Saturday, March 29, 2014

Understanding Restavek

The other day I ran into a young man selling sugar cane out of a wheelbarrow on the street in Puerto Plata. As I passed him, we made eye contact, and I then recognized his face. We both stopped, smiled at each other, and then broke into dialogue. A few seconds of reflection and I remembered his name: Jamile. He was one of the first boys living as a "restavek" we ever sent back to family in Haiti. This was in January 2007.

"I don't know where you live," he said. "That's why I haven't come to see you. I wanted to come thank you because what you did for me was a really big thing." He said this several times. I'm not saying that to brag, but am just telling the story as it happened. If you don't know, restavek is a name for a Haitian child slave or really a system of child slavery in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic among Haitians. Most Haitians are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved by the French who used to run the country. In 1804, the slaves revolted and gained independence. But when you examine the country, or at least when I do, I can't help but to think, "Well you didn't like it when they did that to you, why are you doing it to others??" But maybe it was just a way of life that was learned and a different way of life has been difficult to adapt to?

Anyway, I have the most insight on the situation here in the Puerto Plata. We both are quite poor. Let's say I'm your neighbor in Cap Haitien but I move to the Dominican Republic. I see that selling sweets on the streets in the DR can make some income, and if I can have 5 people working for me, I could have a little operation going. So I go back and ask you if you would like me to take your 12 year old son with me to the Dominican Republic. I promise that he will eat better and go to school. To the child, I make him believe that he will find bikes and radios on the ground and things will be fun. You entrust me with your child and we make the journey to the Dominican Republic. Two others entrust me with their children as well, and I convince two street kids two come with me too.

Then once we get there, I use the same tactics that are used on slaves anywhere to get them to work. I treat them bad.. and maybe the ways of doing that very from person to person. They are little and have lost contact with their parents in Haiti. This can go on for years. This is what was going on with Jamile and his two other housemates. And this is why we sent them back to their mothers in Haiti, against the will and despite threats of their "owner". I had seen their previous "owner" around town since and he, like many others in the neighborhood where he lived and where we first began supporting a school, stopped doing this, or at least did it a lot less.

"Ronald (fake name) was making me suffer and you took me out of that," Jamile said.

"Do you see him nowadays?" I asked.

"We live right by each other," he answered.

"But he hasn't done anything to you since then?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

So this was 7 years ago that we had sent him. He eventually made his way back to the Dominican Republic to search for work and ended up living nearby "Ronald" since they have a common circle of acquaintances, being from the same area in Haiti. And the slave and slaveholder relationship is a thing of the past. Did we do things as we should have? I'm not exactly sure. I believe God's hand was over the situation and it seems to have turned out better than it was when it began. But I have formed lots of thoughts over how such situations should be intervened in, because I don't want to be an example of an American who came in and intervened in someone's home without having the authority or the experience to do so. Now I do have the experience. At that time, I don't know that me and the others who were behind that did have the experience. But we did at least speak Creole, and I think the language barriers and assumptions in communication are sometimes the biggest things to get people in trouble!

If you look up restavek through organizations such as this one or this one, you can read that the scenario is typically a little different in Haiti, but this is how I have seen it play out time and time again here in Puerto Plata. Here is a testimony of one young man who has been with us for 7 years now.

A few months ago I was contacted by a woman who was, along with her daughter, working on setting up an orphanage in a town in Haiti. They were attempting to rescue a group of kids from an orphanage that they deemed to be a restavek operation. She asked for insight as far as setting up a non-profit and the paperwork involved with that, but also thoughts on the situation. I was grateful to be able to share a lot of what I learned with her, and now will share with you. Below is what I shared with this woman.

I do have thoughts about this and am happy to share. Forgive me if I offend you in any way since I am ignorant as to everything other than what you have shared in this e-mail and you may have excellent replies to my concerns of which I am happy to read. Here are some things I strongly believe and stand behind. 

First, working with kids at this level is largely about working with adults...and even more so when the financer (you all) is in a separate country than the kids. I know how disturbing it can be to discover kids in restavek situations.. but I have come to see things very differently after living here for 7 years than I did when I first came and witnessed this. This is so very much due to cultural differences and judgments that we can't help but to make coming from a compleeetely different world. I have come to see the people who force or have forced kids to work in very different ways than I did initially.  Sometimes these people are heartless child abusers, that's for sure. But sometimes they are ignorant, are doing what they know, are doing what they think is best, and actually do care for the kids much more than it would seem, and are very open to change. There is one family that used to have several kids living with them and working for them, treating them very differently than they treat their own kids, sending the kids out to sell on the streets all day, every day, never giving them days off, etc. They were definitely restavek kids. We took one in and he is now a leader of our group home and a star among others in the program. He said that they never hit him and he didn't experience other abuse, maybe some verbal, but they hit other kids sometimes who were less obedient. This family has changed a lot over the years in reference to housing kids and forcing them to work, as have others who used to do this in the community where we work, because of the attention that it received. No one was prosecuted, but the kids were definitely liberated and the people doing this were looked down upon. 

But this family still had one boy living with them. I knew that this boy's mom had visited the area the year before. She knew where he was living and how he lived. She asked him to return to Haiti with her when she left and he chose to stay with this family rather than go back with her. He did help the mother of the household out significantly with food she made and sold, but he also went to our school, and had a large amount of freedom. He is now sixteen. A group that recently began working in the community were told about this situation and quickly made the decision to remove him from the home. I stepped in and had a lot to share, and honestly was undecided as to which would be better for this boy - the life he was living with the family where he did do a significant amount of work, or the life he would live after they removed him from the home. One, I knew that the people who had brought this to their attention had their own motives for doing so, and I didn't believe their motives were pure. They ended up renting an apartment and this is supposed to be an apartment for him, as well as paying someone to give him extra lessons, but the group funding this are not here permanently, plan on visiting quarterly, but do lack the language and cultural skills. I have more insight into what is going on and to me it looks like these men have gotten the group to rent an apartment and are benefiting from it and now instead of being in more of a family setting, he is staying with fairly young men and lacks real guardian figures as far as a family structure is concerned. Hired men as caregivers in the past have done things such as frequented prostitutes and come back to tell boys in the home about this, and just give other poor advice and examples. So which home will turn this young man into a more productive member of society? 

