Human Rights Advocate Sonia Pierre Dead at 48

  • Posted on: 5 December 2011
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Sonia Pierre, Dominican human rights activist of Haitian descent, has died of heart failure at the age of 48.  She was a passionate advocate for Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic – many of whom are stateless, not being recognized by the Dominican Republic or Haiti.  She will be missed.  The organization which she founded, El Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana or MUDHA, continues her work.  An article on her passing follows below.

 

12/5/2011

Fox News Latino 

 

Dominican activist Sonia Pierre died from a heart attack on Sunday afternoon. She was 48. Pierre, a human rights activist, who bravely fought discrimination against poor Dominicans of Haitian descent since she was a child, died outside of the municipality of Villa Altagracia while being rushed to a hospital, said Genaro Rincón, a lawyer who works with Pierre's Dominican-Haitian Women's Movement.  Pierre's chronic heart troubles were first discovered in 2007 when she was in Washington to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award honoring her work securing citizenship and education for Dominican-born ethnic Haitians.  Through the decades, her activism made her the target of threats in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but it earned her recognition from overseas as a fierce defender of human rights, including an award from Amnesty International in 2003.  Pierre was one of 12 children raised in a dirt-floor barrack in a Dominican migrant worker camp and was just 13 when she was first arrested and threatened with deportation for leading her fellow Dominican residents of Haitian descent in a march for cane cutters' rights.

 

Since then, Pierre tirelessly fought to secure citizenship and education for the beleaguered minority of Dominican-born ethnic Haitians.  "She was like a sister to me," said Edwin Paraison, executive director of the Zile Foundation, a Haitian group that tries to improve relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  "The Haitian community has lost someone who was a huge advocate in the fight for Haitian rights."  An estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many in isolated village slums that dot the countryside. Most of those born in the Dominican Republic are descendants of Haitians who crossed the border fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity.  When she won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2007, Pierre denounced what she said were "massive abuses" in the Dominican Republic against people of Haitian descent, particularly children.  "They suffer discrimination from the moment they are born," she said during the award ceremony in the U.S. Senate. "The authorities refuse to recognize them as Dominicans." hile Haiti has been plagued by poverty, violence and political instability, its eastern neighbor, with a population of more than 9 million, grew out of its own early struggles to be seen as a comparative land of opportunity even as many Haitian migrants are exploited as cheap labor.  Police arrested Pierre in 1976 when she led her fellow Haitian-Dominican neighbors in a march to demand rights for those who cut sugar cane. She was jailed for a day and threatened with deportation to Haiti, where her mother was born.  "I was crying because I didn't know anyone in Haiti," Pierre once recalled.  Her advocacy also has made her and her family targets in the Dominican Republic. She was once chased out of her Santo Domingo office by a man waving a pistol. She was also punched at a stop light by another man who told her, "I know who you are."  Pierre insisted she was trying to help her people and not malign the Dominican Republic. "I am not a critic of my country, and this is my country," she said. "I am a critic of my government." Paraison, a former minister of Haitians living abroad, said Pierre is survived by three children.  Funeral arrangements are pending.  Based on reporting by the Associated Press.


Read more: http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2011/12/05/dominican-activist-sonia-pierre-dead-at-48/#ixzz1fg1auUYi


 

