Tuesday, December 20, 2011

State Side

About an hour ago I was woken up from a deep sleep by a sudden jolt as my plane touched down in Logan Airport Boston, MA: I had come home from the Dominican Republic. This whole last week has been a blur for me. My memories of the last couple of days; of finally turning in my capstone investigation, our group departure dinner, a relaxing trip to the breathtaking, Jaragua National Park with its untouched natural beauty, and all of the individual goodbye’s along with the inevitable bitter-sweet feelings they evoked, have all blended together to the point where I can barely remember the actual chronology of the events themselves.
This same phenomenon holds true, albeit on a grander scale, for much of the semester. A lot of what I did and saw these past several months in the Dominican Republic I can remember as clear as if it had happened yesterday. However, the whole experience has acquired an ethereal quality to it that makes it seem timeless in hindsight. It could have been yesterday or, just as easily, it could have been a year ago, that I was last in Los Platanitos; a low income Dominican barrio (neighborhood) where I did most of my work for my NGO Oné Respe. The sound of the rapid guttural kreyól shouted by the Haitian migrants living there, the smell of the decaying trash left out on the dirt street, and the sight of the careless smiles of the kids at the local school are timeless memories which I think that I will remember just as clearly 20 years from now as I do today.
Some things I try not to think about. My classmate, who lost his life to the police, figures prominently among them. More abstractly, I try not to dwell on the fact that there is so much that I was never able to change while I was over there. A lot of what I did seems downright fruitless. In Los Platanitos, I never did get one of my English students, Pepe, an ethnic Dominican, to refer to his darker skinned classmates by any name other than “el haitiano,” (the Haitian). In addition I saw plenty of easily reversible problems, which, through negligence, will inevitably end disastrously. For example, one young boy I know was recently diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (an increasingly severe problem in the Dominican Republic). His parents are told again and again to feed him greens, but instead they continue to give him an unhealthy diet of rice and fried food. Furthermore, they routinely neglect to check his blood sugar (although they have all the gear to do so) and his insulin is often ignored.  What, I wonder, will I find if I check in on this family a couple years down the line? Will he still have all of his limbs in tact? Will he still have his eyesight? Will he still be alive?  
That is not to say that the trip has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Development work always seems like some kind of Sisyphean game a wackamole; you solve one problem and 2 or 3 more spring up elsewhere. Its impossible to leave a service trip feeling completely satisfied. That said, while I still have grave concerns about the country I left behind, I am extremely grateful that I got this opportunity to work in Dominican Republic. I feel that this experience has changed me a lot in some good ways, and I wouldn’t trade my time here for the world. In the meantime, it will take me a little bit to come to terms with and put into perspective some of the things I saw and did in the Dominican Republic. So for now, I’ll let my memories ruminate in their unreal and timeless state while I get used to life back here in the United States.  
Gracias por leer
Joe (José) Strzempko


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Death in the Dominican Republic

