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Immigrant Stories: Dominican Republic

Daphne, Dominic Republican Asylee

In 1956, Daphne was born to a Palestinian father and an Israeli mother in the Dominican Republic. During that time, though Daphne cannot remember herself, her parents lived in constant fear of dictator Rafael Trujillo. No one in the Dominican Republic could legally disagree or speak out against him or his government. Anyone who did, even if unintentionally or by false accusation, could have faced arrest, disappeared mysteriously, or received a bullet through the head in pure daylight. Such punishments were even dealt to those who refused to hang pictures of Trujillo in their shops and homes. To avoid endangering his family, Daphne’s father made a space for Trujillo in his dry goods store and bookshop. Daphne’s mother, however, refused to place his picture in their home. Her strong will and defiance wouldn’t allow for such an unjust ruler to enjoy a place upon her wall. But even then, she still feared the possibility that a neighbor may notice and snitch, which was a very real danger. Even Daphne’s father would say, “The walls have ears! The walls have ears!”

Eventually the Dominican Republic became so consumed in terror that Daphne’s parents knew they had to leave, but they didn’t know how. One day, Daphne’s mother wept in Church, praying to God ‘please help us get out of here.’ Nearby, a Redemptorist priest overheard her pleas and told her, “I think we can help you.” Perhaps it was luck. Perhaps it was an answered prayer. Whichever it was, Daphne’s mother had secured her family’s escape. Almost immediately, Daphne’s parents began planning their departure, shipping merchandise from the bookstore to the Redemportist priests in America and packing two small suitcases with only their most precious belongings. Finally, On June 8, 1961, only days after Trujillo’s assassination, Daphne and her family flew out of grasps of peril and flew their way to their new home in St. Louis, Missouri.

When they first arrived, the Redemptorist priests had arranged an apartment for Daphne’s family in a high-rise building complex. Daphne’s mother started off working in a small ACME store and later went to school all while raising three children. Eventually her hard work paid off and she was able to work as a teacher. Just like his wife, Daphne’s father wanted to obtain a job at a Catholic school where he could teach French and Geography. He used to teach these subjects in the Dominican Republic and wanted to continue doing so in America as it was his biggest passion. Unfortunately, however, due to his family’s financial strain and lack of immigration papers, he would never command a classroom again. Despite the fact Daphne’s father could speak four languages fluently including Spanish, French, Arabic, and Italian, he was barred from ever teaching in America. Daphne recalls her father always carried a deep-seated bitterness about this. But most unfortunately of all, no American student would ever have the privilege of inheriting his brilliance.

With teaching off the table, to provide for his family, Daphne’s father took two bus rides and a long walk to work at the General Metal Products factory. There, he endured some rough conditions both from the demanding environment and from workplace racism. Many of the workers would ridicule Daphne’s father because he was a foreigner and berate him for taking a job away from a true American. In response, her father once said, ‘I am the same as you. Your family came to America. Maybe it was one-hundred years ago, but your family came as immigrants. I have the right the same as how you have the right.’ After that, Daphne’s father rarely encountered trouble in the workplace in regards to his Americanism.

It was a tough life, no doubt. But Daphne’s parents worked so hard and tirelessly because they wanted to give their children the opportunities they never had. Daphne specifically remembers how important her father believed a good education was for his children’s future. As he worked in the factory, he would tell them, ‘I do this for my children. You will go to college. This is for you.’ To his satisfaction, not only was he and his wife able to give their children a pleasant childhood, they managed to put all three of them through college. Daphne’s brother went into the Air Force to protect the country that gave him opportunity— a move that made his father very proud. Daphne’s sister became a teacher, and Daphne took straight after her father and mother and also became a teacher, specializing in early childhood. “It’s in the blood,” she smiles.

Daphne started her career working at Holy Innocence in 1978 and later taught kindergarten at Holy Family and pre-school at a Montessori program at Notre Dame Pre-School for eleven years. As one of her biggest successes, Daphne and her mother were asked to open and manage a pre-school program for St. Anthony of Padua Parish, which they did for thirteen years before retiring.

When asked what she wants native-born Americans to understand about refugees and immigrants, Daphne explains, “I feel like my family has contributed to the community here. We’re grateful to be here and we’re blessed to be here. But we also know we had a responsibility to do good for the community… We’ve been able to touch so many lives because were in the country and able to get our degrees. I’ve taught hundreds of kids. My brother briefed generals at the pentagon. We have so much to give and we gave it. That’s why [the US government] needs to let other immigrants in. It’s not just for the benefit of the person. It’s for the benefit of the entire community.”

Facts about Dominican Republic

Once named Santo Domingo by European invaders, the Dominican Republic was first inhabited by the Taino people until 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on its shores, introducing conquest and foreign occupants. Over the next centuries, Santo Domingo served as a strategic location for the Spanish takeover of the Caribbean and Americas, a hotbed for independence movements, as well as developing center of cultural and racial diversity. In 1844, Santo Domingo gained independence (would not be permanent until 1863) from Spain and became what it is known as today— the Dominican Republic. From 1930-1961, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled the country as a dictatorship where anyone who opposed him or broke his laws would often face arrest or death. Today, the Dominican Republic has one of the fastest growing GDPs in the Americas, however it maintains a large impoverished population with most of the wealth limited to a small percentage of its constituents. Alongside this issue, the Dominican Republic is home to a large population of Haitians, many of whom are now considered stateless after 2013 court ruling that revoked the citizenship of all those born after 1929 to immigrants without proper immigration documentation.

Population: 10,734,247

Location: Centered in the Caribbean Sea against its island camaraderie Haiti

Languages: Spanish

Religions: Roman Catholic (95%), other (5%)

Ethnic Groups: mixed (70.4% [mestizo/indo 58%, mulatto 12.4%]), black (15.8%), white (13.5%), other (0.3%)

Refugees and Internally Placed Persons: stateless persons (predominantly Haitian): 133,770

Information from the CIA World Factbook