“Because of you, I am free”
Living in Haiti all of my life, I have always witnessed and heard people say that Haitians do not put their heads together to do the work. Now I know that is not true. This past November I witnessed something I have never seen nor heard about in Haiti.
When we came together to begin the process of planning the music competition I never expected to see the results we have seen. The process took place over several weeks and the final day more than 9,000 people showed up to lend their support and to stand up for the FREEDOM of children in restavek.
The crowd was very enthusiastic and the people cheered when something powerful was said. The people voted for their favorite performer and the finalist that were chosen, deserved to be there. We had many powerful performances and so many talented people that put their hearts into creating original lyrics and music. My arms were filled with little bumps as I realized what was happening right in front of me. To think that all these people were coming together to support the work we have been doing for so long. I wanted to shout with excitement.
One of the most encouraging things to see was so many young people lifting their voices for this cause. I have confidence that this will bring a good result for my country and that together we will raise the flag higher and more Haitian people will stand up for freedom.
Tomorrow night (Jan. 9) Pastor Bilda, Gardy and 8 of the finalist will be on TV in Haiti. The show is for 1 hour and will send a message to the entire country of Haiti. If you are Haitian and living in Port au Prince, please watch at 8 PM on channel 24.
Together we will arrive!
Shinaida Thomas, Child Advocate
In October 2010, before we officially opened our transition home, I received a knock at the door. Standing before me was a young woman with obvious signs of physical and emotional abuse. The scars, the blank stare, her hunched shoulders…everything about her spoke of hopelessness. She was seeking refuge and had heard that we were working with children living as restavek.
Marie’s story is one of transformation, brought about through education, patience and love. She moved into our home and the transformation began to take place immediately. She was 21, and our maximum age of acceptance is 17. However, when I met her, I knew there was no way I could return her to the life she had been living.
From the age of 3 years old she had been passed around from one family to another, abused and humiliated, illiterate and exhausted. Her options were few but then one day she could not take it any longer.
Today Marie has hope. She transitioned out of our home 16 months later, confident and full of anticipation that her future would be better. Now she can read and write, cook and sew and supports herself with the money she earns creating beautiful jewelry. She knows what it means to give love and to receive love and she understands the value of education. She is happy and has friends and a community of people that care about her.
I recently received a text message from her saying, “Mwen renmen w anpil” (I love you a lot). This, from a young women who 2 years ago could not even write her name. This is HOPE!
Marie is just one of thousands of young women that need a hand up.
Marie gave us permission to share her story and to share these photos. Typically we do not post photos of the girls in these situations. However we felt that her story would be one of inspiration and visible change. We hope that you are as inspired as we continue to be by the courage of these young women.
Thank you for standing with us for FREEDOM.
Djougine Desrosier, Child Advocate
Songs of Freedom
On November 24, 2012, Restavek Freedom partnered with our church mobilization coordinators in Arcahaie to launch a music contest to raise awareness about the restavek issue. The goal of this contest is to engage the youth of Haiti to become more active and participate in creating change and working toward justice for children living in restavek.
Participants in the contest were required to write and submit original songs; however, before the groups wrote their songs, Gardy St. Paulin, one of our former child advocates and now coordinator for Church Mobilization, introduced the work of Restavek Freedom to the participants. He talked about the harm this issue brings to the country of Haiti and how it destroys the hearts of children. He described the treatment these children receive and how we must advocate for change.
The program has been hugely successful! Thirty groups submitted original songs for consideration. Each group performed their songs over four consecutive weekends. Each weekend the audience grew as they came to encourage the contestants and also vote for their favorite performance. The performers were rated on lyrics, composition and performance. Audience vote constituted 20 percent of the total tally.
The first week more than 300 people were in attendance, but last weekend we had more than 5,000 people show up for the performances! The judges anticipate that the crowd will build to around 10,000 to 15,000 for the finals, which will be held on Christmas day.
We hope to share some of the performances very soon as well as the winner. Our goal is to continue this music competition all across Haiti with a grand finale in the spring of 2013.
It is a huge accomplishment to pass state exams in Haiti, and we are excited to share with you that two girls in our child advocacy program, Nadine and Mary, passed their exams this month and have moved into secondary school!
Nadine is 12 years old and has been in our program since 2009. Her father died when she was very young, creating many hardships for Nadine. Despite Nadine’s hardships, she flourishes at school. She is one of the most intelligent students in her class, and she hopes to continue in school so she can have more opportunity.
