Welcome To The Belly of The Dragon: How a Stigmatized Barbados Community Opened My Eyes and My Heart

Those of you who have been following me will know that from January to June of this year I was on a study abroad program in Barbados. Lucky me, right? Usually, when people think of Barbados or the Caribbean in general their immediate thoughts are beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, and the warmth that we all desperately crave for eight months a year up here in Canada. You’ll probably be staying in all-inclusive resorts, living in luxury for a week or two for a reasonable price. Barbados is your island getaway where you can eat, drink and lay on the beach as much as your heart desires.

You will step off that plane and smile as the thick, humid air hits your face and as the days go by you’ll think, what a beautiful place to live (yes, it is). This is paradise (also true). Nothing bad could ever happen here. But what you don’t see from the shores of the beach, the parties on St. Lawrence Gap, or your luxurious resort is the other side of life in Barbados. The side where some people struggle to keep food on the table, struggle to provide their children opportunities to succeed, and struggle to overcome crippling stigmatization. What you don’t realize when you’re lounging at The Boatyard, a popular stop for cruise passengers and resort-goers alike, is that just across the street sits one of the most socioeconomically low communities, where the drugs are being sold and bought, where the sex trade workers come out at night, where unemployment is sky high and where the community children are running around, caught up in the middle of it all.

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Set on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Nelson Street is a notorious street in the center of the St. Ambrose Community. With a history of public drug use, prostitution, and violence, it is locally known as being a pretty rough area. As a social work student, I was lucky enough to be placed right in the center of it all. Based out of the St. Ambrose Church Centre, I was thrown in head first. On my first day there, I was stopped by numerous concerned citizens when they noticed I was about to turn down into Nelson Street, each one trying to redirect me another route that would have added on an extra 20 minutes. I even had one man, of large, muscular build and heavily tattooed comment that he would never walk down Nelson Street alone. I thought to myself, “if he can’t go there, what chance do I stand?!’ Fully apprehensive, I made my walk down Nelson Street alone when a man who would come to be a huge support for me in the development of my project greeted me by saying, “Welcome to the belly of the dragon.”

Although my first few days were filled with catcalls and unspeakable comments made to me by those who limed on the street, they quickly turned a new leaf once they realized I was there to stay. During this time I learned that what you have certainly does not equate to your happiness. Despite their daily struggles, the individuals living in this area all had one thing in common: hope. If not for themselves than for their children and their futures.

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Having the opportunity to work in a neighborhood such as this truly opened my eyes and my heart. I was privileged to hear the stories that others did not want to listen to. I was welcomed with open arms into the primary school where I fell in love with the bright eyes and smiles of the children. I was guided by those who worked in the Centre I was based from. I cherished the dominoes games that I was invited to participate in with the group of men who hung out at the very same spot of the same street every single day and I was forever grateful to be invited onto the porches of those who offered me to come up for a glass of cold juice on my walk back to the bus at the end of each day.

But the moment I was most humbled is the moment a group of young men, who had initially been the worst of all the catcallers, became the people who would tell those following me too closely to back off by saying “she’s one of us”. That moment is a moment that I will never forget and one that I will always hold onto, the moment when I truly realized just how welcomed I had become. To go from being a stranger in the community to being dubbed one of their own was one of the most rewarding feelings and reminded me why I had chosen this career. I will be eternally grateful for this community for truly opening my eyes and my heart and I sincerely hope that these children get the futures that they deserve.

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29 thoughts on “Welcome To The Belly of The Dragon: How a Stigmatized Barbados Community Opened My Eyes and My Heart

  1. What a lovely story, Michelle. I’m glad you were here to share the strength of love and hope in the community. I live about 15 minutes away from there and am involved with storytelling/literacy groups for children. Do you think they’d like something like that at the St. Ambrose Centre? If so, give me a shout and I’ll recommend it to the organisers.
    Sarah V

    1. Hi Sarah! I’m so glad you liked the light in which I wrote about the community. It truly was a life changing opportunity for me. I think a storytelling/literacy group for the children would be a very welcome addition to the community and I’m sure those working at St. Ambrose would love to hear of it. (This could probably benefit many of the adults in the area too).

      Please feel free to add me as a friend on Facebook or send me an email: michelle.belair@hotmail.com and I can give you the contact info of a few people to get a hold of!

      Best,
      Michelle

  2. As a Barbadian, I truly appreciate the honest, non-judgemental nature of this post, Michelle. I appreciate more that you came, overcame your fears, and helped a community in need. And even greater than that, I appreciate that you cared! Thank you.

  3. Michele …

    I saw a repost of your article on Facebook. Thank you for caring enough to post your observations. Yes, there is a troubling underbelly to Barbados which goes completely ignored by many locals. Your perspective as a visitor makes your comments even more potent. I was born and raised in a district in St Thomas, Barbados, and know first hand about proverty and about being ignored by society. There is a stark difference between the “haves” and the “haves-not”, and most people who have made advances in life simply stick their head in the sand and pretend that these realities do not exist. Your comments are a sobering reminder of the truth.

    Keep up the good work. Good things will result as good minded people will take notice.

    Regards,
    Roland Clarke

    1. Thank you very much for your comments Roland! Poverty is everywhere but I believe that people are – slowly – beginning to take notice and do what they can do improve the lives of others. Something as simple as a smile and an acknowledgement can make all the difference.

  4. Such a good write up about what many never see- even some of us who live right here. I will forever say there is such a desperate need for more social workers in Barbados, either in government agencies or otherwise, given the amount of Social Workers leaving the UWI yearly. I unfortunately had to stop my social work degree program as being a mother comes first, but the knowledge will never be lost. I’m glad you wrote this article, and I’m glad you’re one of us ( Bajan and a Social Worker). My old school mate and friend Ian was there at St. Ambrose with you as well.

  5. Great writing!!…A post from the heart….I too am a Bajan and Barbados means the World to me..Sometimes we who live here, seem to forget, there is a whole fragile generation that could be lost, thanks for the reminder, thanks also, for having an open mind, a loving heart and eyes that see the best in people..I love your observation, that it is not, what you have that makes you happy..happiness is from the inside, life is what you make it, even when you are poor, your spirit, love for life and hope for the future can generate pure happiness….May you be successful in your journey and may your heart always be full of love….Continue to touch hearts. Blessings.

  6. It was a pleasure meeting this wonderful young lady who left an positive impact on the community and the programmes of St Ambrose church. God continue to guide protect and show Michelle way to successful in all her endeavours.

  7. As your Field Supervisor for your internship placement in the St Ambrose Church community, i am very much pleased to see that you left the community with a deep love for the people in your heart. You have surly touched the lives of many of the children and parents in our community. The community and its people are very special to me, and having had two great students in the persons of yourself and Ian, i am committed to doing all that i can to continue facilitating the UWI Social Work students internship program at St Ambrose. Michelle you were truly a blessing to the community and we will love to have you with us again. This time as a professional Social worker and for a much longer time,,,you are truly missed.

  8. Congratulations, you were able to successfully use one of the core skills in social work…interpersonal skills to connect with the community. Job well done.

    Pamela Jones-Goodridge
    Field Liaison Officer

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