SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic — He shuffles through the busy streets of this Dominican city, a 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 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."
He has been in the Dominican Republic just three months. 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.
"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?"
Nobody cares about these kids, said Dajabon Jesuit priest Regino Martinez, director of the Border Solidarity Foundation. 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.
Almost all have been smuggled by adults and even other children, lured by a dream of a better life across the 200-plus miles separating this tourism-driven nation from its poorer western neighbor.
Social workers and activists say that while the trafficking network involves Haitians and Dominicans, it's a loose-knit group.
"How do all of these children cross the frontier?" Lora said. "All tell the same story. They cross without difficulty."
She said children 9 years old, or younger, are coming. They travel with adults and sometimes with other children who serve as guides. Since the quake, 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 nongovermental organization that monitors human rights abuses along 10 border points and keeps a monthly head count.
Some sneaked in to be reunited with family members after the Dominican government opened the borders. Others were brought by traffickers as part of a racket to exploit children as prostitutes, shoeshine boys and street beggars.
Each morning, Luckner awakes inside the wooden shack he shares with his brother, 19-year-old Nelson and Nelson's pregnant girlfriend inside the dusty yard of a butcher shop off a main road. This is where his brother first suggested he should work, Luckner said, shortly after his arrival.
"I told him 'No. I can't stand the sight of blood,' " he said.
Eight days later, Nelson walked into the house and handed him a shoeshine kit — liquid, powder along with wood and the pattern to make the shoeshine box.
"He said you are going to shine shoes," Luckner recalled. Later, Nelson took him to the heart of the city.
"He showed me places I could stand to shine shoes, where I could get customers."
His other advice:
"Keep to myself, and not to make any friends," Luckner said, his brother's words echoing that of their mother, Eliana, in her weekly phone conversations.
The next day, he was out the door for what has become a daily grind.
"When I was in Haiti, I never walked like this," he said, adding that the long walk alone makes him want to return home. It's a 45-minute trek from his neighborhood to the center of town, where some days he doesn't even make it back home with his few earnings. A "thief," he said, stands on a bridge waiting for him and other shoeshine boys, searching their pockets and stealing their earnings.
On the days he makes it home with money, he hands it over to Nelson, he said, for safekeeping. He works every day, he said, except for Tuesday.
"That's a day of problems for me," he said, revealing a superstitious nature. "I don't go out."
Life in Haiti was simpler, but it was filled with suffering, he said.
He was the oldest of seven children living at home. His mother lived in Cap-Haitien where she sold spaghetti and other staples — sending food to Luckner, his father and two sisters, ages 10 and 8, when she could.
"We could spend two days with no food," he said.
He awoke long before dawn on a Friday morning in January in Mapou, the day he would begin his journey.
Nelson arranged the trip and contacted the smuggler. The first payment — $15 — was made as soon as Luckner arrived in Cap-Haitien. The rest, $25, was paid by Nelson when he picked up his brother.
On the morning he left home, Luckner placed one shirt and a pair of pants in a plastic bag and headed out the door. His clothes — on his back and in the bag — and the faux leather necklace with a portrait of Gracia Delva, his favorite Haitian konpa musician, were his only possessions.
The prized necklace cost him 50 cents and would be his one constant reminder of home until it broke a few months later.
The walk from the house to the stop to catch the bus to Cap-Haitien was a few minutes. Once in Cap-Haitien, he went to a meeting spot to await his passeur.
He wasn't alone. Nineteen others were also waiting. They took a second bus to Ouanaminthe, getting off just before the customs station to finish the rest of the journey on foot through back woods.
The youngest in the group, he would stay close to the smuggler. Hungry and weak from days without food and water, he stumbled and fell at one point.
"I got up and kept walking," he said.
Occasionally someone would ask: "Can you walk? Can you walk?"
"We never crossed any Dominican military," he said. "We didn't see them at all."
It has been nine months since Luckner arrived in Santiago, and his life has not changed that much. But those who know him say he has changed. He sends money home to help his parents and he no longer gives money to his brother for safekeeping.
"He comes and goes, and I don't even know," Nelson said, adding that he has no idea what his brother does.
Luckner still talks about going to school but has lost the passion. Each day, the dream gets deferred.
Asked what motivated him to come to Santiago, Luckner pauses.
"I came in search of life."