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Returning to Sosua

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The main beach in Sosua, Dominican Republic. Women, facing few job prospects, travel to Sosua from across the island to find work in the sex industry. Locals say it’s common to see sex workers walking on the beach, looking for clients. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

The main beach in Sosua, Dominican Republic. Women, facing few job prospects, travel to Sosua from across the island to find work in the sex industry. Locals say it’s common to see sex workers walking on the beach, looking for clients. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

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At night, the main drag in Sosua, Dominican Republic, becomes the center of the town’s sex-tourism industry. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

At night, the main drag in Sosua, Dominican Republic, becomes the center of the town’s sex-tourism industry. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

I hadn’t been back to Sosua in more than a decade. In the 1940s, my father’s family—my grandparents and their three children—were among the Jewish refugees who populated the tiny beach town in the Dominican Republic’s northern coast. I often visited Sosua as a kid, but over the years, things had changed.

Once a quiet village, Sosua had turned into a bustling sex-tourism destination. It’s a place so infrequently visited by foreign families that a source told me some locals seemed perplexed to see she had taken her kids there. “What are you doing here?” they would ask.

On my first day, I passed by the town’s main drag and saw dozens of sex workers standing outside restaurants, discos and bars. I was surprised. Adult prostitution is legal in the country, but in Sosua it felt much more visible.

Women travel to Sosua from across the island seeking job opportunities, and sex tourists flock there because the town’s reputation has been tied to prostitution. Local officials have said they want to lessen the industry’s presence in Sosua. How can they stop something that’s legal?

Just hours into my trip, I realized the Sosua my grandparents knew was gone—and plans to bring parts of it back were probably too late.

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At the main beach in Sosua, Dominican Republic, there are hundreds of shacks selling food, drinks and souvenirs. Sex workers walk around trying to find clients. But local officials have said they want to regulate or diminish the town’s sex industry and encourage family tourism. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

At the main beach in Sosua, Dominican Republic, there are hundreds of shacks selling food, drinks and souvenirs. Sex workers walk around trying to find clients. But local officials have said they want to regulate or diminish the town’s sex industry and encourage family tourism. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

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The synagogue in Sosua, Dominican Republic, was founded by the town’s Jewish refugees, but today it only offers services a few times a year. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

The synagogue in Sosua, Dominican Republic, was founded by the town’s Jewish refugees, but today it only offers services a few times a year. Image by Emily Codik. Dominican Republic, 2017.

Few of the sex tourists who visit Sosua likely know how it came to be.

To find the hints of its history, tourists would have to know where to look. A small Jewish museum chronicles the truth of this place: In the 1940s, Holocaust refugees found safety in Sosua, which was established by a Jewish relief organization. But over the years, the museum’s paint has peeled, its photos have faded, and, during my visit, the air conditioning wasn’t even on.

There’s also a synagogue, founded by the refugees. But it only opens for services a few times a year.

And finally there’s a monument to the town’s origins—a beachfront plaza marked with a white Star of David. But there’s no sign that explains its meaning.

A group of descendants is now trying to change what’s happening. They’re raising money to update the museum’s exhibition and remodel its interiors. Efforts, however, are slow moving, and funds have yet to come through.

Some have begun to fear Sosua’s history is on the brink of being forgotten. “If we don’t do something,” Sosua’s mayor, Ileana Neumann, whose Jewish father arrived in the town decades ago, told me, “it’s going to be lost.”