The Creole term restavek translates to mean “stay with”, but the reality of the term in Haiti is much bleaker than that. Children aged 5-17 are sent to stay with families in urban areas to trade room, board and an education for assistance with household chores. Rarely is that what happens, these young children become solely responsible for the cooking, cleaning, shopping and child care for a family that is not theirs. They often are not fed, do not have a place to sleep and are routinely beaten. In short, a restavek is a child slave.
Restaveks typically come from rural families with many children who struggle to care for, feed, or educate their children. The child could be sent to an unknown family through a broker, or to another family member, or could even become a restavek in his own home. For example, if the child’s parent remarries and has new children, it is not uncommon for the original child to be treated as a restavek. Whichever family situation it is, these children live a life most people aren’t aware still exists in the 21st Century.
According to a report issued by Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) in 2009, there is an estimated 225,000 children living as restaveks in Haiti, working 10 to 14 hours a day. 30% of the 1500 households surveyed had a restavek child living with them and 22% of all children surveyed were treated as servants. Although the 2009 report for PADF was thorough, the undisclosed nature of this practice means there were significantly more restaveks than the study indicated. This study was also done prior to the earthquake of January 12th, 2010. The economy in Haiti since the earthquake has been very difficult for families in every region. It can be surmised that in the post earthquake economy, more families have been unable to care for their children and often sending the child for servitude is the only option.
In his 1998 memoir, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American, Jean-Robert Cadet tells his own story and explains, “In Haitian Society, [being a restavek is] the lowest possible status. It’s like being a dog. And no one wants to reveal that he once was a dog.” The secrecy and shame Mr. Cadet speaks of leaves the subject tragically hidden behind closed doors. The shame and the fear these children feel every day leave many unwilling to tell their story. They are scared they will be returned to their nightmarish conditions or that if returned to their families they will not be wanted.
At the Fr. Wasson Angels of Light home (FWAL) we have several children we suspect were restaveks prior to arriving into our care. Here is story of one particular child. Although she never used the term restavek, during her time at FWAL, she has been able to share glimpses of her life that have painted a clear picture of her past. Due to the extremely sensitive nature of her situation, her name and image cannot be shared. For this story we call her “Anna”.
FWAL was first notified about Anna because she was left unconscious at the St. Luke hospital after malnutrition caused her to have repeated fainting episodes and she often hit her head. After recovery, Anna came into FWAL’s care and as she grew more comfortable and trusting of her caregivers, she spoke a bit about her past and her responsibilities in her previous homes. She spoke of living with a few different families and always referred to the matron of the house as her aunt. Anna cooked and cleaned for these families and cared for their children but she was not cared for at all. She was not allowed to go to school. If she was fed that day or allowed to sleep inside, depended on the mood of her “aunt”. We believe Anna lived in these conditions with three different families over the course of three years.
Anna has been at FWAL for a few years and she is now in good health and has adapted to life. Because of the instability she endured and the mental and possible physical abuse she suffered over the years, it took her a long time to understand that FWAL would be a safe haven. Upon arrival she continued to seek her approval through chores. Accepting that the love, food, shelter and support would be unconditional, was a hard lesson to process. Anna challenged the caregivers to find the proof of what she thought she knew, that she would eventually be turned out to the street or to another hurtful family.
When Anna finally believed the unconditional aspect of the love given to her, the food and shelter provided and all the other aspects of belonging to the NPH family, she began to settle and soon flourished. She is still working through some of the psychological effects of her years as a child servant, but she has accepted FWAL as her home. She works hard at school and loves her after school dance classes. She is a mature young lady, has made new friends and enjoys caring for and mentoring the younger girls.
We have seen great progress from Anna and we are looking forward to seeing her continued growth.
Contributed by Shana Van Valkenburg
Helping your brother and sisters was part of Fr. Wasson’s philosophy. Here are some examples of how our children lend a hand.