What It’s Like to Work for Restavek Freedom
The closest I came to Haiti, growing up, was a vacation on the island of St. John. My memories of that trip are filled with the turquoise Caribbean Sea, exotic island food, and natural disasters.
The day we were supposed to fly out of St. John’s tiny island airport and head back to freezing Ohio, I awoke to what looked like dirty snow covering every inch of our villa, rental car, and the previously green iguanas that sunbathed in our pebble driveway. Word quickly spread that a volcano had erupted on the nearby island of Montserrat. What I had thought was dusty snow turned out to be volcanic ash. My dad and uncle, anxious to get back to work, couldn’t believe that the grey, flaky ash had actually made the runways slippery enough to cancel all flights out. I, the teenager, was secretly glad for the extra days in paradise. A delayed trip home or an extended vacation, a slight change in plans was the extent of the impact this volcanic eruption had on our lives.
As I went off to college and became interested in social justice and international development, my eyes began to open to how protected my life had been. Natural disasters, like a volcanic eruption or an earthquake, I found, could cause a tiny disruption in someone’s vacation plans or change a child’s world forever.
When I was invited to join the Restavek Freedom team, I wanted to learn as much about Haiti as I could. I brushed up on my French, downloaded an app to learn Creole, and bought a couple of books about Haiti to bring me up to speed. One of these books relayed a journalist’s first-hand account of the 2010 earthquake. He recalled how on that day in January, he watched schools and government buildings collapse in front of him, families become homeless, and children become orphans. His stories were so graphic and emotionally wrenching I felt like I was watching a movie – the kind I usually avoid.
Then one Monday, after having spent the weekend reading this journalist’s report of the earthquake and subsequent damage, I came into work and picked up the file of a teenage girl from our program. What I read stopped me in my tracks. Mixed in with the rest of her biography was the following statement, in her advocate’s handwriting: “…she became an orphan in the 2010 earthquake. She was trapped for three days under the rubble before she was found.” I sat there for a moment, quiet. The “stories” I’d read the night before came into focus before my eyes as the lives of real children. But this wasn’t what really hit me. The part that got me was that their stories were still being written, right on the desk in front of me.
Paper after paper in this child’s file chronicled her life story. How being orphaned by the earthquake led her to live in restavek. How she went from living at home with her parents to working all day for no pay. How she had to drop out of school. But then…how a child advocate from Restavek Freedom spotted her and invited her into the child advocacy program. How they helped re-enroll her in school, and how this advocate came to care about her and fight for her. How a loving sponsor in the U.S. chose to support her and make all of this possible. Her story was not over like the book on my nightstand. Instead, it was as though her advocate, her sponsor, and this precious child herself were all sitting at a desk together with pencils in hand, writing the rest of her story and illustrating it with hope.
Every day working at Restavek Freedom is like this: standing in the presence of both reality and hope. Friends and family are continuously asking me, “How’s the new job?” When I open my mouth to answer, I feel like I am back on the hilly roads of Caribbean St. John. I begin to explain the restavek system in Haiti, and their faces inevitably drop as I share the circumstances that cause a child to live in restavek and the reality of the conditions they live in. But they don’t have time to get depressed, because my voice picks up speed as I passionately and excitedly press on to share with them the beautiful impact Restavek Freedom is having on the kids’ lives. Each time I find myself exclaiming, “They have so much hope now! These kids are living in really tough conditions, but they are going to school, they are known and loved by an advocate, and they have a sponsor who cares so much about them!”
Every day I get a sobering glance at the restavek system in Haiti. But each day I also leave filled with hope, knowing I am working with an amazing network of sponsors, supporters, partner organizations, and passionate staff both in the U.S. and in Haiti who are committed to uprooting the restavek system so that child slavery is a thing of the past. And that in its place, a bright shining light of hope and freedom becomes the reality of every child born in Haiti.
Wednesday, September 02, 2015 9:27:48 AM
Why We Love Summer Camp
Our child advocates in Haiti just wrapped up what they consider to be one of the highlights of the year for our child advocacy program: Summer Camp!
Many schools in Haiti organize summer camps for their students. However, while more fortunate children hop off to camp, children living in restavek are left behind to complete their household chores. Restavek Freedom’s advocates recognized this injustice and decided to create a special camp for the kids in the child advocacy program. They determined from the start this wouldn’t be your average day camp; rather, building from the insight and understanding they have of kids living in restavek, they designed a summer experience tailored to meet their unique needs. Natacha explained, “We know that typical camp games develop kids’ intelligence, allow them to become familiar with other children, build social skills, and help them grow in self-confidence; however we wanted to take this camp one step further.” Twenty-nine staff members and volunteers poured their hearts into creating a safe environment packed with ”love, attention, patience and joy for these vulnerable children who normally don’t have time for fun, for children who spend most of their time working.”
The camp ran the month of July in two different schools that partner with Restavek Freedom. Marie Yolaine shared how blown away the staff were the first day when more children than expected showed up. Nathacha chimed in excitedly, “The camp was so popular this year that we had a record number of kids, with more and more children coming every week!” Together, around 150 children flooded both camp locations each day. Nadine related one of the most touching aspects of the camp: older high school students from the child advocacy program came out to help lead the younger children in their activities.
