Creating a home away from home

Updated 1:29 PM ET, Thu April 14, 2016
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Building a school in Jacmel, Haiti, isn't what David Palmer had in mind when he started teaching children across the border in the Dominican Republic five years earlier. Palmer, not pictured, studied in the Dominican Republic while in college and was struck by the children he saw living in poverty. The Bloomfield, Michigan, native returned and set up the Joan Rose Foundation to teach and provide meals for students. But he soon found himself and his school caught up in the country's immigration crisis. Fernando Decillis for CNN
Palmer, seen at left overseeing the Jacmel construction, named his foundation after his grandmother. When it opened in Esperanza in the Dominican Republic, it was about half-Dominican, half-Haitian. Over time, Dominicans withdrew -- partly, Palmer suspects, because the school was mixed. Many, he said, would rather see their children miss the one meal a day the school assured than be associated with "the Haitian school." Even the Haitian children adopted that worldview, he said: If they get in an argument, they're likely to call each other "maldito Haitiano" -- a "damn Haitian." Fernando Decillis for CNN
As the immigration controversy grew in the Dominican Republic, so did tensions around the school. Haitian immigrants felt threatened, as did their Dominican-born children, says Catherine Serrano, the foundation's director. Some were deported. With harassment interfering with their mission, and uncertain what consequences the crackdown could bring, she and Palmer made a decision: Close the school in Esperanza and move it to Haiti. Families who had come to depend on the foundation were invited to move, too. Fernando Decillis for CNN
"Jacmel has something going for it," said Palmer, who sports several tattoos. When CNN visited the construction site, some of the school's 16 planned houses were close to completion, with roofs being hoisted atop cinder-block walls. Nearby, other workers shoveled and pick-axed dirt where new foundations would be laid. Palmer recently said he made the right move. The school is up and running, the families who came from Esperanza now live in the new homes, and the foundation has started a microloan program. Fernando Decillis for CNN
Fathers of students went to Jacmel and joined locals building the new school. For some men, it was a homecoming; for others, a new beginning. "This is my first time working in Haiti," said Heriberto Martinez, born in Esperanza three decades ago. Wensly Dalembert, 23, says he feels like Haiti is his country even though he, too, was born across the border. "We lived a life of humiliation in the Dominican Republic being black and Haitian," he said, recalling being stopped at a checkpoint and showing a Dominican officer his Dominican birth certificate. "You are not Dominican, you are Haitian," he said the officer told him. "Even if we don't know how to speak Creole or don't know anything about Haiti, they refuse to recognize us and say we are Haitians and don't belong." Fernando Decillis for CNN
The Joan Rose Foundation was still operating in Esperanza when CNN visited last year. Here, two students are in the foundation's dining room. Virtually all of the foundation's students are Dominicans of Haitian descent; that is, children born in the Dominican Republic to immigrant parents. The school is where they come for education, food and sanctuary. Fernando Decillis for CNN
Outside, the Esperanza schoolyard was still alive with children shouting, running and kicking up dirt as they stomped around a rectangular dirt lot where they played baseball and other games. Fernando Decillis for CNN
A student shows off crawfish he found in a canal by the Esperanza school. Jacmel, on Haiti's southern coast, is very different from what the school's families know in Esperanza, a rich agricultural region where Haitian immigrants often work in the rice fields or on tobacco and banana plantations. Some 25 families -- about 170 people -- later moved to Jacmel, which many consider Haiti's cultural capital. It's a place of artists and beaches where tourism is the biggest draw. Fernando Decillis for CNN
Among those who moved is Yancy, whose three daughters -- one of whom is seen here -- attend the foundation's school. In Esperanza, Yancy showed her children's birth certificates, which state the girls were born in the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, she says, they are considered foreigners. "They won't recognize (their) citizenship because I was born in Haiti," she said. Fernando Decillis for CNN
Yancy left the Haitian border city of Ouanaminthe looking for work in the Dominican Republic after her parents died 16 years ago. She ended up in Esperanza, seen here. "I didn't find the life I was hoping for," she said. For her, the foundation was a godsend: In addition to school for her children, it gave her a job through GoodThreads, which employs women to design and make needlepoint belts for export. Yancy quickly decided to move to Haiti with the foundation. "My daughters are getting older," she said, "and we don't have a future here." Fernando Decillis for CNN
Gladys also has a child at the foundation's school. She was born in the Dominican Republic, but like hundreds of thousands her citizenship was annulled because her parents were immigrants. The government passed a law for people like Gladys to reclaim her citizenship, but she'd rather move to Haiti than try to win back her rightful place in a country where she's never felt truly at home. "I was born here, but I'm undocumented," Gladys said in Esperanza. "I feel 100% Haitian." Fernando Decillis for CNN
Men from Esperanza head to the beach in Jacmel on their first day off from the construction site. There was a lot of laughter, singing, drinking -- and one epic rap battle in the sand. Wensly Dalembert recalled a similar beach trip four years ago in the Dominican Republic: He and his friends, all Dominicans of Haitian descent, were playing soccer when a group of Dominicans of Spanish descent told them to give up their spot. "You are not in your country, get out of here," he remembers one of the men saying. That won't happen in Jacmel. He feels at home here, but the cost of finding peace was self-exile from his country of birth. Fernando Decillis for CNN