Mary is 13 years old and has been in our program since 2009. Her father passed away in 2009, and Mary was sent to live with her aunt because her mother could no longer care for her. Mary is a wonderful student, and she is excited to continue her education so she can someday become a teacher.
The educational system in Haiti is complicated and inaccessible to many children. In fact, only 67% of children in Haiti are enrolled in primary school (K-5), and of that percentage only 40% will make it past the sixth grade. Unfortunately, education is considered a luxury that most children do not have since over 90% of schools in Haiti are private and cost money to attend. It is through our sponsors that we are able to provide an education to over 700 children in Haiti that would otherwise be denied this fundamental right.
Way to go Nadine and Mary….we are so proud of you!
For more information on sponsorship, visit our website at www.restavekfreedom.org
The Building of a Place to Learn and Play
An amazing team of men from Life Church came to help us work on the community center in Port Salut. They donated their time, soccer balls, awesome chocolate covered rice Krispy treats, tools and a beautiful playground unlike anything you have ever seen in this part of Haiti.
For five days they worked in the hot sun with our Haitian team from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening. They instructed our Haitian team how to use tools that they had never seen before and how to maintenance the playground by keeping the screws tight and the equipment in place. They installed more than 6,000 sq. ft. of metal roofing as they gave instructions on the use of nail guns, skill saws, power grinders and other electrical tools. In the end, Haitians and Americans were all proud of their accomplishments.
The RFF team sends a big THANK YOU to the Life Church team….your love, support and encouragement will always be remembered.
Also a big THANK YOU to my husband, Ray Conn, who designed this beautiful building and ensured the safe construction of this facility.
Soon we will be moving in and working with the local community to teach English, computer skills, literacy and many other programs that will provide jobs and training in this area. Our goal is to use this center as a training facility where people will learn skills that will enable them to support their families so that they never have to send their children to serve as a restavek.
Come back soon Life Church….we love you!
By Adeline Bien-Aime – Director of RFF Transitional Home
Ti Mari was 13 years old when her mother died; she had nowhere to go. A woman approached Ti Mari’s father and told him that if he would send the girl with her to Port au Prince, she would take care of Ti Mari and enroll her in school. Because the father had no means to care for Ti Mari, he quickly agreed and within just a few days she was on a bus with a stranger headed for a totally new life in the city. Ti Mari heard the promises made to her father and she could only hope that it would be true. As they traveled in the bus, she heard the woman saying terrible things about orphans; using horrible names to describe them. Ti Mari’s hopes began to fade with every mile, and she knew that she would never see the school, the nice clothes or the happy family the woman had promised.
They arrived in Port au Prince very late, and instead of a the warm bed and nice clothes that Ti Mari was promised, she found herself sleeping on the floor under the bed of her new “aunt” without any covering. In the morning, she was woken by rude shouts and the first day of her life of slavery began. She was required to do all the work of the house. She fetched the water, washed the clothes, prepared the food, looked after her “aunt’s” children, went to the market, cleaned the house and was so tired she could barely eat by the end of the day. When she wanted to rest, the “aunt” became very angry and shouted at her. The next day was much the same, but when Ti Mari failed to prepare the food as quickly as demanded, she was beaten severely and slept without eating. Her life became a nightmare of hard work, rude insults, beatings and servitude day in and day out. After some time Ti Mari grew used to answering to different names than what she had been called at home by her precious mother. She now answered to such names as “the dirty one”, “the thief”, “the shameless one”, and even worse…
One day when Ti Mari went to fetch the water, she met a very beautiful and young woman near the water source. The woman spoke so kindly to her and when the woman smiled and touched her arm, Ti Mari thought she was dreaming. The beautiful woman was Natacha, a child advocate for the Restavek Freedom Foundation in Port au Prince, and she asked Ti Mari why she wasn’t in school. After a few minutes with the beautiful woman, Ti Mari began telling her the whole story of how her life had become so terribly difficult since her mother had died. Ti Mari was usually shy, but she found it very easy to talk to Natacha; she was only afraid that someone might tell her “aunt” that she was talking to someone, which was forbidden. Ti Mari spoke with Natacha of her constant hunger, loneliness and pain, and Natacha was extremely concerned.
Soon after, Natacha made a visit to Ti Mari’s home. She met the host aunt and convinced her to allow Ti Mari to attend school. Natacha enrolled her in school and continued to visit Ti Mari, keeping a watchful eye on her education and living situation. It made Ti Mari so happy to have someone that she could share her difficult experiences with and she treasured her relationship with Natacha.