Hey all,

            Today I am writing about a subject that is both very serious and very tragic, but also extremely important for someone considering studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. I had wanted to write about this sooner, but, at the advice of my program director, waited until such time as emotions were cooled and more was known. In part because this is a blog for Clark University rather than a personal one, I will do my best to stay away from any interpretation of events (although I have formed my own opinions about what happened) and present the facts as they are allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. 
It was Friday, the 28th of October when, while finishing up some homework in the PCUMM library in Santiago Dominican Republic, I got a mass text from my program supervisor informing us in the program that an “estudiante de apoyo” (support student) had died and his “velario” (wake) would be that evening. No mention was made as to the circumstances of his death. This student had been very close with our program director and every one of us had met him personally several times. He was 23 years of age. Shocked that this had happened, and wanting to show solidarity for the family, I quickly went home, put on some nice clothes, and continued on to our program director’s house where her husband, Marcos, was waiting to take those of us who could get there to the wake. When I arrived, I immediately asked Marcos what had happened. “Él fue matado por la policía” was his response. The police killed him.
At the wake, the immediate family of the deceased sat on a couch with the Mother trying to console her. The sight of her frail body contorted with grief and her anguished cries of “Mi hijo. Mi hijo” (My son. My son.) were difficult to bear. Worse still, was the dead and hopeless look in her eyes when circumstances or sheer exhaustion forced her to keep silent. The sight of those eyes is something that will be forever burned into my memory. In the corners, people traded accounts in subdued tones of how the death had occurred. “He was trying to steal a car and shot at the police when they tried to arrest him” some said. “He was the king pin of a drug cartel and was killed in a police stake out” said others. But most there, especially friends and family, felt that he was an innocent victim of police brutality.
The official statement by the police is that the student in question had been under investigation for some time for possible connections with drug related activity. They claim to have intercepted a letter written by him extorting a man for 5 million pesos (about $125,000). As to the circumstances surrounding his death: the police claim that when they cornered him with two “accomplices” at the edge of town, the three violently resisted arrest with (at least one) firearm and all three were killed in the ensuing firefight. (Listin Diario, Oct 29th 2011). If one does believe this fantastic account, then perhaps the police were only doing their job.
The students at PCUMM, however, will give you a very different story. The morning after the wake, several others in my program and I went to a public vigil/protest of police brutality led by the support students of PCUMM. In the course of the protest, we marched through the streets of Santiago shouting slogans such as “Policia National: una banda criminal” (National Police: a criminal band) and “Policia no me mata” (police don’t kill me [mercifully the police force in Santiago isn’t prone to reverse psychology]). After the protest, I asked one of the support students for her take on the events. “He would never have been involved in criminal activity” She said (paraphrased from the original Spanish). “He worked with the support students, maintained a very high gpa, and kept a steady job. Even if he were the sort of person to be involved with drugs, which he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have had the time. The police got the wrong person, killed him, and now they’re lying to cover their tracks. He was a victim of police brutality.”      
If so, he wouldn’t be the first. The Dominican police force is notoriously apt to shoot first and ask questions later. A study by Amnesty International finds that a full 10% of the homicides in the Dominican Republic are committed by the police. The comparative statistics for the United States and the United Kingdom are 3% and <1% respectively. (“Amnesty: Killings by Dominican police ‘alarming”’ CNN.com). According to Javier Zuniga, the director of Amnesty International in the Dominican Republic, “Dominican Police have been responsible for an alarming number of tortures and killings, many of which go uninvestigated by the government.” (“Amnesty International accuses Dominican police of killings,” The Washington Post.com)
In this specific case, the truth is that I don’t know what actually happened and therefore I’m not going to pass judgment one way or another. What I can say is that this is a very tragic event and that all of our hearts go out to the family of the deceased in this difficult time. Importantly, it should be pointed out that this post isn’t meant to discourage perspective applicants from studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. It is simply meant to present them with as accurate of an illustration as possible of what life is actually like here, and to remind them of the inherent dangers that exist in any excursion to a developing nation. In addition, I would like to encourage any readers to take a moment after you are done reading this post to call or email your mom or dad and tell them that you love them. I know that I did after the wake and, as this narrative aptly demonstrates, you never know when you’ll get that opportunity again.    

Monday, October 31, 2011

Clases y Trabajo


Hey all,

            Been, awhile since my last post. With the semester really getting underway and homework, projects, and my non-profit really getting in front of me, its definitely been hard to set time aside to write here; ya tú sabes. Anyway, I thought that in this post I might divert from the more Dominican-centric direction this blog has been going lately and talk a little bit about my academic and work related experience so far.
            Initially, my most time consuming class was Metódos de Investigación (Research Methods), which, like all the classes I am taking this semester, was conducted in Spanish.  Metódos was particularly difficult not only because I took most of it at time, earlier in the semester, when I was struggling to get my Spanish up to par with the demands class and life placed on it, but also because the course was “front loaded” or conducted in such a way so that the bulk of the course was taught earlier in the semester and then began to drop off both in class time and work load. To put things in perspective, in the fist several weeks we had Metódos 2 hours a day 4 days a week (one week 5 days a week) and now we no longer have a regularly scheduled lecture. Our teachers decided to do this because, in mid to late October, we all began to plan, and now execute, our own investigations into the community, and thanks to the front loaded Metódos course, we now have all the skills necessary to do this. You can check out similar classes offered at Clark to see how it compares and contrasts with my experience. http://www.clarku.edu/departments/idce/docs/syllabi/ID%20132%20Syllabus.pdf