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12/7/2011
BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT
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Ninaj Raoul, a human rights activist and executive director of the New York-based Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, remembers meeting Sonia Pierre in 1994 at a conference decrying the agonizing plight of Haitian refugees. On Wednesday, Raoul will watch as her mentor is buried in the Dominican Republic, where Pierre had been battling for the rights of Haitians and Dominican Haitians since Pierre was a teenager. On December 4, 2011, Sonia Pierre died suddenly of a heart attack outside Villa Altagracia, where she was born to Haitian parents in an impoverished community of cane workers, on a batey. The 48 year old founder of MUDHA — Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana or Movement of Dominican Haitian Women — and the face and voice of thousands of Haitians and Dominican Haitians, Pierre leaves behind her mother, ten brothers and sisters, four children and three grandchildren, and those for whom she has been advocating since she was arrested, when she was 13, for organizing a five-day protest. “Sonia, was a tremendous leader,” recalls Raoul. “Her human example and work for justice for so many are now a permanent legacy.” Writer and educator Marie Lily Cerat, who sometimes acted as an English translator for her longtime friend, remembers a woman who spent days and nights dreaming a better world. “From the first day I met her,” says Cerat, “I was in awe of her humility and clarity about what each one could do to truly achieve an equitable world free of racism and inequalities. Her dedication and passion for human rights, women and girls’ rights, and her deep compassion for others were unmatched in our generation.”
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Filmmaker Amy Serrano, whose award-winning documentary, Sugar Babies, which I narrated, deals with the plight of stateless children who work as child laborers in Dominican cane fields, said upon learning of Sonia’s death: “Having spent considerable time with Sonia in Santo Domingo, Europe, and Canada on the issue of invisible children whose Haitian parents were trafficked to the Dominican Republic to serve powerful sugar interests, Sonia’s voice and presence was one of the very few that shone bright. Her words and legacy will live on.” Miami resident Leonie Hermantin, deputy director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, first met Sonia Pierre after hearing her speak several years ago at an International Women’s Day event in Miami. “I was impressed by her demeanor,” remembers Hermantin, “her quiet yet intense determination to fight for the rights of our brothers and sisters.” The two met again recently, in Washington, where Pierre discussed, among other things, the victims of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Pierre’s organization, MUDHA, was one of the first on the ground in Haiti. Pierre and her colleagues fed, offered medical attention and nurtured local leaders in Léogâne, at the epicenter of the earthquake. “Sonia Pierre impressed me yet again by her passion,” remembers Hermantin, “and her profound belief in the power of sisterhood. I also loved the way she reminded us that we share the hyphenated identity of a diaspora.” Sonia’s passion for justice cost her a great deal. Because of her relentless pursuit of legal status for Haitians born in the Dominican Republic — the denial of which was upheld by the Dominican Supreme Court two days before she died — Pierre and her family often received death threats and she was at times physically assaulted. Though she was the recipient of awards from Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, she was commonly labeled Enemy No. 1 in her birthplace’s media outlets. “I am not a critic of my country,” she often said in her own defense. “I am a critic of my government.”
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Recently Pierre had been most vocal about the way tougher nationality measures have been used to de-nationalize or retroactively strip citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent, leaving even more of them and their children without access to birth certificates, travel documents, housing, education and healthcare, while making them targets for mass deportations. Pierre herself has been threatened with expulsion several times. Her loss is one “without measure,” artist, activist and attorney Ezili Dantò, head of the Haitian Lawyers’ Leadership Network, wrote to participants of an online list-serve soon after Pierre’s death. “Sonia Pierre lived struggling for those left behind in the batey. She lived to stop the depravity, the misery, endless exploitation of the life of Haitian agricultural workers, cane cutters. She used her life force to speak truth to power.” “She envisioned a world where light and dignity would replace the deepest injustices perpetrated on the most vulnerable populations,” said Taïna Bien-Aimé, former executive director of the international human rights organization, Equality Now. “She amplified the voices of those no one could hear and that governments crushed into silence. Sonia could not tolerate the silence in the midst of such unattended suffering. Her fierce leadership, her dedication to protecting the human rights of women and her visionary tenacity will leave a hole in our stratosphere.” “We lost a gentle giant,” said Marleine Bastien, founder of Haitian Women of Miami. “Her struggle was not only for the people in the bateys. She repeated this often. It was for all the world’s disenfranchised.” “To be a woman, to be a mother, to defend human rights is hard," Sonia Pierre said on October 25, 2011, at a U.S. Institute of Peace panel, after telling the story of a young Dominican Haitian girl whose rapist and killer only paid a 500 pesos fine before he was released, because, based on the girl’s legal status, a judge deemed her unworthy of a proper ruling.
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Sadly, Sonia’s work remains undone. It is as if our fiercest warrior had left us on one of the steepest hills of the battlefield. And it is not only Sonia’s heart or the Dominican government that has failed her. Haitians and Dominican Haitians in the DR have had few vocal backers among powerbrokers and policymakers in Haiti, who could certainly do more, including leverage the fact that Haiti is among the top three importers of Dominican goods — half a billion dollars’ worth — or that Dominican contractors are already benefiting from post earthquake construction in Haiti, to follow in Sonia’s footsteps and push for reforms. Among the many things that Sonia Pierre taught us, with her life’s work and advocacy, is that we are never powerless. Nou pa pitimi san gadò, as the Haitian saying goes. And that, along with her innumerable other contributions, we will never forget. Edwidge Danticat, winner of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, is an award-winning novelist who lives in Miami.

