Dominican Republic visa programme helps Haitian quake victims
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (UNHCR) - When a massive earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince on January 12, many of the survivors needed urgent medical treatment that was simply not available in Haiti.
With emergency services out of action and hospitals destroyed, large numbers of civilians looked for care and shelter across the border in the Dominican Republic, where staff in hospitals and clinics have saved many lives and prevented many people from suffering permanent disability.
But in some cases where the patient needs a long time to recover, relatives have been torn between remaining as a caregiver and returning to look for other relatives with the risk that they might not be allowed back into the country.
In a bid to resolve this dilemma, UNHCR earlier this year asked the government of the Dominican Republic to grant one-year multiple entry visas on humanitarian grounds to such people. The government has responded by issuing visas to six people in recent weeks, including 29-year-old Kenel Erasme.
"The humanitarian visas allow caregivers of the most gravely injured to cross the border legally, so they don't have to choose between the well-being of their spouse or child in the Dominican Republic and the family or property that they left behind," explained Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, head of UNHCR's emergency team in Santo Domingo.
Visa recipient Kenel was on his way to church in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck late afternoon on January 12, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving huge numbers homeless and injured. The terrified pastor rushed home and discovered that his wife Lucrece was fine, but his nine-year-old son, Kemuel, had suffered a badly broken leg.
Kenel, who also works as a school administrator, searched in vain for three days for medical treatment for his son in Port-au-Prince. In desperation, he decided to take his wife and son to the Dominican Republic, where Kemuel received surgery.
The local Catholic Church said Kenel and Lucrece could stay in a UNHCR-supported special shelter in Santo Domingo until their son had recovered enough to return home to Haiti.
The church-run shelter is one of dozens helping earthquake victims and their family members in the Dominican Republic. The refugee agency provides food, hygiene items, blankets, mattresses, fans, furniture and cell phones with which to call relatives and find out about conditions in their home areas.
While Kenel was very grateful for the vital medical treatment his son was receiving in Santo Domingo and for the kindness shown to Lucrece and himself, he soon began worrying about family members back in Haiti.
"I was so worried about my mother, my wife's mother and my sister back in Carrefour [a district of Port-au-Prince]. We had so little contact with them after coming to the Dominican Republic," he told UNHCR. "We couldn't be sure if they were safe or had enough to eat."
The problem he - and others - faced was that he could not legally go back and forth between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince without a multiple entry visa for the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic's decision to hand out a small number of such visas allows adult caregivers to go back to Haiti to look after other relatives and to start rebuilding their destroyed houses.
"The mobility helps them to start rebuilding their lives in Haiti now, instead of keeping their future on hold while their loved one recuperates. We applaud the Dominican Republic for making this possible," said Vargas Llosa.
"Seeing them [his relatives] again brought me some peace of mind," Kenel said, referring to his first visit back to Haiti after getting the visa. UNHCR staff accompanied him to Carrefour for a joyful family reunion after four months apart.
Kenel plans to remain in Haiti for several months to look after his extended family and to make preparations for his wife and son's eventual return. With a humanitarian visa in hand, he can rejoin his wife and son for the final phase of Kemuel's recovery and then accompany them home.
The Haitian earthquake displaced more than 2 million people. UNHCR's presence in the Dominican Republic and Haiti supports many families, providing humanitarian aid and helping to prevent long-term separation.
By Bertrand Blanc in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Lilli Tnaib in Washington, D.C., United States, contributed to this article.