Activist's death leads void in Dominican Republic

AP News
Posted: Dec 27, 2011 2:44 PM
Activist's death leads void in Dominican Republic

Sonia Perez was the undisputed champion of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic, fighting deep discrimination and helping them get birth certificates, housing and education.

Her passing earlier this month of a heart attack at age 48 has left many activists wondering who will carry on her work at a crucial time.

"I don't see who can replace her," said Edwin Paraison, who worked with Pierre and was Haiti's former minister of Haitians living abroad. "Sonia is the kind of woman who is born once a century."

People of Haitian descent, or even just darker skin, have long been condemned to menial jobs, subject to deportation and denied access to school and jobs in the Dominican Republic.

In 30 years of activism, Pierre helped countless people obtain birth certificates over the resistance of government officials. She led marches and organized rallies, fighting for better conditions for people in the sugar cane camps, or bateys, where she grew up.

Pierre's passionate activism drew death threats, but it also earned her the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the 2010 International Women of Courage Award, which she received while standing between first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, have long had a contentious relationship.

Haiti's military invaded the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 1822, occupying its neighbor for 22 years. Then in 1937, former Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the massacre of 20,000 Haitian migrants in a quest to "cleanse" his country.

Over the years, relations between the two countries slowly improved, with the Dominican Republic becoming a staging ground for aid efforts following the devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people in Haiti.

Roughly 100,000 Haitians fled to the Dominican Republic after the earthquake, and the Dominican government temporarily suspended immigration enforcement. But early this year, authorities began arresting and then deporting thousands of Haitians. Dominican officials said they feared the spread of a cholera outbreak in Haiti, but civil right advocates said hundreds of legal migrants were also detained.

An estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic.

Last month, the Dominican Supreme Court upheld a 2007 law aimed at reducing the use of fake documents, which has led the government to confiscate or annul birth certificates of those born to Haitian immigrants. Many of those immigrants were given work visas in previous decades that the Dominican government now refuses to recognize.

Nonprofit groups estimate that at least 1,600 people have been denied their documents as a result of the law, and activists worry others will follow now that Pierre is gone.

Pierre experienced the marginalization firsthand as one of 12 children raised in a Dominican migrant worker camp.

At just 13, she rallied her Dominican-Haitian neighbors and organized a march to demand rights for sugar cane workers, spending a day in jail while police threatened to deport her to Haiti, where her mother was born.

Pierre later founded the Dominican-Haitian Women's Movement, a nonprofit group that builds homes in poor communities, helps secure basic services such as potable water, organizes workshops for women, and fights for the rights of Dominican-Haitians.

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Altagracia Jean Joseph is a 25-year-old law school student who credits Pierre with helping her obtain a copy of her birth certificate so she could enroll in college.

"I consider myself one of Sonia's daughters," she said. "I am sure there are many of us."

But thousands of others are still awaiting birth certificates needed to obtain a job or go to school.

Mireina Fortine, a 45-year-old woman who sells bread for a living, said she has fought to obtain those documents for her nephews without success.

"They tell us that since our last name is foreign, and we're children of Haitians, they cannot give us a birth certificate," she said.

Ninaj Raoul, director of the New York-based Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said she believes there is enough frustration boiling among Dominican-Haitians to carry on Pierre's work.

Raoul attended a Dec. 8 protest in which hundreds of Dominican-Haitians and their supporters demanded protection of their rights. The protest took place four days after Pierre died of a heart attack.

"It was pretty clear at that point that the legacy of Sonia Pierre is continuing and that the fight is still on," Raoul said. "I don't think there is any one person who can replace Sonia Pierre. But many people can replace her, and I saw that happening."


Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.