12/8/2011
Church World Service
By Jasmine Huggins,
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Sonia Pierre was a feminist, activist, leader, mother, grandmother, counselor, speaker, defender of human rights, development practitioner and humanitarian. She died Sunday afternoon, December 4, much too young at age 48, having lived almost three times that many lifetimes, worn out from having fought since the age of 13 for the defense of rights of her community, Dominicans of Haitian descent who live mostly on the margins of Dominican society. As a young Program Office recently appointed by Christian Aid to manage their Dominican Republic program, I first met Sonia back in the early 90s. We met in their then office in Santo Domingo, in a space which she said had been offered by a well meaning Dominican who was supportive of their cause. Her organization Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas or MUDHA has been a Christian Aid partner ever since. As early as then, she'd pointed out to me their need, as the Movement of Dominico-Haitian women, for continued solidarity from the Dominican community, which was often manifestly hostile and often abusive. It was a concern and a refrain I was to hear throughout the years of my involvement with MUDHA and Sonia, right up to late October this year, when I last saw her, at an international conference in Washington, D.C., on Statelessness and the Right to Nationality to which we'd invited her.
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Ours was not a tension free relationship. There were times we disagreed -- on strategy, on interpretation, on approach. Should Dominicans of Haitian descent assimilate completely, or should they maintain this slightly separate identity? How can MUDHA work better to maintain the network? What can MUDHA do to negotiate a common position in the midst of so many conflicting points of view? Once, many years ago, she disparagingly called me a white Caribbean woman who would never understand. Actually, I did. Racism, gender discrimination, social hierarchy based on race, skin color and class are ubiquitous throughout the Caribbean where I grew up. My identity and sense of self was as seared by the continuing legacies of a common colonial history as hers was, just differently. The political economy and racial politics of sugar production in the Dominican Republic were not so completely different from those elsewhere in the Caribbean, with the exception though, that in the Dominican Republic, the problem was contemporary and the agent of oppression, local, rather than foreign. Over the years, Sonia grew to trust and later confide in me. I realized the extent of her personal sacrifices, the risks that she'd taken over the years for the work that she did and the overall cost to her health. Sonia did not want charity. She demanded justice. She always reminded me that her work was political, that it was about the need for structural change. She was as angered by discrimination against women as she was about racism. She raged against the injustices of these twin problems and was proud of her reputation as a “trouble maker.” “Of course, I've been a trouble maker. If I had not been, we would have never reached here,” she told me defiantly one day.
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She reminded me always that the MUDHA staff were born in bateyes, and the majority still live there. They were steeped in the problems that they born into and from which they were trying to help their community emerge. For them, as for her, there was no work-life separation. The struggle for empowerment and equity was what they lived and all they ever knew. A visit to bateyes with Sonia revealed the extent of her intelligence, charisma and leadership. Crowds of people would come to her, asking for advice, revealing their problems, needing help. Sonia took it all in and always had space for more. Her vision for a better life for children led to the creation of beautiful little schools for children, happily painted in bright colors, decorated with flowers, stuffed with toys, veritable oases in barren, struggling communities, usually with no running water, sanitation or electricity, fetid drainage, no social services and nightly violence, in the middle of isolated sugar cane plantations. Recently in Leogane, in a community devastated by the Haitian earthquake, Sonia's holistic vision had started the same kind of project again: a center for women who'd been raped, income generating projects so they could earn money, a school for the orphans, a partnership with the Haitian police so that they could better understand their role. All happily painted in bright, beautiful colors, to make up somehow for the desolation of the grinding poverty that the community faced. Sonia Pierre, in her long, yet too short life, helped hundreds -- no thousands -- of women, men and children in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Dominican and Dominico-Haitian alike, to step beyond the confines of their circumstances, claim their birthright, and dare to believe that they deserved better. When I last translated for her, back in March, speaking in Spanish, she introduced herself a “citizen of the island,” pointedly reminding us all of the common roots of both countries, political and geographic, social and cultural. It was this belief in the common roots of Haiti and the Dominican Republic that made her the bane of nationalist Dominicans and a target for death threats and abuses. It was no surprise that her heart gave way in the end. It was a colossus. The bravest, most defiant female heart I have ever met. But it could not withstand the enormity of pressure that her compassion, her concern and her dedication placed it under. Sonia had space for everybody. She wanted to save everybody. She worried incessantly about her family, the orphans of Haiti, children in schools being abused, women lacking support, men who needed training, government that needed support, psycho-social care that was needed, projects that needed funding, schools and health centers needing to be built, and her own children in danger because of her work, which her dedication did not allow her to cease. The urgency she felt about everything and the risks she took never allowed her to rest. She's resting now.
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Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net