Another class that I am taking is titled Pobreza y Desarollo (poverty and development). Our Pobreza class was initially hard to follow since the lesson plans seemed, at the beginning, erratic and devoid of focus (and of course because it was all in Spanish). However, in recent weeks, the course has seemed to come full circle and our teacher’s seemingly aimless jump from the health care structure in the D.R. to the monetary policies of the IMF is actually starting to make sense: maybe there is a method to his madness. So far, the class has consisted of readings, papers, and presentations; we have not had a test or quiz so far. To compare this layout to similar classes at Clark check out http://www.clarku.edu/departments/idce/id/ba/
Despite the fact that I am using Spanish every day, at my job, in classes, and even at home, the program still decided (wisely) to sign us all up for Spanish class. There are two options for Spanish class: Español II Intermedio and Español III Avanzado. Given my (as I thought at the time) impressive command of the Spanish language, I thought that surely I would be in Español III Avanzado. Actually, I placed into Español II and, having had time to see just how far my Spanish still has to come before I’ll really be proficient, I think I’m a lot better off where I am. Español II is a lot like any run of the mill Spanish Class you could take at a college level, although much of it is improvised to suit our specific needs which we have the luxury of doing in a class of only 4 students which is probably smaller than most of the classes you could get at Clark. But to make sure and look at other aspects of the Clark foreign language program, take a look at http://www.clarku.edu/departments/foreign/faculty.cfm
Finally, each of us is required to take a capstone course. This largely centers on an independent investigation relating to the non-profit that we are required to work with. Personally, I’m working with the organization Oné Respe (Haitian Creole for "Honor" and "Respect"), a group that works to integrate Haitians and low-income groups generally into Dominican society. My specific function in Oné Respe is as both a sports coordinator for the Grupo de Jóvenes (young people group), a 7-hour/week commitment, and as the English teacher in the local school, a 4-hour/week commitment. Given the focus of my work, I decided to direct my investigation in the direction of finding the root causes of, and therefore eventually preventing, chronic student absences from class and Grupo de Jóvenes activities. Ill post more about my project as it comes together.
            Anyway, that’s my academic and work life so far. Keep checking for more (hopefully more frequent) updates.      

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Community Development: Decentralized or Streamlined?

   In the conception of most communitarians, community development, that is the economic and societal growth of a community, and community activism, the active participation of those within a community to facilitate this growth, are one and the same. In my opinion, this is both a logical and beneficial view. Working in the Dominican Republic with the abroad program CIEE service learning this semester, one thing that has become clear to me is that the most successful community projects are those that are organized specifically to suit the environment in which they take place. The key to any project is sustainability, and this is only possible if the apparatus’ for the continuation of the project are established down to the local level.

However, the fact is that some areas will have more human and material resources than others, which inevitably leads to unequal growth between communities. The eventual result of this sort of development is chronic wealth inequality from region to region within a nation. Therefore, while some communities will become empowered in the manner described above, others will simply remain underdeveloped if they must rely only upon domestic recourses.
I have noticed this trend in my own volunteer work, with the organization Oné Respé, located in Santiago Dominican Republic. In this organization, I help to coordinate youth groups in two communities; Los Platanitos and Los Peres. As a manager of the youth groups, part of my job is to organize sports events in Los Peres on Mondays and Los Platanitos on Tuesdays. To my understanding, the community Los Peres has markedly superior recourses to those of Los Platanitos. For example, Los Peres has a fully functional and well maintained baseball field where we are able to hold sports events while los Platanitos has only a poorly kept grassy area up in the hills. Predictably, sports events so far have been well attended and very successful in Los Peres while we have struggled to get the sports program off the ground in Los Platanitos.    
This phenomenon can be seen in the national development of the entire country as well, albeit on a grander scale. Over the past 20 years, the Dominican Republic has seen some of the most dynamic economic growth in Latin America and therefore some of the most extensive opportunities for community development. In addition, the Dominican Republic has, a relatively inactive federal government  (Pobreza y Desarollo) meaning that most community development is kept decentralized. The results are telling. While the poverty rate has dropped a full 10% over the past 10 years, all of the economic growth has been in the urban regions of the nation leaving a gaping 25% income inequality between the urban and rural regions. Attempts have been made by such organizations as the US Peace Corps to develop the campo, or rural regions, of the nation, but local recourses have so far proved insufficient to jumpstart development in these areas. 
            If development is to be pursued in areas with inadequate recourses to develop themselves, it must be catalyzed by an outside force with the power to harness and redistribute the resources of other regions; i.e. the federal government. To the communitarian, putting any aspects of development in the hands of the federal government (aside from funding) seems horrifying. After all, how can a distant central authority possibly be capable of meeting the specific needs of a community? Such worries however, are misplaced. It is easily feasible that any government programs for community development could work side by side with indigenous organizations and therefore combine a detailed knowledge of the local area with adequate recourses from the capitol to bring about sustainable development.
I am not saying that it is advisable to hand over the reigns of every aspect development from the communities themselves to the central government. Often, there may be uniquely local obstacles to advancement that can only be met at the ground level. However, to avoid intolerable inequalities, whether they be between the economic growth of Puerta Plata and Santa Lucia or between the quality of the sports programs in Los Platanitos and Los Peres, broad based development programs that harness outside recourses may sometimes be preferable to locally grown decentralized ones.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Trashy Jobs

