I knew I belonged in Haiti before I met the woman who I’d come to belong to. Teddi Ann and I met in graduate school where I’d gone after my first two years in Haiti. We were still just friends when I returned to Haiti after graduating in 1991.
Part of what attracted me to her was that she had already lived in three other countries and had learned the local languages in each. I figured that if anyone could adapt to Haiti, she could.
Still, as our relationship deepened, we thought she should come for more than a short visit. We wanted to know if she could see herself living and belonging in Haiti, too.
As Beyond Borders does with anyone new to Haiti, I arranged for Teddi to live with a Haitian family for a language immersion.
Edward and Mireille and their three children lived in a simple two-room house just outside Port-au-Prince. They made up for their lack of space with warm hospitality for Teddi, giving her their best bed, serving her their best food, and helping her integrate into the community.
Teddi hadn’t been with them for long when she realized that there was a fourth child in the household. I’d visited the house several times to make arrangements for her stay, but the family never introduced me to this little girl. But Teddi noticed this wisp of a girl slipping in and out of the house like a ghost.
She looked like she might only be six or maybe seven years old, but she was always working—carrying big buckets of water up the mountain path to fill the drum where they stored their water, washing and pressing the family’s clothes (even though she wore only rags herself), tending the fire for cooking, and doing most of the meal preparation and clean up.
Although Teddi was still new to Haiti, she knew enough from our conversations about the country to recognize that this little girl was a restavèk — one of a quarter-million children who live apart from their parents, trapped in domestic servitude in another family’s household.
As the days passed and Teddi’s language progressed, she found ways to win this little girl’s reluctant trust. They could only converse when the family was out of earshot because it was clear that she wasn’t supposed to be talking with Teddi.
Teddi called this little girl Mariette because that is what others in the family called her. Then one day the girl corrected Teddi. “My name is not Mariette,” she said. “Yo pa menm konn non m,” the girl explained. “They don’t even know my name.” Her real name, she confided to Teddi, was Floriette.
In every other respect Teddi’s hosts were warm and loving people. They were good parents to their own children. Yet they forced this little girl to slave away for them without showing her the slightest sign of affection, putting her in school, giving her a chance to play or make friends, or even bothering to remember and use her real name.
Teddi’s anger was tempered by the knowledge that every human and every society suffers from some form of blindness. Mireille and Edward’s treatment of Floriette was considered not just normal by neighbors but beneficent. After all, they had taken a poor child off the hands of another family and were feeding her their own food.
Teddi did her best to befriend Floriette during her short stay with this family. A sympathetic look, a kind word, or a simple gesture of kindness seemed to lift Floriette’s spirits. But even this was complicated.
One day Teddi spotted a beautiful blue hair ribbon in the market and decided to buy it for this little girl who had nothing. Floriette beamed when Teddi presented it to her.
But when the family saw the blue ribbon, they were scandalized by the special favor Teddi had shown Floriette. And other children in the neighborhood mocked Floriette for wearing such a nice ribbon in her unkempt hair.
I share Floriette’s story now because I believe restavèk children like Floriette are Christmas children.
Christmas celebrates the birth of a child who knew what it meant to not belong—a child who was sent away by his Father from the security of a heavenly home and into servitude to a world that rejected and abused him.
In so many ways he did not belong. He was born a Jewish baby in a Roman empire where Jews didn’t belong. He was born a Galilean baby in a Jewish nation where Galileans didn’t belong. His hometown of Nazareth rejected him, and in the end, even his friends denied or betrayed him.
Conceived out of wedlock to an impoverished teenaged girl, born in a stinking stable with a feeding trough for a bed, hunted down as an infant by the authorities, forced to flee with his parents to a land where his people had once been enslaved—this Christmas story is not the narrative anyone would expect of the long awaited King of Kings entering history.
But the kingdom this baby grew up to proclaim was an upside down kingdom where the last are made first. Like the Hebrew prophets before him, he proclaimed a God who calls us to care for widows and orphans and befriend those who suffer in obscurity. He proclaimed a God who favors those who have been pushed aside above others.
With Jesus still growing in her, Mary was overtaken with joy over this. She sang out that God “has seen the humiliation of his servant” and “has raised high the lowly.”
Although they probably won’t be given a break from their work to celebrate it, Christmas is a celebration for children like Floriette, children who live and suffer far from the home where they belong and far from the protection of the people they belong to.
And Christmas is also for the rejected child in each of us. It is exactly in those vulnerable wounded parts of each of us where we can find God especially close.
We can all celebrate Christmas by going inside to find and learn the true names of the wounded and neglected parts of ourselves that we hide. And we can celebrate Christmas by extending ourselves as Teddi did to someone who doesn’t belong.
It pains me to remember Floriette and to know that Beyond Borders was unable back then to help her. This was nearly twenty years ago when Beyond Borders was just getting its start.
Things have changed. We now have the ability to go into neighborhoods like hers and offer training that rapidly changes what the community sees as acceptable treatment of children like Floriette. We also have the means to help parents keep their kids at home where they belong so they never get sent to where they don’t belong.
I don’t want to minimize the impact of Teddi’s kindness, though. A name learned, a kind word offered, a ribbon given—we trust that these small acts were part of the larger flow of God’s favor shown to Floriette.
Likewise, every gift you give is part of the larger flow of favor God is showing to these children who our world has pushed aside. You’re giving some of our world’s Christmas children a place to belong.
As Christmas approaches, we pray that you’ll be reminded of the special favor God has for these children in our world and for those parts in you that feel unwelcome. May the joyful song Mary sang fill you and make this Christmas the brightest yet.
Thank you so much! And Merry Christmas!
Director, Beyond Borders
PS – Haitian children don’t usually receive Christmas gifts. This Christmas, though, you can give Haitian children like Floriette a most precious gift of growing up at home where they are loved and protected.