It is with great sadness that the Kennedy family and the board and staff of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights offer its condolences to the family of courageous human rights defender and 2006 RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Sonia Pierre, who passed away over the weekend. Sonia was a courageous advocate for Dominicans of Haitian descent. In the face of threats and fierce media campaigns attacking her character, she persevered so that thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent could realize their rights to nationality, healthcare, and education. During a recent visit to Washington, DC, she spoke of her advocacy for the disenfranchised Haitian-Dominican community in the Dominican Republic. She said, "I want to be voice for the voiceless." We will miss her brave voice. "We will continue Sonia's fight against discrimination, made stronger by her heroic efforts and inspired by her dignity," said Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center. "Her work will go on." Sonia is survived by her children Manuela, Carlos, Leticia and Charlemane Ernesto and her grandchildren Gael and Israel. We extend our condolences to Sonia's colleagues and our friends at MUDHA (Movement of Dominican Haitian Women) and the larger Haitian-Dominican community.
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Es con gran tristeza que la familia Kennedy, la Junta Directiva y el personal del Centro Robert F. Kennedy para la Justicia y Derechos Humanos ofrece sus condolencias a la familia de la valiente defensora de los derechos humanos y ganadora del Premio RFK de Derechos Humanos 2006 Sonia Pierre, quien falleció el fin de semana. Sonia fue una valiente defensora de los dominicanos de ascendencia haitiana. Entre amenazas y las feroces campañas de los medios de comunicación atacando a su persona, ella perseveró para que miles de dominicanos de ascendencia haitiana pudieran ejercer su derecho a la nacionalidad, la salud y la educación. Durante una reciente visita a Washington, DC, habló de su defensa de los desposeídos de la comunidad dominico-haitiana en la República Dominicana. Ella dijo: "Quiero ser la voz de los que no tienen voz". Echaremos de menos su voz valiente. "Vamos a continuar la lucha de Sonia contra la discriminación, fortalecida por sus esfuerzos heroicos e inspirado por su dignidad", dijo Kerry Kennedy, Presidente del Centro RFK. "Su trabajo va a continuar." A Sonia le sobreviven sus hijos Manuela, Carlos, Leticia y Charlemane Ernesto y sus nietos y Gael e Israel. Extendemos nuestras condolencias a los colegas de Sonia y nuestros amigos de MUDHA (Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana) y a la gran comunidad dominico-haitiana.

