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#1269:Restavek Grows Up and Fights to Help Restavek Children (fwd)
Ex-Haiti Slave Fights To Help Kids
By IAN JAMES
.c The Associated Press
As a child growing up in Haiti, Jean-Robert Cadet slept under the kitchen
table, washed the feet of the woman he served and endured beatings with a
He never celebrated his birthday, could only speak when spoken to and worked
without pay, dusting the furniture, cleaning the floor and sweeping the yard
while other children played.
Cadet was a ``restavek'' - a Haitian Creole term that means ``staying with.''
It describes children whose parents, often poor, give them to wealthier
families as servants in hopes the children will have food, schooling and a
better life. The practice is widely accepted in Haiti.
Cadet, now a teacher in Cincinnati, says restaveks are ``slave children,''
and he is leading a campaign to rid Haiti of the practice.
He has written a book titled ``Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to
Middle-Class American,'' in which he recounts the labor, neglect and violence
that began when he was a young boy. (``Restavek'' is the modern spelling.)
Cadet says he has met many Haitians who acknowledge isolated cases of abuse
in the restavek system but believe it often helps poor children who otherwise
would be worse off.
``My goal is to make the term restavek a social taboo,'' he said in an
interview. ``Once you do that, the system will end.''
The use of children as domestic workers in Haiti has drawn the attention of
UNICEF and other groups that monitor children's rights. Last year, the U.N.
agency estimated the number of restaveks in Haiti at 300,000.
``Domestic labor and mistreatment of restaveks often go hand-in-hand,'' the
UNICEF study said. ``These children live in painful conditions.''
Restaveks are beaten more frequently than other children, and young girls
working as restaveks are often sexually abused, said Dr. Louis Roy, the
official ombudsman of Haiti.
``Must we put a stop to it?'' he said. ``There is legislation. But it can't
be implemented until the social situation improves.''
Restavek children are handed over to their new families when they are old
enough to work, often between 6 and 10 years old. Cadet joined the family at
age 4 and began working at 7.
Poverty is the primary force driving children into unpaid servitude in Haiti
- the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest nations
in the world.
Nearly two centuries ago, African slaves in Haiti successfully rebelled
against French rule, and in 1804 created the first independent black republic
in the Western Hemisphere. But Haiti's free population reinstituted servitude
In his book, Cadet argues that restaveks ``are treated worse than slaves,
because they don't cost anything and their supply seems inexhaustible.''
Seeking to bring attention to the issue, the National Coalition for Haitian
Rights hosted more than 300 guests at a benefit in New York on Nov. 5 and
presented Cadet with an award.
``We are raising the issue of slavery living and thriving among us today,''
the group's executive director, Jocelyn McCalla, told the crowd.
But one Haitian woman at the event, Michelle Burnadin, said her family
previously had restaveks and had treated them well, making sure they attended
school and learned to read.
``I think it's good when the kids need help if they can find a parent with a
good heart. My mother treated them just like family,'' she said. Two decades
after leaving Haiti, though, she said it now bothers her to remember that the
restaveks referred to her as ``miss.''
``When I came here, I saw it was like the wrong thing,'' she said. ``It was
kind of slavery. I see two sides of it, but what can you do?''
McCalla said his group is urging initial steps such as stricter enforcement
of child abuse laws and requirements that children be allowed to attend
school. The system is too ingrained in the society to be prohibited outright
at first, he said.
In Haiti, Social Affairs Minister Mathilde Flambert has said the keeping of
restaveks is a problem that should be addressed. But so far, the government
has done nothing.
Near Port-au-Prince, the Maurice Sixto Center in Carrefour provides one hot
meal of rice and vegetables each day to needy children, most of them
The center, founded a decade ago by a Roman Catholic priest, attracts about
230 children each day and is funded by UNICEF, the European Union and other
groups. The children are taught to read and write - skills that many
restaveks never learn.
One 12-year-old boy at the center said he would like to become a tailor. He
said he sneaked to the center carrying a bucket, giving the excuse that he
was going to draw water. His back was bruised from what he said was a
A 12-year-old girl said her master once smeared her genitals with hot red
pepper to punish her for some misdeed.
Many restaveks are released from duty when they are teen-agers to fend for
themselves shining shoes or doing any other work they can find.
When Cadet was a teen-ager, he followed the family he had lived with to
Spring Valley, N.Y. After a falling out, he left to live on his own, finished
his education and joined the Army. He now teaches French and history at a
junior-senior high school in Cincinnati.
Cadet's father was a successful exporter of coffee and chocolate who had an
affair with his cook. Cadet eventually would learn that his mother was killed
when he was about 1 year old, and his father later turned him over to a
single woman he knew.
As an adult, Cadet reached out to his father, but found him ashamed and
unwilling to accept him. The father died last year, before his son could show
him his book about life as a restavek.
``I feel angry because he robbed me of the opportunity to talk with him,''
Next to his right eye, there is a faint scar, a reminder of his days as a
restavek. He said the mark was left by a blow from a shoe's sharp heel.
``This is because I broke a glass,'' he said, pointing to the scar.
In his book, Cadet writes that he lost his childhood as a restavek.
``The child's very rights to life - to belong, to grow, to smile, to love, to
feel, to learn, and to be a child - are denied, by those whose ancestors were
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news
report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distri