Life in the bateyes—low-income sugarcane villages in the Dominican Republic—is harsh. It’s especially difficult for Haitian immigrants who were lured to the bateyes under false pretenses or taken there under duress, who fled there for political asylum, or who were born there to immigrant parents of Haitian descent.
Medical assistance is rudimentary or nonexistent for those whose job it is to cut sugarcane. Sleeping on dirt floors or on iron beds without mattresses, families of five or more share living quarters that are often as small as 9 feet by 10 feet.
Although sugarcane remains the Dominican Republic’s main agricultural export, many of the government-owned plantations have stopped production due to stricter controls on immigration.
Meanwhile, Haitian cane cutters still work on some government and private farms. To remain competitive with international markets that use mechanized harvesters, the sugarcane workers are paid a wage that is below the minimum wage for farm workers.
In the bateyes, there is limited or no electricity and usually no running water. There is often no public schooling for the children of those who work in the cane fields, and what exists is of a low standard.
But three organizations—Christian Reformed World Missions, COCREF (Colegio Cristianos Reformados or “Christian Reformed Schools”), and Worldwide Christian Schools—are trying to make a difference, at least in the area of education. It is not easy, given the resources needed to do an adequate job and the fact that the government has ignored the education needs of Haitian families. But there are success stories.
One such story involves a young woman from a small town in the interior of the Dominican Republic. She attended a COCREF elementary school in San Mateo, from there moved on to a COCREF high school, and then went to college. Today she teaches English and Spanish at the school she first attended.
Another success is Jerico Christian School, located in a batey about an hour northeast of the capital city, Santo Domingo. Jerico Christian School began offering classes in 1988. Meeting in the Christian Reformed Church of Fao, it provides hope for struggling families.
COCREF says that the majority of students from all of its 21 schools go on to college, and many have entered and won various academic competitions. In addition, many alumni are working as teachers, principals, doctors, and lawyers.
“Christian education has affected my life in marvelous and exceptional ways, has helped me grow as a person, and has taught me how great is the love of Christ towards us,” one high school student says.
“Our students are excellent,” says Sandra Villanueva, COCREF’s executive director. “What encourages us most doing this work with the children is to see their changed lives, and seeing the parents accept Jesus when they see their children changed.”
Today, Jerico Christian School meets in a four-classroom building that Worldwide Christian Schools built near the local church. The school has bathrooms and a security wall. Students from preschool through fifth grade attend classes and prepare for a brighter future.
“The mission of our ministry is to provide holistic Christian school education to children and youth in marginalized communities where mostly Haitian immigrant families live in the Dominican Republic, helping them to achieve academic excellence and become men and women according to God’s purposes for them and develop knowledge and skills to serve society,” says Mario Luis Matos, chair of COCREF’s board of directors.
But fulfilling that mission can seem next to impossible, since COCREF serves the most disadvantaged population in the Dominican Republic.
The schools charge tuition, and 71 percent of their resources come from the communities they serve. Revenue also comes from international sources, including Christian Reformed World Missions, Worldwide Christian Schools, and the relief arm of the Netherlands Reformed congregations.
Even so, the schools are still underfunded. With no increase in six years to teachers’ already low salaries, last year COCREF lost 41 percent of its teachers to government-funded public schools—where only 46 percent of the students pass national exams, compared to COCREF’s 84 percent.
To meet this pressing need, CRWM, COCREF, and Worldwide Christian Schools-USA have launched a student-sponsorship program called “Hope Rising.” The program will provide funding for students and an opportunity for personal relationships to grow and flourish, engaging students and sponsors in mutual encouragement and learning.
Hope Rising plans to grow at a measured pace, starting with one school. The program will expand to another school when all of the students at the first school who are eligible for the program have a sponsor. If one child has received a sponsorship pledge, all of the children in that family will also receive support.
Families in the U.S. can support this program by visiting the Hope Rising website at http://us.wwcs.org/hoperising. Canadians can support the initiative through CRWM-Canada’s COCREF program (www.crwm.org/projects) or WWCS-Canada’s School Sponsorship program (www.wwcs.ca).