Associated Press
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Hundreds of people protested Thursday in front of the Supreme Court against what they say is a Dominican government practice of confiscating or annulling birth certificates for residents of Haitian descent. Protesters demanded the government revoke a 2007 resolution aimed at reducing the use of fake documents that they say has led to extreme and unnecessary measures aimed at Dominicans of Haitian descent. Among the protesters was 14-year-old Melania Richard who carried a sign that read, "I am Dominican, you know it." She said she was born in the Dominican Republic to Dominican parents whose ancestors came from neighboring Haiti. "If I don't get a copy of my birth certificate, I will have to quit school," she said. Nonprofit organizations have said at least 1,600 Dominicans have been denied their documents. The groups have filed complaints with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which is holding hearings on the matter. The protesters also paid homage to Sonia Pierre, a human rights activist who died Sunday and had fought discrimination against poor Dominicans of Haitian descent for three decades. Her daughter, Manuela Solaine, was among the protesters. "Today, another Sonia Pierre is born," she said. "She lives in the Dominican-Haitian people."

LUISA FRANSUA sold clothes on the street to support her four children. Once they left home, she got a degree in educational psychology. But she has not been able to get a licence to practice her new profession, or renew her passport to visit her daughter in Germany. She was born in 1959 in the eastern Dominican Republic (DR), has never left her country, and her social-security card reads “Nationality: Dominican”. But the government now says she is a foreigner because her parents were Haitian. For 75 years, the Dominican constitution granted citizenship to almost everyone born in the country. But since 2007 the government has sought to undo this legacy and annul the citizenship of people born to parents lacking legal residency, who are overwhelmingly Haitian. In October the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) received 457 complaints from people who say they have been left stateless after being recognised as citizens for decades. Some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian origin could be affected. The IACHR has already condemned the policy. But on December 1st the Supreme Court gave the new rule constitutional sanction by rejecting a Dominican-born man’s request for a birth certificate so he could move to Florida after marrying an American. Ever since Haiti, fresh off its slave rebellion, occupied the DR from 1821-44, Dominican leaders have stirred up anti-Haitian sentiment for political gain. In 1937 the dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered a mass murder of Haitians near the border. Joaquín Balaguer, his successor as strongman, famously warned of a “peaceful invasion” from the west. Relations improved when the Dominican government sent plentiful aid to Haiti following its 2010 earthquake. But the death on December 4th of Sonia Pierre (pictured), a renowned activist for Dominicans of Haitian descent, has refocused attention on the DR’s citizenship policy.
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The only exceptions to the DR’s longstanding birthright-citizenship rule were for children of diplomats and people “in transit”—classified in 1939 as those who spent no more than 10 days in the country. Yet in 2004 Congress redefined “in transit” to include everyone without legal residency. And last year a new constitution denied citizenship to children of illegal immigrants. Most legal experts assumed the policy would only apply to future newborns. But four years ago the government began using the criteria for everyone, without any public announcement. In the DR, birth certificates are required for tasks ranging from buying a mobile-phone contract to attending school to getting married, and they expire after 90 days (making them a moneymaker for the state, which charges to renew them). People who had replaced their certificates numerous times were suddenly rejected, and sometimes told to get their documents from Haiti. The Supreme Court’s approval means the policy is unlikely to be reversed soon. In theory, the government could pass a law stopping it from being applied retroactively. But Leonel Fernández, the president, won a close 1996 run-off by running a campaign (with Mr Balaguer’s support) that warned that his dark-skinned opponent—whose Haitian parents fled Mr Trujillo’s massacre—sought to reunite the DR with Haiti. The DR’s representative to the OAS insists “there is no discriminatory state policy” and that the country merely wants to “modernise and clean up irregularities in its civil registry system”. Yet Dominican-Haitian advocacy groups insist they will regain their rights eventually. The followers of Ms Pierre—who herself faced a request to annul her birth certificate— protested on the steps of the Supreme Court a week after the ruling. At her wake, they spoke of lobbying the United States to pressure the DR to comply with IACHR rulings. At the very least, they have symbolism on their side. The only splashes of colour in the drab yellow room where it was held were the sashes on the flower bouquets, the rouge on Ms Pierre’s cheeks as she lay in state and the brilliant blue and red of the Dominican flag draped over the foot of her casket.

