It’s been so great to be moved back in with my Dominican family. I was a little bit anxious about moving back in with my family, because I knew that it would be an adjustment again to go from living at the base all the time with running water and always having electricity, to moving back to the “campo”, or country where such basic things cannot always be counted on. My readjustment was significantly easier than I thought it would be. It felt in a way like I was just coming home, or back to a place that I was already comfortable being myself in. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to change homes in the middle of the semester, because it would have been so stressful to have to adjust to a new family at that time, but I love my Dominican family and I can see that I have been placed perfectly with them. I love that my siblings are my age and that we don’t have any crazy kids running around all the time, only on the weekends. J My house is a very peaceful place and I’m learning to love that so much. I am so looking forward to reading more this part of my semester, and I can’t wait to learn to relax even more.
Yesterday marked the last day of my first week at my ministry site. I work in a very poor community called El Callejon, which literally means an alley. There are about 400 – 500 people (which is about 120 families) that live there without permits. They are squatters who have constructed their houses out of boards, tin and whatever other materials that they could come up with. The level of poverty is pretty high there, similar to what I was picturing in my head when I decided to go to a third world country. The level of cleanliness and respect for one’s property is pretty low, though the level of relationship and connectedness within the community is so incredibly strong. I am working each day at a women’s social work site, where we meet with women and girls and have Bible studies, and then spend some time making crafts and things that they can display with pride in their homes as something that they did. It is a beautiful place to make relationships and learn about a different way of life.
This week has been incredible! It’s been a kind of stressful an emotional week for a number of reasons, but I am blown away at the beauty of the women that I have the privilege of working with each week. There are six groups of women that come to the social work site each week: a group of adult women (25 – 60), a group of young married women (16 – 25), two groups of teenaged girls (13 – 20), and two groups of young girls (5 – 12). Our days are split up by the mornings and the afternoons, and we often have one group in the morning and another in the afternoon. The group of women is the only group that comes twice a week, once for a Bible study and the other time for crafts. All of the other groups are split half and half with their hour and half that they spend at the site. This week we started all of the women on their Christmas projects, because they only have three more weeks until we have our Christmas parties and then are finished for the year.
After all of the women stop coming to “class” at their regular times each week, we will be working to prepare for the six weddings that Students International is conducting this December. In El Callejon, many people live together as couples but are never married. Individuals could live together for 30 years and call one another husband and wife, but one of the goals of the site that I work with is to promote healthy relationships. A marriage relationship cannot be fully functional until there is a level of trust, respect and commitment to one another. Many of the relationships fall apart because of cheating, fighting or the man just leaving. All of these problems are less easily committed if there is more of a commitment present in a relationship. Six couples have signed up so far to become legally married, and the group of people that I am working with is going to make a special day for them. In the two weeks before the wedding celebrations, we will be making decorations with the brides and giving them facials and manicures/pedicures to prepare them for their special day. I am so excited to be a part of this journey for them, because for many of the women it’s a giant step in realizing their self-worth and recognizing their need for security in their relationships.
On Wednesday we had a photo scavenger hunt in El Callejon. Our team consisted of Rachel and I from our social work site, along with my roommate Kara who works at the preschool in El Callejon. The other team was the three students from our group, Nate, Neil and Amy, who are working at the microfinance site. The two Students International staff that we all work under at each of our sites are Caroline and Ryan, who are married to one another, so needless to say there was a little bit of healthy competition. It rained for the first hour or so of our competition, but it was still so fun. It was so interesting to see the ways that people wanted to help us. We had to take pictures we certain people, touching a pig or standing in certain locations. Because we are very new to the community, we had to ask for help from people in the community. An 8 year old girl named Rosa and a 15 year old boy named Francis went with us almost the whole time and helped us find people, things and specific places. It was so interesting that people were so quick to invite us into their homes and to take pictures with them or with a special item of theirs. It was also interesting to see how Rosa and Francis knew each person or special thing that we needed to find. I think this just illustrates further the closeness that they experience in their community. It is so beautiful! At the end of our two hours, our team ended up demolishing the other team, earning almost twice as many points, thank you very much. We won a lunch or dinner at Pizza Pepperoni in town within the next few weeks. More than winning that though we made some great memories and continued down our path of building relationships with people in the community.
Although I have only been going to El Callejon for a week now, I’m realizing that the more time I spend there, the more that I am accepted. It’s been beautiful to be able to start saying hello to women by name because I have spent time with them at our social work site. There are probably about 100 women who come to class with us, and in a community of 500 that’s a lot of people that I have met and spoken to. It’s so exciting to walk to work and be able to see familiar faces and be recognized by young girls and old women. I feel like I am less of a spectacle as an American if people know who I am and see me regularly. I am so excited that I feel like I am becoming part of a community and less like a visitor. I am starting to build those relationships that drew me to this country, and I am so excited to continue getting to know these beautiful people!
