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#689: Creole Connection Article #2 on Restavek (fwd)

From: Declama <Declama@email.msn.com>

RESTAVEK - Legacy Betrays our Need for Healing
by Marvin Dejean
Creole Connection
Oct / Nov / Dec 1999

 Jean-Robert Cadet's eyes are stoic. They barely betray the chaos that lies
beneath their brilliance and engaging facade. Surely when they are closed,
they must relive the scenes of horror that he would just as soon Forget, but
the eyes are seat of the soul and they never lie. Jean-Robert Cadet sees his
life as a restavek being replayed in traumatic bits and pieces in his
dreams, in his attempt to reclaim parts of his life that he had never known
as a child.
    The term restavek in Creole is a term which literally means "Staying
With" or "To Live With," and is used to denote thousands of Haitian children
whose parents living in abject poverty, often give them away, or sell them
to wealthy families in hopes that they will be afforded a better life. Many
of these parents believe that these well-to-do families will in fact do as
promised by providing their children with an education, as well as a place
to live in return for help with daily chores. The reality, however, is a far
cry from what is told, and an often time becomes a classic book nightmare
for hundreds of thousands of Haiti's poor children. A bad dream complete
with beatings, humiliation, demoralizing chores and at the end of their
youth, scurrilous scars that go beyond what the eyes can see. The gruesome
truth for these children lies in a condition that has been alive in Haiti
for centuries, and has become an accepted norm for too many of the
population who view it as an intricate part of the social fabric.
    The approximate number of restaveks in Haiti is estimated to be between
250,000 to 300,000, however, this number may or may not be accurate due to
the lack of reporting and tracking systems in the country regarding this
practice. The phenomena of the restavek lies no doubt with Haiti's colonial
period when the French occupied the country and used Africans as slaves. The
use of slave children to perform lighter, albeit just as demeaning chores
around the household is a well-documented fact within the journals of
historians who chronicled the lives of the inhabitants on the French colony.
The island having reached its independence in 1804 remained heavily
influenced by the practices of former masters. These ideals can still be
found within the country's symbiotic culture, language, religious
affiliations and beliefs. The restavek phenomena is by far one of the most
caustic vestiges of this legacy. Although the former slaves had performed
the daunting feat of overthrowing French rule and domination, it was not
long before the new society separated itself between issues relating to
color, wealth, and lineage. As Haiti's tragic history continued to unfold,
many within its sphere of influence and privilege held on to the practice of
"keeping" poor children for the purposes of helping with day-to-day chores,
and most times without any compensation for them or their families. Through
time, this practice began infiltrating within the circles of the middle
class who perceived it as a symbol of privilege, wealth, and being part of
the bourgeoisie. Today, the restavek situation is one that receives very
little attention from the Haitian government or its people. For a country
that is still struggling to reach standard practices of human rights for all
of its citizens, very little is said about that segment of the population
that cannot speak for itself and whose condition and status in life is seen
more through the lenses of a cultural reality.
    The restavek situation in Haiti is not unlike the phenomena of the
Untouchables within India's caste system, which relegates thousands to the
role of servants and society's unwanted class. However, unlike India which
finds its justification in religious traditions, the restavek issue is one
based heavily upon psychosocial legacies and repercussions. The restavek
phenomena, like slavery is a system that stresses ownership of the person
veversus the use of cheap or underpaid labor. The reason that so many of the
se children can be mistreated and often times beaten to death without any
intervention from authorities or other adults is often found in the reality
that they are seen more like property than as child laborers.  "René was
severely beaten with a "rigoise" (a whip made of cowhide). Every strike
lifted the skin and formed a blister.He was made to kneel on a bed of hot
rocks while holding two mango-sized stones in each hand high above his head.
His puffy face was twisted to one side and his ragged shirt was glued to his
broken body."1  The life of a restavek is one that is comprised of continual
day-to-day menial chores where they must serve everyone around them, and
refer to them as monsieur or madame (sir or mam), even to those younger than
themselves. They are strictly forbidden to speak unless spoken to, they are
not allowed to display any emotions without fear of reprisal or even voice
any opinions about their daily needs. They are rarely provided with a chance
for an education, and if so, they are relegated to second rate schools where
they may or may not graduate based on the whim of the families who own them.
A restavek is easily discernible within the streets of Haiti with their torn
rags and tattered clothes hanging from their strained and feeble limbs,
often times begging for food and money. Unlike a "bonne" (maid) or a
 "gerant" (keeper of the grounds), restaveks do not get paid for their
services, and are often relegated to performing chores that others will not
dream of doing. However, the most gruesome reality for most of them is that
they are too often killed, raped and abandoned in the streets once families
no longer wish to keep them. "Two of my restavek friends had been released
into the streets to fend for themselves. Their 'owners' had sold their house
and moved a l'étranger (which usually means a move to New York). They didn't
even try to find the families of their slave children and they didn't even
say good-bye."2  For a child who is a restavek, or an adult who once was,
the scars last a lifetime, and can almost never be undone.
 In his book, RESTAVEC: From Haitian Slave Child To Middle-Class American
(University of Texas Press Austin (C) 1998), Jean-Robert Cadet chronicles
his own life as a restavek in the streets of Haiti. The graphic depiction of
his beatings, humiliation and torture has been a catalyst to what so many
international and Haitian human rights groups have been attempting to do for
so long, that is to bring this lingering atrocity to light and public
condemnation. In his own right, he has become the one voice for the hundreds
of thousands of Haitian children who have been silenced for so long, by
trying to, as he states, "raise the consciousness of a people to the
atrocities of the restavek problem."  His act of courage did not begin with
this idea of saving lives, but rather to face his own nightmares in an
attempt to explain his life to his son.  Through this single act of crying
out, he is adding a new perspective to Haitian history by allowing so many
to step back and really begin to "see" restaveks in a new light. His writing
has become a catharsis for the open wound in the Haitian psyche, for those
who remained silent throughout this holocaust. Jean-Robert Cadet states it
de facto: "Until we allow Haitians to step back and look at the situation
from a distance, it will not change".  Perhaps this is the beginning of
change in Haiti, as international pressures from coalitions such as UNICEF
and The Coalition For Haitian Rights begin to request from the Haitian
government certain accountability for protecting the rights of these
children. The government has been recalcitrant at best in tackling this
issue, since it is one which affects so many facets of Haiti's way of life.
The existence of restaveks is both a socioeconomic, and geopolitical reality
for many of its inhabitants, and attacking its foundation may prove to be a
task akin to the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. during the
1960's. Prior attempts at addressing the issue have been met with apathy,
disdain and even force from the government, local interest parties, and
certain segments of the population itself. Change is slow in coming and will
not occur without a fight from those who have a vested interest in keeping
the status quo. Haitians, both at home and in the Diaspora have, perhaps for
the first time, a chance to redeem this social blight that has stained the
consciousness of their country for so long. As we begin to recognize
restaveks as human beings, who are as much a part of us as we are of them,
through the understanding that they are indeed Haiti's future, then we will
begin to enact a change that is long overdue. Every great revolution has a
beginning. Let this be the one to end the remains of slavery, once and for
all, for the sake of Haiti's peace and future z

Marvin Dejean

1 (Pg. 15- Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child To Middle-Class
American,University of Texas Press, Austin 1998)

2 ( Pg. 56- Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child To Middle-Class American,
University of Texas Press, Austin 1998)

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