Associated Press
By Manual Diaz
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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Sonia Perez was the undisputed champion of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic, fighting deep discrimination and helping them get birth certificates, housing and education. Her passing earlier this month of a heart attack at age 48 has left many activists wondering who will carry on her work at a crucial time. “I don’t see who can replace her,” said Edwin Paraison, who worked with Pierre and was Haiti’s former minister of Haitians living abroad. “Sonia is the kind of woman who is born once a century.” People of Haitian descent, or even just darker skin, have long been condemned to menial jobs, subject to deportation and denied access to school and jobs in the Dominican Republic. In 30 years of activism, Pierre helped countless people obtain birth certificates over the resistance of government officials. She led marches and organized rallies, fighting for better conditions for people in the sugar cane camps, or bateys, where she grew up. Pierre’s passionate activism drew death threats, but it also earned her the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the 2010 International Women of Courage Award, which she received while standing between first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, have long had a contentious relationship. Haiti’s military invaded the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 1822, occupying its neighbor for 22 years. Then in 1937, former Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the massacre of 20,000 Haitian migrants in a quest to “cleanse” his country. Over the years, relations between the two countries slowly improved, with the Dominican Republic becoming a staging ground for aid efforts following the devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people in Haiti. Roughly 100,000 Haitians fled to the Dominican Republic after the earthquake, and the Dominican government temporarily suspended immigration enforcement. But early this year, authorities began arresting and then deporting thousands of Haitians. Dominican officials said they feared the spread of a cholera outbreak in Haiti, but civil right advocates said hundreds of legal migrants were also detained. An estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic. Last month, the Dominican Supreme Court upheld a 2007 law aimed at reducing the use of fake documents, which has led the government to confiscate or annul birth certificates of those born to Haitian immigrants. Many of those immigrants were given work visas in previous decades that the Dominican government now refuses to recognize.
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Nonprofit groups estimate that at least 1,600 people have been denied their documents as a result of the law, and activists worry others will follow now that Pierre is gone. Pierre experienced the marginalization firsthand as one of 12 children raised in a Dominican migrant worker camp. At just 13, she rallied her Dominican-Haitian neighbors and organized a march to demand rights for sugar cane workers, spending a day in jail while police threatened to deport her to Haiti, where her mother was born. Pierre later founded the Dominican-Haitian Women’s Movement, a nonprofit group that builds homes in poor communities, helps secure basic services such as potable water, organizes workshops for women, and fights for the rights of Dominican-Haitians. Altagracia Jean Joseph is a 25-year-old law school student who credits Pierre with helping her obtain a copy of her birth certificate so she could enroll in college. “I consider myself one of Sonia’s daughters,” she said. “I am sure there are many of us.” But thousands of others are still awaiting birth certificates needed to obtain a job or go to school. Mireina Fortine, a 45-year-old woman who sells bread for a living, said she has fought to obtain those documents for her nephews without success. “They tell us that since our last name is foreign, and we’re children of Haitians, they cannot give us a birth certificate,” she said. Ninaj Raoul, director of the New York-based Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said she believes there is enough frustration boiling among Dominican-Haitians to carry on Pierre’s work. Raoul attended a Dec. 8 protest in which hundreds of Dominican-Haitians and their supporters demanded protection of their rights. The protest took place four days after Pierre died of a heart attack. “It was pretty clear at that point that the legacy of Sonia Pierre is continuing and that the fight is still on,” Raoul said. “I don’t think there is any one person who can replace Sonia Pierre. But many people can replace her, and I saw that happening.”

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