Dominican Sonia Pierre awarded the 2006 RFK Memorial Award

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Dominican Sonia Pierre awarded the 2006 RFK Memorial Award

Post by admin » Sun Nov 19, 2006 3:51 pm


[quote] The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award is one of the many good works of my brother's foundation. It serves as a reminder to all of us of the vital importance of human rights and the many challenges we face at home and abroad to protect those rights. It also reminds each of us of the power of an individual to make a difference in the lives of many.

It's a privilege to present this year's award to one of those individuals, Sonia Pierre. Sonia has devoted her life to the cause of equality and justice, two of the most fundamental human rights. My brother believed very deeply in those rights. As he once said, “We must recognize the full human equality of all our people - before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous - although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it - although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”

Bobby saw this challenge firsthand in the United States, in the plight of farm workers in our fields, and in the struggles of African Americans for equality. He saw it also in the history of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland, and he spoke of the “painful slowness [by which] the United States extended and enlarged the practice of freedom to all of our people.” He spoke out for the“thousands every day denied their full and equal rights under the law” and dedicated his life to do what it took to make equal opportunity a fact, not just a goal.

We see that issue still playing out in the current immigration debate. We've long welcomed immigrants as members of our communities, but for decades we have denied them legal status. They've been victims of an unfair system—living in fear of deportation, exploited at their worksites, unable to create the better futures they hope for and dream about. Some in power would like to close our borders and isolate America, violating the very principles on which America was founded. Surely we can enact an immigration reform bill that protects our borders, without denying opportunity and basic dignity for all immigrants in the United States.

Sonia Pierre has similarly fought for the rights of a people long denied equality. Her story is the story of the people of two countries, joined by history and geography but separated by economic circumstances: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti remains the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest nations in the world. It ranks 154th out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index of the United Nations. It ranks last on Transparency International's index of corruption. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They work mainly in small-scale subsistence farming. Deforestation and frequent natural disasters, especially hurricanes, highlight the peril of that dependence.

By contrast, sharing the same island, the Dominican Republic has had economic success – it was one of the fast growing economies in the world in the 1990's, expanding at an average rate of nearly 8 percent a year from 1996 to 2000. Only a quarter of its citizens live in poverty, compared to 80% in Haiti. The boundary separating the two nations is stark – the brown, deforested lands of Haiti end at the green forests of the Dominican Republic.

The contrasts between these two countries create an unequal dynamic. Haitians fleeing perennial poverty supply cheap labor for the Dominican economy, particularly during the sugar cane harvest. They fill jobs that even the poorest Dominicans won't do. As a result of this constant cross-border migration, approximately 650,000 Haitians live in Dominican territory, where they face discrimination, abuse, harsh living conditions, and the constant threat of deportation.

It is for the equal rights of these people, many of whom have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades, that Sonia has dedicated her life.

She was born to Haitian parents in 1963 in one of the settlements for sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. She grew up facing first hand the social, economic, legal and cultural barriers that prevent Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent from enjoying their basic human rights.

Her father died when she was two years old. Her mother was a cane cutter, an unusual profession for a woman because of the immense physical stamina required. She raised Sonia and her eleven other children in a one-room portion of a barrack with a dirt floor. Because of the respect her mother had earned among sugar workers, Sonia and her sisters did not have to endure the rape and physical abuse that was commonly inflicted on the migrant community by the authorities.

There was no school for the children, but when Sonia was nine, she and a hundred other children began to attend two hours of classes a day, offered by a local resident. When she was older, she walked several miles each day to attend the nearest school. She refused to be silent in the face of obvious repression. At 13, she was arrested for speaking at a demonstration on behalf of Haitian migrant laborers in the Dominican Republic. The demonstration lasted five days and actually led to improved conditions for some of the

At 16, Sonia helped found the Dominico-Haitians Cultural Center. She later studied social work in Cuba before returning to the Dominican Republic to fight for the rights of her people there - Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Her community needed a champion.

Immigration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic has occurred for generations, but these workers and their descendants are treated as illegal and subjected to abuse and rejection by the Dominican authorities and population.

In fact, the Dominican Constitution grants citizenship to “all persons born in the territory of the Republic with the exception of those born of diplomats or those in transit.” But government policy discriminates against Haitians.

Children born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrants confront enormous difficulties in obtaining a birth certificate that will allow them to attend public schools and have all the political and social rights of Dominican nationals. Even documented Dominicans of Haitian descent face serious discrimination in voting or obtaining the social, health and education services available to Dominican citizens, and may also be deported after arbitrary round-ups by authorities.

Living conditions are deplorable, with precarious housing and no running water or electricity. My brother Bobby's grandson lived in the country when he served in the Peace Corps, and he remembers the barns with a family living in each stall, and without electricity, running water, or bathrooms.

The situation is especially harsh for women and children. Women are paid less for field work and cannot obtain legal status, because the State Sugar Council recognizes only male Haitian migrant workers in its temporary foreign worker program. Children in the sugar mill towns are also victims of abuse and exploitation, and the lack of official status prevents the community from accessing education, health care and other public services.