Although Ti Mari was enrolled in school, her attendance was extremely inconsistent. She was kept home from school many days to cook and care for the “aunt’s” young children, which would cause her to miss her school lessons and fall behind. Also, if Ti Mari was ever unable to complete her housework, her aunt would beat the young girl with a big stick. One Saturday, Ti Mari was beaten so badly she was left injured and bleeding. When Natacha went to visit Ti Mari at school she was devastated to see the bruises and hear the terrible story. That day, Natacha requested for the girl to be taken to the Restavek Freedom Transition Home, and we at the Transition Home planned for her arrival.
The “aunt” initially refused to let Ti Mari come to the Transition Home, but after Natacha explained to the “aunt” that she had broken the law by beating the child, the “aunt” agreed to let Ti Mari go. We were so happy to welcome Ti Mari with some great smiles and big hugs! Even though she had so many marks on her body, she was a beautiful girl and her smile made all of us happy. For Ti Mari it was the first time since being taken by the “aunt”, that she slept on a bed, used soap, was given toothpaste and wore sandals. More importantly, it was the very first time she had felt love since her mother died.
Ti Mari’s life has totally changed; she is beautiful, secure, loved and doing very well in school. She believes God has a very special purpose for her life and that she was saved from slavery for a reason. Ti Mari wants to tell every restavek child in Haiti that there is hope. We must continue this difficult work because we are making a difference in their lives, one child at a time.
Photos: Top, Natacha with one of the many children she advocates for. Bottom, Adeline with some of the girls at the transitional home.
By 9:00am my 35 children and I, armed with water and snacks, were ready to scramble up a mountain just outside Port au Prince. It was the last day of our summer program at EMINAF School and it was time to have our picnic and debrief about the things we learned during summer school. After a brief orientation about the day and praying together, we started our climb up the narrow path. The children were excited and had so much energy that they ran ahead of me (I couldn’t climb nearly as fast as they could). The town area of Fontamara faded in the distance as we climbed toward our destination and perfect picnic spot in Boutilier.
In less than an hour we stood overlooking Port-au-Prince, seeing the effects of the earthquake and the temporary houses that had been thrown together to provide shelter. The poor construction of the houses in the city disturbed the children and they wondered why it looked so bad.
As we continued to walk the children kept running ahead and calling back to me with encouraging words and telling me that I could make it and that it was easy. I told them to keep climbing and that I would reach the top just behind them. Their energy and happiness were so contagious that I became stronger with every step. The children were singing every song they could think of when we finally reached the top and found the most beautiful, greenest grass we had ever seen. I couldn’t explain the happiness I felt inside, it was like a paradise! The children and I could not keep our amazement inside; suddenly all the kids were running to get there. The children jumped and cried with excitement thinking that this beautiful place must be just like Heaven, their songs becoming even louder. We took about 15 minutes to eat, resting a little bit. Not all of the children had brought their lunch so they all shared. The beautiful mango trees provided a perfect place for us to rest and talk together.
We did some fun exercises, played a few games, and then began talking about the things they had learned in summer classes. I was proud to hear how they had grown, becoming more confident and open to sharing their thoughts with me as well as with each other. After this activity we played soccer, tic tac toe, and cards. The kids had so much energy! The physical activity gave way to cognitive activities which helped them to be quiet for a while. We had a wonderful opportunity to share the principles of health for the young people and we talked about ways to protect themselves and their bodies from harmful things and harmful people. To evaluate the summer lessons, I gave them a piece of paper to share their opinions, thoughts and suggestions. The kids shared how they enjoyed participating in the summer program and gave lots of great ideas as well. One girl remarked that she had not known that a 12 year old girl could get pregnant and she would warn all of her friends.
The last activity of the day was a great race competition between boys and girls. They all ran well but the girls were so motivated and eventually won the day! Girls don’t want to be left behind in the progress in Haiti, and I taught them that education is the key for to lead productive lives and they promised to do their very best in the new school year. Afterwards we took lots of pictures of each other. When it was time to go no one wanted to leave. These children loved spending time together and I know that our relationship grew tremendously through this picnic day.
I decided to save the last pieces of candy for the children who reached the bottom of the mountain first, motivating the kids to leave. The walk back gave us time to reflect on our day and it made me very happy. By the time we reached the school, we were exhausted and hungry again. We ate our final snacks and the children began playing again but I only had energy to watch them.