As I’m sure you all know, I celebrated my 21st birthday here on Thursday. It was a cold rainy day; apparently the Dominican weather wanted me to feel like I was at home for my birthday. J I woke up in the morning to a huge hug from Denise, my Dominican mom. I opened up some gifts and letters that were sent with me from home, which both encouraged me and saddened me at the same time. It was totally bittersweet to celebrate such a special day away from home. At the morning at my site, Caroline and Daisy gave me a plate of brownies that they made for me, which is a super special thing here because none of the chocolate here tastes like normal chocolate. I eat lunch every day at Rachel and Amy’s house, two girls from Bethel who live with a family who is really close to El Callejon. When I got to Paula’s house for lunch on Thursday, the microfinance students were there, along with Rachel and Amy’s whole Dominican family. They all sang happy birthday to me as soon as I walked in, and we all had a really nice lunch together.
When I got home from work in the afternoon I was kind of bummed that I didn’t have plans to go out for dinner or doing anything special at night for my birthday. Kara and I decided that we would get a taxi and take our family out to dinner in the city. We asked Denise about it and she was really vague in her answers. When my sister Katherine finally got home and we were ready to go, I went to the bathroom real fast and when I came out they had turned all the lights out. They started singing happy birthday and they showed me the cake that they had made for me, which said “Felicidades, Margie” or congratulations. They had planned a little surprise party with our family. Our older brother, Aneudys was here, along with Katherine’s fiancé Julio. They had the most ridiculous collection of “American” foods for dinner. They had doritos, plain potato chips, plain white bread sandwiches with pineapple jelly, cheese and salami cubes and orange Fanta soda. Denise also made this “salsa”, which I’m pretty sure was just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, but they all loved it. It was such a fun time! We put some music on and talked and laughed and ate. It was pretty late when we got done so we watched part of a movie and then Kara and I went to bed. Reading all of my letters from friends at home made me a little bit sad that I wasn’t home today, but the lovely party that my family here threw me wiped all of that sadness away. I feel so loved and accepted by them.
I think it’s interesting that all day on Thursday; no one actually gave me any gifts. I love that birthday celebrations here are centered on spending time with friends and family. Also, it is centered on food! I love that people celebrate one another by being with them, and taking time out of their day to make someone else’s birthday special. They show one another how they care by being physically present during special times in each other’s lives, not by giving gifts or sending cards. I love that this is yet another example of how relationships are so important in the culture here, it’s so beautiful!
I have been thinking a lot about poverty since I’ve started working in El Callejon. I’ve been thinking about not just what poverty is, but whether or not it is God’s will, what starts poverty, what other types of poverty there are besides material poverty, and how living in a state of poverty affects people. Daisy and Caroline asked Rachel and I the question on our first day about whether we think that it is God’s will that people live in conditions such as those in El Callejon. Biblically, God promises that our basic needs will be taken care of: something to eat, clothes to cover our bodies and a roof over our heads. Beyond that though, we are not guaranteed a life of comfort or luxury. The people of El Callejon have those necessities, even if just barely. God desires progress in the lives of these people, but he does not promise that money will fall from the sky and they will all have rich futures. It is hard for me to think these thoughts and write these words knowing the circumstances that I come from, but I think that my opinions of what I actually need are being radically transformed by this experience.
More than material poverty, the thing that seems more pressing to me in the lives of the women that I’m working with is a poverty of spirit or relationships. Many women do not recognize their self-worth. They stay at home cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and are given little or no thanks for all of this hard work. It is a cultural expectation for them to do these things and to do them without thanks or praise. I think it would be hard to have self-worth if no one ever told you thank you, or told you that you were beautiful. Another type of poverty that I see in the lives of these women is a lack of positive and healthy relationships. Friendships where encouragement and accountability are present. Relationships that are not conditional on completing certain tasks. Friends that can laugh until they cry and trust one another with complete honesty. We as human beings have been created to be in relationship with other people, and when these positive relationships are not present in our lives, I think there is a serious deficit. The work that Students International is doing in this community is in the business of redemption, in redeeming these different types of poverty and restoring right relationships. I am so excited to be a part of something so beautiful and full of hope.
One beautiful story of redemption in El Callejon is the wall. There is this wall in El Callejon that was constructed years ago to basically stop the community from growing in one certain direction because some view it as an eyesore. Maybe it was too hard for people to view that kind of poverty and sleep well at night, but for whatever reason it was built to keep the people of El Callejon within certain limits. It used to be this long, grey, ugly concrete wall about 8 feet high and many hundreds of feet long. The beautiful thing is that in the past few years, a group of people working with Students International, along with people who have come here with short term trips have started painting murals on it in small sections. Now, instead of being a shameful wall, it has been turned into something beautiful, something to be celebrated. I love the testimony of redemption and change that can be taken from that story. Something that was once shameful and ugly has been turned into something beautiful, something to be proud of. What a beautiful model of my hope for my time in El Callejon. I don’t expect to revolutionize the entire community, but I hope to help just one woman or young girl realize her own self-beauty and self-worth, changing her thoughts about herself into something beautiful, something of great worth which is meant to be treasured.