Another thing I strongly stand by and I think it's proven is that the best environment to provide orphans or kids estranged from their families is.. a family. The closer to a family structure, the better. And the closer relationship and loyalty between the caregivers and the financers, the better, because that is more realistic to a family. Sometimes paid caregivers can just view their role as a job and not respect the funds that are being spent, etc. We now have a system where boys who have grown up in the program are leaders of younger boys and have no paid caregivers. Their motives have to be in the right place or it just doesn't work and money just gets in the way of that, whereas if you provide someone with meals or a food stipend, housing, schooling, and a family relationship, and they have a responsibility within their family to care for the younger family members, that is very different than money. I also see that this boy that has been removed from the home, well at least at first, I'm not sure about now, the financers thought he was staying in this new apartment whereas he was really staying with the family who had him working, and it was because he was comfortable there...and we have seen this a lot in the past.

Another thing I will say is, restavek is really a spectrum..the exact conditions vary from case to case, the amount of work the child does, the age of the child, the amount of liberties the child has, the amount of emotional connection there is between the child and the authority in the house, between the restavek child and the biological children of the authority, as well as other restavek children in the house, whether or not the child goes to school, the amount and type of abuse inflicted on the child, etc. But I will say for a child's development, there are arguably worse situations for an orphaned or abandoned child in Haiti or a Haitian child in the DR who is forced to work a lot and kept under strict discipline, and removing children from one home can put them in danger of falling into worse situations. In my opinion, kids who grow up in the streets are often worse off development-wise than a restavek child, but that may also depend on the amount and type of abuse a restavek child undergoes. The reason why I say this is because from my observations through housing, schooling, and working with kids from the streets and from restavek situations mixed in a group home setting beginning in 2006 is that kids who grow up in restavek situations turn out to be more obedient, respectful, and honest than kids from the streets. Kids from the streets often have serious problems with authority as well as attitudes that really inhibit them in life and I have seen far too many end up in prison, whereas I have seen many kids with a restavek background succeed, commit themselves to their schooling, and respect people who are willing to help them. There is also a large difference between restavek kids who are forced to work in the streets and restavek kids who work in the home. Kids forced to work in the streets are still exposed to the dangers of the streets, one of which we have seen here in Puerto Plata is pedophilia, whereas kids working in a home are more protected from that, assuming they don't experience such abuse in the home.

Now, you might say that you in no way intend that kids who are removed from the orphanage in Haiti end up in the streets and of course that is not your intention and I don't know if there is a very big street kid population in that area but Port-au-Prince is not far away and I know there is a very large street kid population there, even girls which I haven't heard of anywhere else. I have seen many times where kids who get to pre-teen or teenage years are not kept on a tight reign or are not occupied with enough activity throughout the day and they end up in the streets. We have made many attempts to locate and upon locating him, force a son of someone in our community to come home and stay with his family, and he always refuses and runs away. They have tried chaining him several times. It's very sad and it has now been over a year since they have seen him. This is so even if food and shelter is provided for them at their home, and it seems to be an extra large phenomenon in Haiti. Parents go looking for their kids and the kids run and hide from them as they come to enjoy the street life. Kids spend years doing this and seem to realize their stupidity in their older teenage years, generally, but have already been exposed to so much and estranged from their families for so long. It does seem to happen the most where the parents may have a drug problem, violence in the home, extreme poverty, single moms, lots of kids, so anything where the kid lacks attention, but really, first, at least one of these conditions fit most families in Haiti, I'm sure, and also, an orphanage is a very difficult place for a kid to receive attention as well, and as far as an orphanage that can occupy 17 kids all day long...well that's a large monthly budget. I have seen people give kids lots of chores to keep them occupied to keep them out of trouble, and without the financial means to pay for extra curricular activities, it's the lesser of two evils.

So these are just some things to consider. I am curious as to how it was determined that the current orphanage was a restavek operation, what the social services that are intervening plan to do with the kids once they are removed from the home, since it sounds like you all are not yet prepared for that, the sources of information for you all, etc. I think that is all that I felt the need to share. Again, I hope it does not come off as offensive as there is obviously a lot more to the story that I have not heard, but this is my two cents from doing similar work. If you can take a child who is used to working, not receiving school, and being abused, out of the home and put him or her in a home where they are nurtured, schooled, and their already developed work ethic celebrated and rewarded, then wow, of course that is a life transformation and a new life altogether. But if the new home is not yet prepared, I think it's important to be aware of some potentially unpredictable side effects of removing a child from such a home, and some potentially wasted attempts as well. 

Also, one more thought, collaboration is key in this line of work. My initial thought was that you all first try to collaborate with the current leaders of the orphanage rather than separate from them altogether. They must already have resources they are devoting to this, and could potentially be doing the best that they can with those resources and with their life's experiences. It has taken some working with the young man I mention who is now a group home leader so that he doesn't treat younger boys the same way he was treated when he was their age. But he has learned and changed. I would like to think that the same is true with the leaders of the current home. This can be done by attempting to lay down certain rules such as at what age a child can start doing chores, and what a healthy daily schedule would be. A financer has the right to enforce such changes for the better of the orphanage. 

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