SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic — He shuffles through the busy streets of this Dominican city, a homemade wooden shoeshine box in one hand and a reminder of home — an emblem of his favorite Haitian artist — around his neck.
At 12 years old, he doesn’t know the date of his birth and has never celebrated his birthday. He only knows his age, he says, because that is all his parents told him before handing him over to a stranger in January.
Ten days after a devastated Haiti began digging through the rubble from the horrific Jan. 12 earthquake, Luckner arrived in Santiago de los Caballeros as a young foreigner smuggled across the border. The three-day trek, mostly on foot, cost $40. Luckner is among thousands of Haitian kids who have been smuggled into the Dominican Republic since the earthquake. Some have been forced to do menial jobs — or worse.
“I came so that I could go to school,” he said, sitting inside a community center, amid the background sound of laughter from little boys.
“When I think about it, I cry when I see I am not in school. There is no school.”
For Luckner and countless other Haitian children seen on this city’s streets and parks, there is only work.
“I shine shoes,” he said. “Some days I can make $1 or $2. Some days I can make nothing.”
In the Dominican Republic for just three months, his Spanish is limited. The social workers who help the shoeshine boys have a limited vocabulary in Creole. There is just one worker at the center who knows the language. Sitting inside a backroom at Accion Callejera, his face, with its long eyelashes and serious composure, reflects innocence.
Clues to his life in Haiti reveal themselves in small ways. Although able to write his first name, he cannot spell his last — lack of money caused him to drop out of school after the first three months each year. With each cent he earns here, he plots his return home to Mapou, a rural village just across the river from Plaisance in northern Haiti.
“I feel much more comfortable in Haiti,” he said. For one, he said, he never had to walk as much.
“They lied to me about life here,” he said, referring to his older brother and parents who encouraged him to leave. Luckner’s father declined to speak to reporters from The Miami Herald and his mother could not be located.
The social workers inside Accion Callejera had not heard Luckner’s story until he told it to the Herald. He arrived one day on his own, joining the dozens of other shoeshine boys who are attracted to the center because of its twice-a-day meals that cost 20 cents. The meals are an attraction, workers say, but there are also other opportunities if the children want it, such as health checkups and school, with their guardian’s permission.
And then there is just the chance to be a kid.
“If the children do not work, they don’t eat,” said Cynthia Lora, director of Accion Callejera. “These children, what is their reality? We don’t really know. What do they have to do to survive? And the girls, they are much more vulnerable than the boys. They are exploited for various acts. In other words, who is protecting these children?”
In the Dominican Republic, there are laws to protect children. But countless and invisible, they are ever present at red lights, tourist hotels and sidewalks. Dressed in ragged clothes and sometimes as young as 3, they are forced to fend for themselves as they beg for change or shine shoes.
Since the quake, the number of Haitian children arriving in the Dominican Republic has increased, they say. More than 7,300 girls and boys have been smuggled into the Dominican Republic.
In 2009, the figure was 950, according to Jano Sikse Border Network, a nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights abuses along 10 border points and keeps a monthly head count.