Universal Children’s Day 2017

Students at the Baptist School of Bwa Lyann, one of 25 schools in Beyond Borders’ Schools Not Slavery Network.

Today, on Universal Children’s Day, I want to share with you the extraordinary story of Eddy. I first shared his story four years ago, and I was asked to share it again.

This little boy walked with a wounded head for three days with no food, money, or even a clear idea of how to find his way back home.

I hope you’ll find Eddy’s story meaningful on this day dedicated to improving the welfare of vulnerable girls and boys like him everywhere.

With deep gratitude,

David

*****

I’ve not seen many grown men sob like Eddy’s father did. Mr. Felix was trying to explain that he had never agreed to send his 10-year-old son away, even though the neighbors kept pushing him to.

The neighbors saw in Mr. Felix a single father who couldn’t afford to feed his son every day or put him in school. Life was extremely hard in their rural mountain village. And that’s just what the poorest parents were supposed to do with children they struggled to care for — send them away to work for families in the city where life looked easier.

So, when a well-dressed young man showed up in the village saying he was looking for a child to work for a good family in the city of Les Cayes, the neighbors saw their chance.

They helped the man ingratiate himself with little Eddy who was home alone. They loaned the boy clothes and sandals and assured him that he’d finally get to go to school. All he had to do was leave with the nice man immediately. They assured Eddy that his father would approve and come visit soon.

When Eddy’s dad returned from the field that afternoon and couldn’t find his son, he was frantic.

The neighbors explained what they had done. They justified it, saying that it was all for Eddy’s good, and consoled Mr. Felix by offering to help him go visit his son. “If you’re not happy with how he’s treated,” they assured him, “you can always bring him back home.”

I first met Eddy’s dad while researching child slavery in Haiti nearly 20 years ago. The grief he displayed was common among parents who sent children away. And while I never encountered another case where the community helped a trafficker actually kidnap a child, many of the poorest parents reported feeling intense peer pressure from neighbors to send their children off to the city. Abandoning a child like this was not just acceptable in these villages but often considered the best thing to do.

This practice remains extremely common today: 1 in 8 Haitian children live apart from their parents and about half of these separated children become enslaved. Like Eddy, most come from the countryside and are sent to the city.

Eddy and his dad were fortunate in a way. Many parents lose all contact with children they’ve sent away. And Mr. Felix’s neighbors kept their word and helped him locate his boy.

They found Eddy living with Madame Gustave, a woman who directed a private elementary school in Les Cayes. And while Madame Gustave hadn’t enrolled Eddy in her own school because of his social status, she did send him to one of the local “afternoon schools,” which are designed for children who work and only have a couple of hours for school each day.

It was a crushing decision, but Eddy’s dad decided to leave his son with Madame Gustave where he was eating better and getting a little schooling — things Mr. Felix simply could not provide for his son.

Mr. Felix continued to visit Eddy every month or so, though he often had to beg from his neighbors to get the few cents he needed for public transportation to the city.

One of my Haitian colleagues who was helping with this research knew Madame Gustave. So, with Mr. Felix’s permission, we decided we would go meet her and Eddy once we returned to Les Cayes.

Madame Gustave seemed pleased to have visitors. She had three of her own children who were all of school age, but younger than Eddy.

She introduced us to Eddy, who was 12-years-old now, but was so small he could have passed for half that age. Madame Gustave talked about how intelligent he was. She was rushing off to school but agreed to allow us to stay and continue talking with Eddy.

I remember thinking that Eddy was relatively lucky. Most children in servitude don’t hear compliments from their keepers, they aren’t sent to even an afternoon school, and they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to talk freely with visitors.

In private, though, Eddy opened up to us. While he was happy to be given a couple of hours each afternoon for school, life with Madame Gustave’s family was brutal in every other way.

“If she thinks I’m too slow coming back from the market or she thinks I’ve not brought back the right change, she’ll beat me sometimes until I bleed.” Eddy lifted his shirt to show us freshly healed wounds, adding, “If I say anything to defend myself, she’ll just beat me more.”

“She shames me by insulting and beating me in front of the other children. And she lets them order me around, and insult me, and hit me, too. If they break something or take something, they blame me, and I get the beating.”

“The work never ends. And even if I finish all my work at the end of the day, I’m not allowed to go lie down to sleep until everyone else is in bed.”

While what Eddy was telling us was horrific, I had heard far worse . . .

One study of a sample of these children concluded that about four-fifths had endured physical abuse and nearly a third had been raped or sexually abused. (About 75 percent of these children are girls.)

Sadly, we left Eddy that day feeling powerless to help him. One colleague promised to keep a close eye on him and visit as often as possible.

Several weeks after I returned to Port-au-Prince I got a call from this colleague. He had gone to visit Eddy but learned that he had run away the week before.

A neighbor said that Madame Gustave had “cracked Eddy’s head open” in a fit of anger. When my colleague learned this, he jumped on his motorcycle, searched around town, and then headed up to the mountain village to give Eddy’s father the news . . . but when he arrived, he found Eddy was there with his dad!

This little 12-year-old boy had walked with a wounded head for three days with no food, money, or even a clear idea of how to find his way back home.

While I was relieved to hear that Eddy was back with his dad, it disturbed me to think how this little child had suffered. His determination to get back home confirmed what I often heard from these children. They longed for nothing more than to be back home where they belonged.

Thinking back now about what Eddy endured and how little we could help him makes me profoundly sad. Beyond Borders just didn’t have the ability to work in his village back then the way we can now.

If we could have worked in Eddy’s village the way we can work now, the community would have been transformed.

· Instead of encouraging Eddy’s dad to send him away, they would have put their energy and resources into helping Mr. Felix keep and care for his son.
· Eddy would have been in school and in a special class to help him catch up with his peers and make up for the years he lost.
· Mr. Felix would have had access to seed and tools and credit and literacy and agricultural training so he could escape extreme poverty and feed Eddy properly.
· And the local Child Protection Brigade we trained would have driven the well-dressed young man away and intervened any time it appeared that a parent might be thinking of sending a child away.

We could have helped even if we had arrived in Eddy’s village too late and he had already been sent away.

· The Child Protection Brigade would have helped Mr. Felix to go and bring Eddy back home and respond to not just his physical needs but the psychological wounds as well.
· If we had been working in Madame Gustave’s neighborhood the way we work now in urban neighborhoods, she would have known that she couldn’t get away with what she was doing to Eddy. Child Rights Activists and the neighborhood Child Protection Brigades would have intervened and maybe even had her arrested.

I’m so thankful that we are no longer powerless to help children like Eddy.

With generous help from supporters like you and the dedication of grassroots leaders in Haiti, we now have the tools and expertise we lacked back then.

Since then, I’ve seen the power of villages and neighborhoods that have been transformed and become heroically engaged in protecting these children and helping their parents care for them and keep them at home where they belong.

And right now, our Schools Not Slavery Campaign is raising funds to support this growing movement, so that we can hasten the day when no child in Haiti is a slave and every child is free, safe, and in a good school.

I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s no more worthy a universal goal for children than this.

With deep gratitude,

David Diggs, Director & Co-Founder
Beyond Borders
(202) 686-2088

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