Moral Courage in the Face of Injustice: A Call to Action from a Global Justice Fellow

The following piece was written by Elaine Shizgal Cohen, a member of AJWS’s New York Global Justice Fellowship cohort.

I, along with twelve other participants in this year’s New York based Global Justice Fellowship of American Jewish World Service, returned last week from Santo Domingo where we engaged in powerful encounters with representatives of seven NGOs. The deadline of June 17th hovered over most of these meetings, several of which involved Dominican activists of Haitian descent who are not migrants and whose families have lived for generations in the Dominican Republic.

We became painfully aware that the migrant workers who were the focus of the NY Times article of June 16th are only one of the vulnerable groups at risk of deportation to Haiti. People with non-Hispanic surnames and of dark skin, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were born in the Dominican Republic suffer ongoing and regular discrimination and violence; they have very limited access to educational, social and medical services because they lack official documentation.

One of the groups with which we met was an inspiring example of self-empowerment and moral courage. The women of AJWS grantee MUDHA (Movimiento De Mujeres Domincos Haitiana) exhibit determination that belies their vulnerability, as they work against gender-based violence, and for HIV prevention and sexual health education. They are not sitting by idly, despairing in their growing defenselessness. Indeed, MUDHA’s legal staff has been working to regularize the documentation of hundreds, but they have yet to receive promised ID cards, leaving them vulnerable to arbitrary detention and potentially deportation which would tear them apart from the only place they know as home.

We came away from our meetings filled with admiration for the ways these marginalized people have banded together to advocate for their basic human rights. Despite the poverty and discrimination that characterize their everyday lives, they teach their children to study and sing, hoping for a better life, even though they know that social change often moves slowly.

The government’s insistence on declaring long-time residents who are Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless has spread fear throughout their communities. Even if this group will not be the first to face deportations, their chronic vulnerability has been heightened by the actions of the authorities and deepened by blatant expressions of racism directed toward them in the streets and the media. Despite asserting its right to “determine its own immigration policy without the interference of other states,” we learned that the United States has significant power and influence in the Dominican Republic. US-AID is the single largest funder of HIV / AIDS prevention programs and provides indispensable retroviral medications. Its factories employ thousands of Dominicans (often under unsafe and polluting conditions) and a steady flow of American tourists lifts up the economy of the Dominican Republic. For internal and external reasons—and for the sake of justice—the government of the Dominican Republic needs to extend the timeline for Dominicans of Haitian descent to gather the documentation that is required for them to have the right to remain.  Furthermore, the U.S. should be first in line to help and to exert moral courage and leadership.

Sign the AJWS petition urging Secretary Kerry to end the crisis in the Dominican Republic.

Elaine Elaine Shizgal Cohen is a member of AJWS’s New York Global Justice Fellowship cohort. The Global Justice Fellowship is a a program that inspires, educates and trains key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activist leaders in support of global justice. Elaine wrote this reflection at the end of her trip with the Global Justice Fellows to the Dominican Republic, where they learned from grassroots activists working to overcome poverty and injustice in their own communities. Read the bios of the 17 New York Global Justice Fellows.