To take an action that is different from the cultural norm in Haiti requires a lot of strength and courage.
I grew up in Haiti. I see how often children and adults blame themselves, or remain silent, when someone does something wrong to them. I have dealt with these feelings myself, and have been able to recognize them in the children I work with who live in restavek. Because of this, I work hard to help them change their opinion of themselves.
Recently I met a boy name Joseph. His father died when he was six years old and his mother died during the 2010 earthquake. After the passing of his parents he lived with his grandmother in the country-side of Jeremie. In 2011, a year later, his grandmother died. Joseph is the third of 4 children.
Joseph’s life changed the day his sister decided to take him to Port-au-Prince to live with a host aunt. Each day he took the host children to school, but he never went himself. He wasn’t allowed to use the water in the house to take a bath, but fetched the water for everyone else; he wasn’t allowed to eat the meals that were prepared, but he was the one who went to the market to purchase the food. He wasn’t allowed to have a toothbrush, soap, flip flops, deodorant, clothes or shoes but he was the one who went to the market to sell merchandise for his host aunt.
I met Joseph while I was doing a school visit. He was sleeping on a bucket waiting for me. I let him sleep because I quickly understood his situation. When he woke up I asked him “why are you sleeping this early? Its only 8:00 AM.” He answered: “I’m a restavek and they wake me up at 4:00 AM every day to go get water because the place to get water is far. I’ve been getting water since this morning. I come here because I don’t go to school; someone told me that you can send me to school.”
I interviewed him in order to learn more about his living situation and to enroll him in our program. While we were talking he told me that he had to leave because his host aunt would beat him for taking so long, and he started to blame himself. I told him that he shouldn’t, because it’s alright to get some rest and that it’s not normal when his host aunt beats him. It should not happen and it needs to change. I asked him if I could go with him to talk with the woman he lives with; he said that she was very mean and he didn’t know if she would welcome me. I told him that I would accompany him no matter what happened and try my best to prevent the woman from beating him.
We took a taptap since the school was a far distance from his home. Once we arrived I could hear the woman speaking in a loud voice about how she is going to beat him once he gets home. I waited as Joseph entered the place but when I saw the woman grab his shirt with one hand while holding an electric cord in her other hand asking him where he was I couldn’t wait… I quickly entered the house. It was scary because she could have kicked me out, but I had no choice. I told her that he had been with me and introduced myself, talked lightly about the work I’m doing and told her that I wanted to send Joseph to school.
I was able to convince her to send Joseph to school but when I left she beat him anyway. The following day, Joseph ran away from the house. He came to the school and showed me the marks on his arms, explaining to me that the woman beat him after I left the house. It was a Friday, so I took him to a safe place for the weekend so I would be able follow-up with the situation. On Sunday Joseph ran away from the safe place and went back to the host place. He was afraid that I would get in trouble and preferred getting in trouble himself.
When I found out that Joseph had ran back home I called his host aunt. I told her I was coming to get him to go to the police station to report what her family was doing to him. She started crying on the phone, promising that she will never treat him that way again. She made her children call me and they all promised that from now on they will treat Joseph better. I told them that I would give them a second chance, but I would be following the situation as close as possible. I made sure they knew that whenever they did something wrong to Joseph I would know and it would be reported.
Last time I saw Joseph he was looking well physically; his hair was done and he was wearing clean clothes and sneakers. He told me that they were feeding him well and paying for someone else to fetch the water. Joseph went to summer school in order to catch up since he had not been in school for a long time. He did very well and today he is preparing for a brighter future!
We stand up for freedom: Now churches, community leaders, schools, neighbors, and people in rural communities are standing with us. Parents who are learning about the reality of their children living in restavek stand with us. The children we work with are standing with us; our families and friends are standing with us too. People all over Haiti are now talking and taking action about the restavek issue. The only part that is missing is the Haitian government, but we are closer than ever to having them stand with us. I see progress every day and I believe that freedom is near for the children living as restavek in Haiti.
Shinaida Thomas, Child Advocate