The children thought the day was about a picnic, but for me it was about spending time with them and giving them opportunity to be free and to talk about the things that were important to them. They said they will remember it their entire lives, and I believe they will. What we thought was just a picnic turned out to be a life changing experience for both the children and myself, and the building of precious relationships.
Like many of the children in our program, Rose was sent away after the death of her mother. She has been living as a child in restavek since she was seven years old. Rose is now 10 and entering the 2nd grade. Before entering our program, Rose could not read or write and she never had the chance to attend school. Now, she is reading well and working hard to improve her writing.
Rose loves her child advocate and says she wants to be like her someday. She says the relationship she has developed with her child advocate has given her confidence at school and at home. She even dreams of becoming a nurse in the future.
Rose is one of hundreds of children in our child advocacy program still in need of a sponsor. Our child advocates offer love and encouragement to each child allowing them to realize their value.
To sponsor Rose, visit www.restavekfreedom.org/sponsorachild or call (513) 475-3710.
Influencing Communities in Rural Haiti
Walking into the rural communities of southern Haiti gives one a glimpse into the challenges of rural families. The beautiful mountains are quickly blurred by the realization that they create some of the insurmountable obstacles that lead families to send their children to the cities to live with distant family members and oftentimes strangers just for the hope of attending school.
This is one of our greatest challenges. Many children in Haiti live so far from schools that it is nearly impossible to attend school while living at home with their parents. Strangers and even family members will promise the parents a good education for their child but the reality is that most of these children will never see the inside of a school. “Let me take this child for you, I will provide everything in exchange for a little housework”. So continues the cycle of Restavek in Haiti. How many times has a parent recounted this mantra to us?
As Child Advocates for Restavek Freedom, we understand first hand that while these promises of education and a better life are alluring, they are rarely kept. We hear the stories of these children, see the sad expressions on their faces and hear the desperation and fatigue in their voices. “I just wanted to go to school and now I will never be able to improve myself.” Our vision is of a Haiti without restavek where every child has a voice and a chance to reach his goals.” We want to change this sad reality and encourage families to keep their children and join with other community members to establish schools in their own localities.
Earlier this month two of my colleagues and I visited a rural area in southern Haiti with one clear goal in mind: to influence the community to keep their children and to make sure parents understand the difficult and degrading realities that may await their child. We joined a group from Cincinnati, Ohio, who were there to support our mission, provide pastoral training, and facilitate the development of community vision.
People from the town were invited to attend the training and learn more about the reality of what occurs once they no longer have contact with their children and how this system of restavek affects the life of their children, community and country. We engaged over 300 community members in candid, open and heart breaking conversation and were able to share stories of children living in restavek and their struggle to survive as well as their desire to return home. The community members opened up and began sharing terrible experiences of their own and began looking for ways to overcome the challenges and keep their children with them.
The reaction of the participants was amazing. One man from the group, a father of seven children, recounted a story of a woman who asked him to give her one of his children. He was told by the woman that she would “take care of everything” for the child. He thought for a long time about it, and finally decided he would give his child to the woman. Thankfully, soon after giving his child away, the man attended a discussion in the community led by one of our child advocates in which much light was shed on the abuse, neglect and isolation experienced by many children living in restavek. The man changed his mind and decided he did not want his child living as a restavek.
Another woman who had sent her child to Port au Prince now wants to go and bring her home. Others shared how they had given their own children away but took in children from the country side to work in their homes. This was truly eye-opening as we began to understand that the rural community is not only a sending community but they also have children living under their roof as restavek.
There is much work to be done in order to influence and educate rural communities about the realities of restavek.The exciting part is that these communities are open to listening and engaging in discussion about this issue.At first there was reluctance, but as the week continued we gained their trust and the relationship started to grow.In the end, many people gave testimony to the fact that they were about to send their children away but now they will not.
They are like parents everywhere…they want education for their children and for their children to have opportunities that they never had.Now the challenge for us is how to bring education to this community and to other rural communities in Haiti.We advocate for restavek children and want to do everything we can to prevent more children from entering that life threatening system of abuse. We work with Compassion and Courage as we warn parents everywhere against these dangers. We want children to be able to go to school while living in their families of origin.
These stories are true examples of the changes that will occur once people begin to understand the potential dangers of this system. We are grateful to be part of this change, to realize a new vision for Haiti!
Written by Jean Osbert Victor, Child Advocate, Restavek Freedom Foundation