Saving the lives of children in Haiti is not easy. You have to try to do whatever you can, whenever you can for long term healing. You can only pray to God that you are doing the right thing for that child. Many of the children we work with have no idea what the best situation would be for them.
Throughout the year I kept a close eye on two young sisters in our program. Sarah and Sabrina were both living in restavek when I first met them back in 2010. They were living with two different distant relatives and had both managed to hear about our program. They started coming to school, each having difficulties of their own.
Sarah, the oldest, was living with a woman who she called family. This woman was family through someone on her mother’s side, but was not a direct relation. To me this meant there was no reason for her to treat Sarah properly or in a decent manner. Sarah told me she did everything in the home. She washed the dishes by hand all day and the clothes of five grown adults each Saturday. She never had any time for herself and had no one to do her hair for her. She would go days without eating.
Sarah finally started thinking that this was no life for a child her age; she was 9 at the time. She started planning her escape. Running away was her path to freedom, she thought, because not even her own mother would listen and try to understand what she was going through in the house.
On two separate occasions she ran away and found her mother. The first time she ran away, her mother brought her back to the woman’s house then beat her, saying she disrespected the woman by running away and she put her own life in danger. The second time she ran away her mother took her back, deciding that if she had the courage do that again then things must really be bad. Sarah’s mother decided to place Sarah with an aunt in one of the newest tent cities in the middle of the city.
During this time Sabrina had been living with someone else where things were not as bad. Despite this, the mother decided to move both girls in with her sister. This was after the earthquake of 2010 and the girls lived as “comfortably,” for the lack of a better word, as they could. They ate once a day and walked an hour to and from school each day.
They lived with their aunt for a year. I tried to do everything I could to help them. I managed to take some food from our office and gave them rice packs every week, but it was not enough. The girl’s grades were not good at all. Finally, I reached the mother and father on the phone asked them to meet with me. They came and during that meeting I managed to encourage them to take full responsibility of their two girls. They said they would, even though it took a little longer than expected.
The family of four moved to Canaan, the largest tent city in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The mother managed to purchase a piece of land in the Jerusalem section of the camp city, but life was anything but good for them. They had to wake up at 4am in order to get to school on time. They lived under a scorching hot tarp with dirt floors; they slept on the floor at night because they only had one piece of sponge for four people. The girls slept on the sponge until the tarp got ruined from all the rain and wind. The sponge became infested with bugs and the girls could longer sleep on it. Life was becoming worse for them, Sarah said, but they managed to eat twice a day and were with their own parents.
Last month, Sarah informed me that she would be sent into restavek this summer. I asked her why, because she was living with her parents. I knew things were tough but, not to that extreme. She said her family was having difficulties because her mother was robbed on the way home from the market where she sold chickens. She had no way to recover the money stolen from her to purchase more chickens to sell. She was also very sick and gave birth to a very sick baby girl who needed serious medical attention.
The family was still living in Canaan and the girls would tell me they were getting wet when it rained. They also missed many days of school because they could not afford a tap-tap. Currently, the family has no home, no food and no other option but to separate. The girls were sent to live with their uncle so they could finish the school year and their mother is living with a friend so she can take care of the baby in a decent environment.
I called their mother and met with her in a parking lot because she did not have money for a tap-tap. I asked her if she absolutely wanted to send the kids to “live with other family members” and she said no. She told me she would rather make some money to buy commerce and manage in any way she could to take care of her children. She told me she grew up as a restavek. Her father died when she was very young and she had to live with her aunt who mistreated her. As we talked she told me she now understands why her oldest child does not want to live with “family members.”
I did what I could to help the family. I sent emails to various NGO’s who build shelters in Haiti, asking for help. None replied back. I asked for a little bit of money from our funds to try to keep this family together, to keep these girls out of the restavek system. I called their mother and asked her to come with me to purchase things to keep their house together. We purchased a very large tarp, two very thick sponges and a metal bed. We even managed to find a tent in our office to bring to the girls. We also gave her rice packs that could last for three weeks. One of the last interventions we wanted to do was to loan their mother with $60USD to start a little business. Although she said it’s not much, she will try to do what she can. She is only required to pay about $2.50 USD every two weeks. Lastly, we will be transferring Sarah and Sabrina to a school closer to home where they will only have to take one tap-tap to school.
Day after day we work hard to end the cycle of the restavek system. Often a mother who grew up as a restavek child herself ends up sending her children into the same system she came from because she has no other choice. Typically, the mother was denied an education by her host families and has little to no means of taking care of her children. However, the children in our program are fortunate because they are given the opportunity to attend school and are hopeful about changing their future. Although providing an education may seem like a small thing to provide a child when there are so many other problems facing them it is a huge gift. By being able to provide for themselves and their family they can end the system.
Djougine Desrosiers, Special Projects Coordinator / Child Advocate