Camp kicked off every day at 9am, with the kids being organized into two groups: 1st-3rd graders and 4th-6th graders. The theme this year was Educate Ourselves while Enjoying Ourselves. There was no shortage of learning and fun, as the kids excitedly engaged in French, English and math tutoring, music, painting, macramé, drawing, sports and more. Osbert creatively used music classes to teach songs in English. Robenson, the designated “sports coordinator,” emphasized how stress-relieving the soccer games, running, stretching and even relaxation exercises were for the kids. Nadine expressed how the kids loved learning new skills, saying, “I won’t forget the light in one girl’s eyes as she finished the handbag she made from two beautiful bandanas.”
The staff even went the extra mile to teach the kids about such pertinent issues as children’s rights, health, hygiene, and the environment. Pre-teens even had a sexuality education class, where they learned about puberty, relationships, communication, anatomy and health. Free time was also carved out, where the kids could enjoy jumping rope and playing soccer, cards and dominoes together. Natacha expressed, “This program was a breath of fresh air for the children; day after day they came excited to participate in the camp activities. We saw joy, peace of mind, and a sense of calm on their faces…it seems they experienced this for the first time.”
While the kids thoroughly enjoyed all of the camp activities, there was one time of day that was hands-down everyone’s favorite: meal time! Every day, after the kids had learned together, played together, and laughed together, they sat down and ate together. They were given a hot meal that included such delicacies as rice and beans, rice with vegetables, chicken, salmon, spaghetti, cookies, juice and “lots of water”! Natacha quipped, “The children called this ‘the great moment’!”
The very last day of camp was perhaps the most memorable for everyone. After several weeks of participating and learning, the kids had their chance to shine. Taking the stage, they read poetry, sang, and danced. Most moving of all, they acted out a skit on children’s rights for their advocates. Nathacha expressed how proud she was of them, saying, “The final day was so powerful. It was such a wonderful surprise seeing how the kids organized themselves so well.”
Robenson revealed his eyes were opened through the camp: “This was a beautiful experience in that it allowed me to see another side to the children.
There are some children in our program who struggle to get good grades in school, but we realized through camp that many excel in manual trades or have other extraordinary talents we didn’t know about! For example, Jean showed me this summer what comedic talent he has. And Sarah showed us what a great dancer she is! I was blown away by the talent these kids possess.”
The camp had a far-reaching impact, as Nadine conveyed; “The kids learned so much about themselves, including their own potential. They spent time with advocates who showed them their worth, gave them a voice, and provided space for them to learn and enjoy themselves.” Natacha spoke for everyone when she said, “All of the advocates felt proud and overjoyed to take part in the summer camp…throughout the entire month we were reminded how important our work is. We saw the impact we are having on these kids’ lives, and how we are bringing them hope.”
It’s beautifully clear the advocates thought this camp was an incredible success…and what did the kids have to say? Natacha revealed, “They say they will never forget camp! Some talk about the new things they learned, others treasure the time they had with the advocates…but above all, they hope there will always be a summer program to look forward to!”
Tuesday, August 25, 2015 9:38:51 AM
Job gets some time off
It was 9am, and the children and staff from the two schools had gathered to take a field trip to Fort Jacques. Everyone was singing, dancing, and laughing…but nobody was happier than Job.
Job has been living in restavek ever since his parents died five years ago. He has a lot of responsibilities at home, including washing dishes, fetching water, cleaning the house and going with his host to the market every day before school. Doing all of these chores means he is the first to wake up and the last to go to bed. He is only fed if he happens to be there when the family is cooking, and even then is forced to eat alone.
After my first home visit, Job reported being treated better. Later on at my mid-year assessment with him, he thanked me, saying he doesn’t have to do nearly as many chores as before and is no longer mistreated the way he used to be. Now he is actually allowed to eat with the family, and must only fetch water on the way home from school. He also doesn’t have to wake up as early as he did before. Any time off he has, however, is still spent alone.
Last March when I met with Job, he asked me, “Mr. Frantso, could you please organize a visit to Fort Jacques for us, because I never go anywhere other than school. I am always studying the history of Fort Jacques in books, but I have never seen it in person.” So I held a parent meeting, and Job’s host came. When I shared about the planned visit everyone was excited, including Job’s host. After the meeting, Job was overjoyed to find that his host had agreed to let him come on the trip. He could not wait for the day to come.
The morning of the field trip, Job called me at 2am; it was already the best day of his life, and he could hardly wait. He came to school so happy, joking around and singing. On the trip from Delmas to Fort Jacques, Job began to cry when he realized it was actually happening.
Together we visited the park; Job saw the town and even got to sit on one of the cannons at the Fort. After the visit to the Fort, I noticed Job was more expressive and his self-esteemed seemed to have boosted. Job said he couldn’t wait to go back and explain the history of the Fort to his classmates.
When I met with Job last week, he said that his host has treated him even better since returning from the Fort. And Job finally got to have some time off.
Monday, August 17, 2015 10:00:31 AM