Sonia saw all of this first hand. She lived it. And she devoted decades of her life to their search for equality and justice. In 1983, she founded a movement dedicated specifically to the empowerment of women in the community.

The work of her organization, called MUDHA consists of five main programs: education about human rights, assistance in obtaining birth certificates, provision of legal representation, medical assistance, and early childhood education. It provides education for an average of 175 preschool, first and second grade children each year, and has substantially improved the health of women and children in the settlements.

MUDHA has helped more than 5,000 children obtain birth certificates over the past 10 years. It has also been very successful at raising international awareness of the injustices facing the community. MUDHA was a petitioner in a landmark case before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, which for the first time in the court's history upheld human rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination in nationality and citizenship. The Court also ordered the government to admit all children to its schools, and end the rampant discrimination in education.

So far, this government has refused to comply, but the case has brought increased international awareness to the plight of the community.

Sonia has also strongly opposed the random and arbitrary deportation of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, which are estimated to reach 45,000 a year.

Lily Serrat, of the organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said of Sonia: “I am a better person today for having met, worked, and traveled this road with Sonia Pierre. With certitude, I can affirm that Sonia is one of the most selfless, courageous and compassionate human beings of my generation… Before [seeing her work], I knew of no one who took a firmer stand, no one who risked more, no one with that laser-like focus in dealing with the issues that affected these disenfranchised, mistreated, and voiceless groups of people: the Haitian cane cutters and their Dominican Haitian descendants…In life, we have many heroes and heroines, Sonia is very near the top of my list of heroines.”

Her colleagues compare her to a Nobel Peace Prize winner and call her a hero. One said, “Sonia never held anything back in promoting the human rights of our communities.”

Sonia has personally affected the lives of thousands of her people. She has given voice to their struggles, won landmark legal victories for them, and created new networks to meet their basic needs. Because of Sonia, this neglected, impoverished, downtrodden community has greater rights and greater hope for a future where equality and justice are not just ideas, but reality.

Her struggle is captured in an excerpt from the Dominican poet Pedro Mir's famous poem, There is a Country in the World, which he wrote about the sugar cane cutters in these words:

Some will think that in this fluvial country in which earth blossoms,
and spills over and cracks like a bursting vein,
where day has its true victory,
the farmers will go amazed with their spades
to cultivate singing
their strip of ownership.
This love will shatter its solitary innocence.
But no.
. . .
There is a country in the world where a farmer, cut down,
withered and bitter dies and bites barefoot his defeated dust,
lacking enough earth for his harsh death.
Listen closely! Lacking earth to go to sleep in.
It is a small and beleaguered country.
Simply sad, sad and grim, sad and bitter.

Sonia overcame immense personal hardship to become the voice and the champion for hundreds of thousands of others. Her courage gives us all hope. As they say in Creole, kenbe fèm - "keep the faith.”

Eventually, because of Sonia, there will be equality and justice for all. She has been unique in her vision of a Dominican Republic that embraces its entire people equally. And for all of us, she is a model for what it means to make a difference.

It is an honor now to join Ethel in presenting Sonia Pierre with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for 2006.


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Post by admin » Wed Nov 22, 2006 12:54 am

See Photos from the 2006 RFK Memorial Foundation Award Ceremony

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Post by admin » Sat Nov 25, 2006 8:38 am

Remarks by Sonia Pierre, 2006 RFK Human Rights Award Winner, at 23rd Annual RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony

[quote]I find inspiration in the life of Robert F. Kennedy because I believe that our efforts and his are part of the same fight for equality and justice.

He lived during a time when United States authorities denied the African-American community the exercise of their fundamental rights: the right to education, to vote, to property. He witnessed the violence that discrimination and racism provoke: lynchings, assassinations and political repression. In spite of political difficulties, he used all the means available to him to create change. He refused to negotiate with the rights of the people and confronted the legacy of slavery, demanding respect for civil rights.

Like Robert Kennedy, I live in a time of racism, discrimination and violence. The community to which I belong, that of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, is among the poorest and most vulnerable and is subject to the cruelest denial of its basic rights.

In my country, Dominican children of Haitian descent suffer discrimination from the moment they are born. The Dominican Constitution establishes that all who are born in the Dominican Republic are Dominicans. However, the authorities refuse to issue birth certificates to the children of Haitian immigrants born in the country.

The lack of this document that legally establishes their Dominican citizenship, keeps thousands of children in a legal limbo, impeding their access to education and health services, as well as to physical and emotional security. In addition, they are permanently at risk of being expelled from the land where they were born.

In my country, my community is victim of violence and repression expressed in different ways, among which are the massive round ups and expulsions to Haiti, during which families are split and women and children are subject to sexual violence by military personnel in charge of immigration. This year, according to data from the Migration Office more than 25,000 persons have been illegally and arbitrarily expelled to Haiti.

Racism, discrimination and anti-Haitian sentiments have developed in such a way that Haitian communities have been attacked by violent groups. Last summer, the national media informed of tens of attacks and assassinations, which included five persons who were burned alive. It is disheartening that government authorities and the police remain indifferent to these acts, and do not conduct the appropriate investigations to find and punish the culprits.

