Our colleague Jeff Rogers wrote a first-person account of his journey to take part in a meeting of survivors of child slavery, who shared their stories with courage, dignity, and grace. The work to organize and empower adult survivors to help end child slavery is made possible by people like you. Thank you so much for your generosity and your support.
Here’s Jeff’s account:
Our particular journey began at 5:00 AM in Port-au-Prince with a one hour drive to the wharf where we caught a speed boat for a 45 minute trip to the island of Lagonav. The real journey however belongs to those we were on our way to meet with. Four of us, myself an observer, and three meeting facilitators from Port au Prince, left early for two reasons.
There have been incidents of violence along the route in Archaie, a coastal city along the way. Evidently the past president had set in motion a plan which would dispossess many local residents of their homes to create a huge beach development. The plan has already cut off-lifetime residents from economic activity and access to their own beaches. The local people are demonstrating. Passing vehicles are being attacked with rocks and sometimes fire. Demonstrations sometimes take a violent turn when people feel their lives are being threatened.
Just last week a Haitian colleague was hit in the head by a rock while passing through there on public transportation and had to be taken to the hospital. We left early because we were informed that the demonstrations generally started later in the morning to target periods of heaviest traffic. Gratefully the streets were clear and we passed without incident.
We also left early because the speed boats are the first to leave for the island. If one misses the speed boats the next option is a large wooden sail boat. The first take 45 minutes to cross whereas the sail boats, even with their motors, generally take over three hours.
Once on Lagonav, the largest island off Haiti’s coast, we took motorcycle taxis from the port into the mountains. The one hour moto-cross like trip up the rocky terrain of what is left of the “roads” after Hurricane Matthew’s devastation left our bodies sore.
After baths in water drawn from the cistern at a local community organizer’s house we slept the night and left, again on motorcycles, and again over rocky terrain, up and down mountains to reach the group of women and men who were meeting underneath a shelter of sticks with a tarp stretched over the top as protection from sun and rain. It was the only meeting place in the village.
Participants brought chairs from their homes and as we arrived the shelter filled with people. People arrived under the hot sun, some on foot, and some from further away on donkeys.
They came because their journey had begun long ago and has been far more arduous than the one we had taken to reach them. Each person under, and now surrounding the crowded shelter, had come because they were survivors of a particularly painful version of child slavery known in Haiti as the restavèk system.
“What does that mean?” That was in fact the first question one of the facilitators asked, herself a survivor of child slavery and now a staff member of Beyond Borders. The group quickly identified the conditions that each had endured from an early age.
First, they had each been displaced from their own families. In most cases their parents were too poor to provide for them and agreed to send them to another place where they were told their children would live in comfortable conditions, eat well and receive an education, things their parents were unable to provide.
Their parents had made a heart wrenching decision to separate from their children in the hopes and confidence that their children would have a chance at a better life. The second thing each of these survivors, now adults, experienced was that this confidence in which their parents put their hopes and trust was broken. Instead they encountered misery and habitual abuse.
Having been separated from their families, many of them lost touch with all they knew of home and nurture. Each of them had been forced to do all the labor of the household where they found themselves and were regularly beaten.
One woman told the sadly familiar story of having to get up before everyone else to fetch water in five gallon buckets, after having slept on the ground in the outdoor kitchen. After that it was her duty to bathe the other children and cook the meal for the others. She was not permitted to eat any of what she cooked however, only to scrape what remained in the pots after having served the others. She did not go to school and only now is learning to read and write through a local Beyond Borders community literacy group.
Another told of having run away from the home where she was sent because she couldn’t endure the frequent physical and later sexual abuse any longer. She was even imprisoned for a time at nine years old, only to be sent into the next abusive situation having long since lost all ties with her birth family.
These grown women and men, many now with children of their own wanted to share their stories and pain with one another. Those who had once been forbidden to speak wanted to help one another find their voice and overcome the shame and stigma that came along with their experiences.
More than even that though, and even though many of them still suffer from the same abject poverty that led their parents to send them away, what they wanted most of all was the opportunity to raise their voices to protect children who are either living in, or are at risk of falling into this horrible system.
Estimates are that anywhere between 250,000 and 400,000 children in Haiti today are living in the misery of child servitude. Beyond Borders is helping survivors form a network with many community branches because they know that the people best situated to intervene and advocate on behalf of these girls and boys are those who have lived through it themselves.
It takes great courage to defy the stigma and shame felt by these women and men as they meet together to transform these inevitable feelings into opportunities for healing, love and effective strategies as part of a movement to bring an end to child slavery as they knew it. Their journey continues and the effort we made to spend this day together is nothing in comparison with the journey they’re on.
The child slavery survivors network is a part of the broader movement building vision of Beyond Borders to end child slavery in Haiti. It walks hand in hand with a movement for quality education, a movement to balance power between women and men and a movement for sustainable livelihoods.
Trained Beyond Borders child protection teams working in their own communities pointed out that extreme poverty continues to be the what fuels the risk of losing children to abusive domestic servitude. They helped to identify their poorest and most vulnerable neighbors to be part of an 18 month accompaniment whereby they receive training and the means for economic stability.
With their partnership nearly 200 families in nine communities on Lagonav are well on their way to finding their feet. Some of these parents are also part of the survivor network themselves. Their children are all at home and in school and they have hope and are acquiring tools to build a brighter future.
When one looks at the terrain and the distance of the journey ahead it can be overwhelming for any voyager, but one thing history shows us is that even with the best accompaniment and the best equipment any effective movement must be led by those most affected.
At the end of today’s meeting the resolve of each survivor was palpable as they determined to take the next steps together to end child slavery.