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Island Journeys: Navigating Dominica’s migrant challenges and triumphs – Mirlande Cadestin’s story

Dominica is a hidden gem in the heart of the Caribbean where gentle trade winds rustle through coconut palms and the vibrant hues of the sea blend harmoniously with the island’s beauty. Each wave that laps upon its black shores brings with it a story, a journey, a dream. Thus, creating a narrative deeply etched into the country’s cultural tapestry, one that transcends borders, and speaks of resilience, ambition, and the pursuit of a better life. Here you will encounter a multitude of stories as diverse as the Caribbean itself with narratives that reveal the diverse experiences and challenges that migrants face in their pursuit of dreams.

In many ways, Dominica has become a beacon for economic migrants. Skilled professionals from around the globe are drawn here by the promise of opportunities.

But, in neighbouring Haiti, a different migration tale unfolds, shaped by social instability and civil unrest. The nation, burdened by a history of political turbulence and economic struggles, has witnessed a steady outflow of its citizens seeking refuge and stability elsewhere. Fleeing the turmoil, they embark on perilous journeys, often with nothing but hope in their hearts. During one point of upheaval in Haiti, marked by a series of riots over food security between 2008 and 2009 crime rates soared and people fled their homes in search of refuge. Among those compelled to leave was a young girl named Mirlande Cadestin*, who, at just seven years old, found herself thrust into a journey of uncertainty and hope. Her mother, already living abroad, had purchased three tickets for Cadestin, and her two younger brothers to reunite in Dominica, fearing for their safety amidst the chaos.

“The three of us travelled with a complete stranger in 2009 to Dominica, it was a decision that was made by my parents,” said Cadestin. “It was a challenge for us as we only spoke French.”

For migrants like Cadestin, such journeys are fraught with challenges, from grappling with language barriers to facing discrimination and cultural differences. Assimilating into a new society can be a daunting task, often exposing newcomers to the trials of adapting to unfamiliar surroundings.

“I had trouble adapting, you know, with the students and teachers, understanding the classes and so on,” Cadestin explained, reflecting on her early struggles with the language barrier. “Even though they spoke patois, it was not everything that I understood then. So, it was a little bit challenging starting school right away,” she added.

As a child in a foreign land, where comprehension was elusive and isolation loomed, Cadestin confronted yet another formidable obstacle – bullying. Classmates, unkind and ignorant, taunted her mercilessly. “They would throw down my lunch and curse me. They told me ‘Go back to your country’,” she recalled. Experiences like these are stark reminders of the deep-seated xenophobia that can surface in the face of migration. Xenophobia, like an unwelcome guest, has crept into the Caribbean narrative. In some places, locals view migrants as competition for jobs and resources. Tensions simmer beneath the surface, often fuelled by misinformation and fear.

Xenophobia is fear, distrust, or hatred of foreigners or people from different cultures or nations, and this can manifest in many ways such as stereotypes and generalizations towards migrants, portraying them negatively or as a threat.

Cadestin’s journey was not just marked by language barriers and bullying; it was an emotional rollercoaster. The relentless prejudice she and her siblings encountered drove her to dark places, battling suicidal thoughts. She harboured resentment towards her mother for uprooting their lives in Haiti, constantly questioning why they had come to Dominica.

“We had our house, we had maids and everything, my parents had their professions.” ‘Why did you take me out of my comfort zone, because we were not poor, and you brought us to a country where we’re basically nobodies?’ It was hard for me and my siblings to accept,” she admitted.

As the challenges mounted, Cadestin’s mother, driven by a mother’s unwavering love and determination, made the painful decision to leave Dominica for the United States, seeking a fresh start for her children. Although the prospect of reuniting with her mother brought some solace, Cadestin still grappled with a profound sense of alienation in her new surroundings. It was only when a compassionate Dominican family opened their hearts and home to her, offering emotional and psychological support, that things took a turn for the better.

“After a few years in Dominica, I would eventually make friends and settle; [but] I also wanted to further my education to elevate my family.” Cadestin, was able to self-finance her way to the US to study, fast-track her undergraduate degree by transferring her credits from the Dominica State College (DSC) and will complete her degree in less than two years.

Yet, even as she aspired to greater heights, Cadestin was haunted by the limitations imposed by her status. She remained unable to return to Dominica – the place she knew as home. When her father passed away a few months ago, the heart-wrenching reality hit her “I did not get to say goodbye to my father who died in his sleep. I could not get a visa to return home to Dominica as Haitians are no longer receiving visas,” she lamented. “When I complete studying, the country that I’d have to go back to is Haiti and not the country that I was raised into. So, it’s kind of hard,” she added.

Cadestin’s story is not unique. Undocumented children, left behind by parents in a host country, often encounter formidable challenges when attempting to re-enter the place they once called home. Forced relocations to their country of birth and persistent irregular status due to a lack of documentation further compound their struggles. Sadly, many host countries lack comprehensive policies and systems to address the complex issues faced by undocumented migrants, especially children who have spent most of their lives outside of their country of birth. This underscores the critical importance of partnerships aimed at enhancing migration management and, by extension, migration governance, to navigate the intricate web of challenges faced by migrants like Mirlande Cadestin.

* the name has been changed to protect the migrant