Last year the Inter American Court of Human Rights, (the regional human rights court for the Organization of American States) ruled a case presented by MUDHA, CEJIL and the University of California, Berkeley on behalf of two Dominican girls of Haitian descent Dilcia Jean and Violeta Bosico who had been denied their birth certificates by the Dominican government. This sentence ordered the Dominican government to change its discriminatory system of birth registration and to open the schools to all children, independent of their legal status. The sentence of the Inter American Court of Human Rights is mandatory and sets a precedent. However the Dominican government refuses to implement the Court's decision in the same way that it refuses to observe the Dominican Constitution.

This situation reminds me of Mr. Kennedy's statement regarding the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. He said:

“I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right. But my belief does not matter -it is the law. Some of you may think that the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law”.

We have started a campaign to compel the Dominican government to implement the IACHR decision thus opening a new chapter in Dominican history one characterized by respect for human rights.

During this journey of hopes and despairs, joys and sorrows, dreams and realities, I'm accompanied by people who believe in our fight. That is why I consider this award not only an acknowledgement of my fight, but of the fight of all who believe in the dignity of human beings.

This recognition has the face of Dilcia Jean and Violeta Bosico, the two Dominican girls of Haitian descent to whom, despite the IACHR decision in their favor, the Dominican Republic still denies their right to a name and a nationality. They personify and represent the situation of thousands of children and adolescents who because of their ancestry do not have access to one of their fundamental rights- the right to a nationality-, living in the cruelest situation of exclusion, discrimination and humiliation.

Dilcia and Violeta had a guardian angel and a protector in this just and unfinished fight for their right to a nationality. All the time, effort and sacrifice that became justice in the IACHR have faces and names, our lawyer Roxana Althoz and Laura Fletcher, two great women and professionals who placed their talent, capacity and heart to the service of a noble cause: the respect of the right to life, dignity and to protect a future of hope and decorum, so that girls such as Dilcia and Violeta have confidence in a better tomorrow with opportunities to grow, develop, smile and follow their dreams.

This recognition is for my colleagues since they are all very conscientious women who firmly supported our struggle during difficult times, regardless of the powerful adversaries confronting them.

This recognition is for my four children: Manuela, Leticia, Carlos and Humberto, who have been my friends, the engine and support in this fight, they are my inspiration, the reason I face everything, because when I arrive home my family is waiting for me and that inspires me because they and thousands of other adolescents, have, like me, lived a childhood with discrimination solely because of their Haitian ancestry.

This recognition is for my mother, a great woman, a brave woman, who came to the Dominican republic from Haiti very young seeking a better fate and her partner who migrated years before. A woman who after living in the country for 54 years does not have the right to legal residence.

This award is for all the Dominican community in the United States, in special for two young persons Julissa Reynoso and Eduardo Paulino, examples of solidarity and for Professor Silvio Torres-Saillant who in many occasions I heard say that “ the situation of abuse does not represent the sentiment of the Dominicans” and also that there were many more honest and good Dominicans; to our partners of the Coalition of Dominicans in Solidarity with the Haitian Community in Dominican Republic, the Parish of San Romero of the Americas, father Barrio.

To the Haitian community in the United States who has been present in the most difficult moments of our destitute communities in our country, in times of natural disasters, in times of the cruelest and most abusive expulsions by the migration authorities against this community, and I want to mention especially Ninaj Raulol,director of Haitian Women for Refugees, my sister Lily Serrat , Joceline Mayas and Nancy Dorsinville who are great women and many other partners.

This award is a recognition of two Catholic priests Pedro Requoy and Christopher Halen. Pedro Requoy gave 30 years of commitment and transforming love to the poorest communities, especially Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent who live in the southern part of my country. These 30 years of commitment were not enough for you to gain the right to stay in the country but were enough for a sad and fearful conspiracy involving the government and powerful religious and economic groups to force you to leave the Dominican Republic. A last minute explanation concealed the fear of your transforming and unifying capacity. Your testimony continues and will continue in our hearts. This award belongs to Father Christopher Harlen. We know about the south and the east of my country because of you. The bateys of San José de los Llanos in the Province of San Pedro de Macorís are a living testimony of the hope and the restoration of faith left by you in the heart of the poor, Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. Your cowardly adversaries united in gangs by their fear did not tolerate your capacity to generate life and hope, and the strength and drive that emanates from the collective conscience of the poorest to claim for their rights. You, too, were forced to leave the country.

This award also belongs to my adversaries, from the purist intellectuals who search in the most profound knowledge arguments to justify their discriminatory attitude and at the same time silence the impurity of their conscience, to the most primal ones who cannot hide their hatred and rancor. Their arguments and constant anger do not cause us to wane. On the contrary, they inspire and fortify us, by showing us the way that is opposite to them, with no hatred or rancor, showing us what we should do.

In closing I want to reflect on the words of Robert F. Kennedy:

“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color …when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.”

Thank you.[/quote]

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