had dimmed while he was speaking; I needed to keep my fastened.
I listened quietly and when he finished, I gently said, "I understand that there are many Dominicans that are of Haitian descent--who have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades. They came to work in the sugar cane fields built on promises--and even if one wants to consider them migrant, what about the children born in the Dominican Republic who are now grown and all they have ever known is the Dominican Republic--aren't they citizens who have had their citizenship stripped."
He sized me up, "Yes, I agree with you there. But that's not the majority. But let me ask you another question."
He asked me my opinions about couples who live together without getting married. What happens to the children. Now it was a good two minutes into his question that I realized that he was not asking a question but giving a sermon and that this was his way of changing the topic.
Now, my journey had begun.