When Amanda Nocera visted the Dominican Republic last summer, the Sewickley Academy senior was unsure of what to expect traveling for the first time on an airplane to an unfamiliar country. She never expected this trip would change her life and her way of thinking.
To tourists, she said the country with its pristine beaches seems like a tropical paradise. But she quickly learned that beyond the resorts and the white Caribbean sand, thousands of dispossessed Haitians toil under armed guards on sugar cane plantations, called “Bateyes.”
“It really changed how I look at things,” Amanda, 18, of Darlington said.
Amanda's experience led her to launch Project Batey: Giving Dominicans a Future as part of her senior project. She also started a club at school called Club Batey, which is working to raise awareness and resources for Batey inhabitants.
Amanda spoke Saturday at the academy’s International Dinner, explaining the major problem is that the Dominican government will not issue any Batey inhabitant a birth certificate because they have Haitian heritage.
This means generations of children are being born into the Bateyes and will never receive a Dominican birth certificate in what Amanda described as a “never-ending cycle.” With no nationality documentation, inhabitants are unable to escape terrible labor conditions and insufficient wages.
“The birth certificate is their ticket to freedom,” Amanda said.
On Saturday, the group sold mock birth certificates for $40, the price Haitians are required to pay for such documentation. Club Batey hopes to raise $4,000 to purchase 100 birth certificates for people living in the Bateyes of Margarita, Cachena and Experimental.
So far, the club has raised enough to buy 80. Last Friday was nicknamed Batey Day at school, where students, who normally adhere to a dress code, could pay to wear sweatpants, hoodies or leggings. Project Batey made $2,121 from the initiative.
For Amanda, it all started in April, when she applied for the McAdams Global Fellowship for international community service. Never intending to win, she was surprised when she was awarded the fellowship and an opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic. The fellowship paid for everything, including airfare, supplies and expenses for the trip, which lasted from July 17 to Aug. 2.
Amanda first learned about the daily struggle for survival visiting the Bateys on her trip. She said they live in deplorable conditions. Tiny huts have no sanitation, and threats of starvation, malnutrition and disease are a constant reality. Corner stores do sell water and rice, but at exorbitant prices, she said.
“During my trip, I was conscious of how fortunate I am,” she said.
But Amanda said it wasn’t just the poverty, but also the inability to become free and establish themselves in the outside workforce.
She said sugar companies trick Haitians into believing they will have a better life working on the plantations, unknowing that the price of sugar is a lifetime of slavery. Once Haitians are brought over illegally to work in the fields, they are stripped of their visa or their identification is burned. They live under constant surveillance and are trapped and forced to dedicate their lives to back-breaking work of cutting sugar cane, she said.
“The Haitian men are unaware that they will be trapped for the rest of their lives living like slaves,” she said.
She said there are people living in Bateys of mixed Haitian and Dominican descent, but the government will not issue them a birth certificate because they have Haitian heritage.
“With an average earned income of $2 a day, the possibility of saving enough money to afford the $40 cost is near impossible.”
Amanda said she spent some time working in the fields and it was strenuous. Workdays are generally 16 hours, sun up to sun down, and workers wear long pants and sleeves despite the heat because juices from chopped cane makes your skin itch, she said.
Amanda said the life-changing trip helped her realize how fortunate she is. When she first came to Sewickley Academy as a sophomore, she said she was conscious of what she didn't have, but now looks at the many resources available as an opportunity to do something productive.
"During my trip I was conscious of how fortunate I really am... My experience truly changed my life and my way of thinking," she said.
In May, for her senior project, Amanda will return to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane fields and witness the process of locals obtaining birth certificates.
Donate to Project Batey
To send a donation to Project Batey: Giving Dominicans a Future, make checks out to "Sewickley Academy" and mail to Sewickley Academy Project Batey c/o Joan Cucinotta, 315 Academy Ave, Sewickley, PA 15143.
Check out some of today's other top stories here.