Santa Lucia is a barrio or neighborhood in the northwestern sector of Santiago, Dominican Republic. In many ways, it could be one of many barrios in the Caribbean nation. To a North American, of course, it seems to be woefully under developed; with a clay road which can be traversed only slowly, and housing made largely of stacked concrete blocks with tin roofs and few modern conveniences. But in a nation where 40% of the population lives in a situation of poverty, these conditions are hardly exceptional.
What does set Santa Lucia apart, however, is the giant landfill that dominates the “skyline” of the community, and the consequent lifestyle that has sprung up around it: that of the “buzos.” Buzos are individuals who make their living by digging through human trash, usually in order to find valuable items that can then be sold. The effects that this “profession” has on the already delicate public health of the region are deplorable; not only to the buzos themselves, who can, and do, pick up diseases while on the job, but also to the surrounding community.
Although difficult to quantify, the physiological effects of the buzos are equally damaging to the community. Elizabeth from the organization “Niños Con Un Esperanza (NCUE)” translated “children with hope” notes  (paraphrased from the original Spanish) “Children who grow up as buzos are extremely difficult to integrate back into regular society. It stays with them.” Elizabeth continued, saying “People of all ages usually get involved in buzo activity because they must. The high unemployment and lack of economic activity often leaves people with no other option than life as a buzo.”
In order to combat this alarming phenomenon, NCUE has proposed an ambitious program called “Reciclado de Deseclas Plasticos en el Sector de Santa Lucia” (Spanish for “recycling of the abandoned plastic in the Santa Lucia sector). This program would construct an easily accessible plastic recycling center within the community. The recycling center would be overseen and operated by NCUE and staffed by 20 people selected from the community. For Santa Lucia, this program would not only slightly ease the high unemployment by creating jobs for 20 community members, but also mean cleaner streets because it would provide buzos with the incentive to collect plastic. In addition, since plastic is a relatively safe material to handle, the buzos themselves would benefit because there would be less need for them pursue more dangerous material such as glass or metal. Perhaps most importantly, however, once the recycling center is able to become profitable, the  extra income would go to NCUE, which could then afford to take more children off the streets and away from the buzo life style. NCUE is currently applying for the prestigious ping grant to fund this community project. With this program we hope to improve the community by providing opportunities for dignified work,” says Elizabeth. “This directly benefits Santa Lucia with increased economic opportunities.”
Of course, no one program can solve a problem as pervasive and deleterious as that of the buzos overnight. However, organizations that persistently work on several fronts to remedy the situation can begin to make a difference. NCUE, for one, is currently working with over 200 children and providing them with a structured learning environment, life skills, and, in some cases, a first taste of human compassion. The program “Reciclado” would expand and augment this process by addressing the buzo issue more directly and providing alternative means of income for community members. Although small, this program would be a step towards a better life for many, and in a community like Santa Lucia, that is not to be ignored. “If nothing else” says Elizabeth, “we would like to provide the community with hope.”   
   -Joseph Strzempko 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Vacation Ends

