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7188: Time Magazine on Miami Restavec (fwd)
MARCH 5, 2001 VOL. 157 NO. 9
Of Haitian Bondage
America's newest immigrants have brought with them a nefarious practice--child
BY TIM PADGETT/MIAMI AND PORT-AU-PRINCE
Michele wishes now that she had grown up in her squalid Haitian birth city of
Port-de-Paix. When she was a young girl, her impoverished parents sent her to
live with her more affluent aunt and uncle in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince,
with the promise of a better future. She got instead an old mattress in a
closet, 18 hours a day of cooking, cleaning and waiting on her aunt's large
family, and years of beatings and sexual abuse by her cousins. Her slavery
continued when, a few years later, she was forced to emigrate with her
Port-au-Prince family to Miami and then move with them to New York City. They
kept her illiterate, denying her schooling even in the U.S. Only two years ago
did she break free, running away to Miami. Now Michele (not her real name) is
"finally starting life" at age 26. "But please don't use my name," she says in
a hushed but heavy voice. "I don't want people here to know this about me. And
I don't want my aunt to get mad."
Child slavery is an entrenched tradition in Michele's homeland: the Haitian
government estimates that 300,000 youngsters in Haiti are restaveks, or child
slaves. Like malaria and political violence, the scourge was thought to have
been left behind in Haiti. But as more young people like Michele emerge from
the refugee shadows, they have exposed the problem of slaves being kept in the
U.S., undetected by local authorities amid the two-decade-old wave of Haitian
migration. Says Danielle Romer, director of the private social services agency
Haitian Support Inc. in Miami's Little Haiti: "It's much more widespread here
than any of us wants to admit."
Restavek in Creole means "to stay with." It's a kind word for a cruel practice
that has dogged Haiti since it won independence from France in 1804. Why does a
black republic--whose colonial population was composed almost entirely of
plantation slaves--still tolerate child bondage? "There was no value placed on
children during the slavery era," says the Rev. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a Roman
Catholic priest who runs the Maurice Sixto shelter in Port-au-Prince for
restaveks who have run away or whose owners allow them a little schooling each
day. "Unfortunately, we've carried that mentality with us today." Indeed, it is
not uncommon to hear a Haitian say, "Timoun se ti bet": kids are animals.
By the late 1990s, Haitian-American community activists like Romer had begun to
detect the presence of restaveks in Miami. When the activists began to broach
the issue on Haitian radio shows and at church gatherings, they first faced
denial and even veiled threats of ostracism from some of the community's old
guard. But the phenomenon could no longer be covered up after Oct. 2, 1999,
when Florida officials working on a tip from neighbors removed a 12-year-old
Haitian girl--filthy, unkempt and in acute abdominal pain from repeated
rape--from the affluent suburban home of middle-class Haitian-American
merchants Willy and Marie Pompee in Pembroke Pines. The girl, a restavek, said
she had been forced to have sex with the Pompees' 20-year-old son Willy Jr.
since she was nine. The father and son, who police say are on the lam in Haiti,
have been charged with slaveholding and sexual battery, respectively. Marie,
who would not take repeated phone requests for comment, remains under
It is impossible to estimate how many others like the Pembroke Pines girl,
nicknamed Little Hope in the Haitian community, are laboring in American
households. But Romer and other Haitian- American social workers report that
current and former restaveks are coming to them in greater numbers now for
help, largely because the Pembroke Pines case galvanized support for such
victims. Several organizations have set up hotlines for kids seeking help; they
offer ex-restaveks assistance in finding homes, jobs and opportunities for
So far, the work of sniffing out restavek cases has fallen mainly to these
private agencies, since local police say they rarely have the information
necessary for that kind of sleuthing. And restaveks, who know most cops in
Haiti to be brutal and corrupt, are generally loath to approach police in the
U.S. Plus, they fear that turning in their captors to authorities may elicit
Restaveks who do get away have grim stories to tell. A young man recently went
to Romer with hideous burns from an iron, a punishment by his West Palm Beach,
Fla., "host" family whenever he didn't press their clothes correctly. Aside
from losing their childhood, restaveks suffer separation from their own
families. At the Maurice Sixto shelter in Port-au-Prince, Ania Derice, 18,
recalls how her parents in rural central Haiti, who couldn't afford to feed and
clothe her, sent her to a house in Port-au-Prince to be a restavek. When Ania
was 12--after six years of labor that included emptying bedpans and making six
half-hour treks a day to gather water in a 5-gal. container--she was allowed to
visit her parents for a week. She told them she wanted to return home for good.
"But my mother told me that no matter how bad my life was in Port-au-Prince, it
would be even worse there," says Ania. "She made me go back." Ania hasn't seen
her family since.
It's that stark dilemma for most restaveks--slavery or privation--that allows
their masters to rationalize the practice as more benevolent than benighted.
"She's like a member of our family," insists Micheline Dornevil, 43, whom Ania
serves as well as Dornevil's five children. "No, none of this restavek stuff.
What we've done is help her." Romer often gets the same response from restavek
"hosts" in Miami. "They actually think they're doing a positive thing for these
children," she says. "And if they bring them to the U.S., ooh, then they really
think they're doing a good deed."
As it turns out, however, being a restavek in the Haitian community in the
U.S.--where immigrants acquire a higher self-image--is usually a source of more
shame than it is in Haiti. Whereas restaveks in Haiti spoke freely with TIME,
all the Miami restaveks interviewed pleaded that their real names not be used
and their photos not be taken.
Still, that the community is acknowledging the practice at all is a start, and
a sign that Haitian Americans, like Cuban Americans before them, are beginning
the passage from huddled refugees to more confident immigrants and players in
the U.S. "We are not going to let Haitian traditions like restavek flourish
here because we know now that America is the great equalizer among us," says
attorney Phillip Brutus, who in November was elected Florida's first
Haitian-American state legislator. "We're making giant leaps from where we were
10 years ago in that sense."
Back in Haiti, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest who took up
his second term of office earlier this month, has promised to address the
keeping of restaveks--which is technically illegal there. In an interview with
TIME, Aristide called the practice "one of the cancers on our social body in
Haiti that keep democracy from growing." He pledged to enforce the law but
noted that "this first requires an intense education policy, because it is so
ingrained in Haiti that too many people don't even know they are breaking the
law." At least now, word is finally getting to Haitians like Michele's aunt
that slavery has no place in America.
WITH REPORTING BY KATHIE KLARREICH/PORT-AU-PRINCE
Copyright © 2001 Time Inc.