I’d like to start out this post by making a general announcement to my friends and relatives on the east coast that: yes, I am fine. Irene didn’t even come through here. In fact it’s you guys who should be worried about the hurricane.
That said, my second week here has been both amazing and exhausting. Having been properly coddled and pampered our first week to prevent the onset of a too severe case of culture shock, on Tuesday, we finally got down to the serious business of community service. Being enrolled in the program Santiago Service Learning, service is, after all, the whole reason that we’re here. Therefore, we are required to volunteer at some organization for the semester. To this end, we spent the week touring various organizations so that each of us could find somewhere to work.
 Tuesday was devoted exclusively to the hospital and affiliated health organizations of Juan XIII http://centrojui. At Juan XIII, we spent the morning inspecting the hospital portion of the organization. The hospital itself was well-maintained, well run, and seemed all together quite efficient.  Still, from the crowded waiting rooms and harried looking staff, it was obvious that they did not have the recourses to meet the insatiable demand imposed upon them by the surrounding community. That afternoon, we went to another Juan XIII owned organization, named “Cambodia” (not sure why), which was a whole neighborhood devoted exclusively to people suffering from hypertension and asthma. The community was staffed by several medical personal that did daily rounds around the neighborhood to check up on all the patients. We got to follow a pair of them around their rout to get a good idea of what working for this organization would be like. The sight of the run down, poverty stricken, barrio that these people call home was disquieting, and the sight of a women’s bulging, diabetes ravaged, leg was heart breaking. But everyone we visited was so polite and infectiously optimistic that it was hard not to be cheerful with them.
On Wednesday, we visited Arte a Mano, an organization designed to support local artists and artisans in order to both contribute to the cultural richness of the region and to grow the local economy. Art, alas, has never been a strong suit of mine; so I was skeptical from the get go. What did it for me, however, was being assigned to help transport some of the works. Because of my inherent clumsiness, I found carrying expensive, pain stakingly prepared, and extremely delicate pieces of art around the city of Santiago to be a terrifying experience. Accion Callejara http://ong.tupatrocinio.com/accion-callejera-fundacion-educativa-inc-ong-665.html, another organization we visited on Wednesday, I found to be a little more to my taste. It is essentially an after school program/homeless shelter (depending on the need of the person in question) for the youth of the surrounding community.  It especially focuses on children who live on the street, by taking them in and working to reintegrate them into society as well as provide them with an education.
On Friday, we visited the final organization, One Respe http://www.onerespe.com/  (creol [the language of Haiti] for “Honor and Respect”). This organization works to provide Haitians and Haitian (I.E. dark skinned)–Dominicans living in the Dominican Republic with wider opportunities for participation in society; a process which is made difficult by the racist attitudes of some across the nation.
When all is said and done, I have to say that I would be happy and proud to work for any one of these organizations (even Arte a Mano which, after all, has a very noble mission). At the moment, I find myself leaning towards either Accion Callajera or One Respe, because my polisci background is good for the sort the sort of clerical paper pushing that both of them want out of volunteers. But again, who knows? Maybe I’ll have a sudden change of heart tonight and decide art is my thing after all. Either way, I’m very exited by my potential prospects and look forward to getting to know my future service program, whatever it may be.             

Monday, August 22, 2011

D-Day +7

One week ago on Monday August the 15th 3 Clark Students; Nara Baker, Molly Cooksey, Natalia Salazar, and myself departed from the U.S. for the Dominican Republic. From the very beginning our journey was rife with perils. A series of flight delays and cancelations caused Nara to miss the majority of the first day and forced Natalia to sleep in the Miami airport. Molly and I were able to make all of our flights on time, however, because of a mix up in the Miami Airport, our checked luggage got lost and we were both left to make due with our carry -on’s for the first several days.
Fortunately, the lack of the essentials I had packed was more than made up for by the accommodation and compassion of my host family. My host family is made up of my host mother, Rafaela and her husband, Victor. They were nice enough to provide me with everything I might need, and accommodating enough to put up with all of my shortcomings; from my all-together poor command of the Spanish language to my seemingly irredeemable klutziness which resulted, among other things, in my hand being caught in the ceiling fan (in fairness it was a very low ceiling fan, sometimes I feel I’m just too tall for this country…sigh).
So far the Dominican seems to me to be a country of extremes. In this last week I’ve seen sparkling brilliant-blue rivers and waterfalls deep in the middle of a lush and pristine jungle, but also, while jogging in downtown Santiago, almost fallen into an open sewer festering with trash, insects, rats, and human filth. I’ve climbed to the top of El Monumento de Santiago, a breathtaking tower thrusting violently into the sky, dominating the city of Santiago (constructed during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, supposedly to celebrate his extensive, ahem, machismo), only to walk back down to find pathetic hovels made of wood and tin. And, of course, I’ve seen the startling opulence of the wealthy class of the nation with gorgeous and well-dressed Dominican caballeros and damas burning holes in the dance floors of the dicotecas (clubs) on weeknights till four in the morning when they call taxi’s to return them to their palacios (mansions).  From the door to the taxi, each one haughtily ignores the army of beggars who approach them dressed in rags with drawn, thin, and dirty faces devoid expectation or hope.
To be sure, I’m having an awesome time. From the nightlife, to the other people in the program, to my host family, I can say with certainty that I’m really lucky to be in the program Santiago Service Learning and to have this unique opportunity. I look forward to great experiences and a couple of hard lessons (hopefully not as painful as getting my hand caught in the fan tho) as I get to know the Dominican Republic.