Thirty-five years ago I found myself wanting a superpower. I believe you have this power now.
I’d only been in Haiti a few months when I unwittingly watched a Haitian girl become enslaved. At first, I thought I was witnessing an act of kindness. The Haitian family I was living with was visiting a poor rural village. They offered to take in the young daughter of a destitute Haitian woman, explaining that they would send her to school and treat her well.
What became clear after a few weeks, though, was that this was not an act of charity. While they did allow her to attend a half-day of school, they seemed to see little Sonia mostly as a source of free labor for the family. She became increasingly ensnared by a dehumanizing and violent practice that Haitians call restavèk.
Years later research would show that one in six girls and one in 10 boys in Haiti were living apart from their parents and experiencing varying levels of exploitation, neglect, and abuse. The worst treatment met the definition of modern slavery.
Sonia seemed happy at first, but what began as a promise of education and care quickly descended into a life of forced labor, abuse, and neglect. She worked more and more each day and was insulted and beaten when she couldn’t keep up. This once joyful child was now confined to a cycle of ceaseless work and abuse.
She became increasingly isolated and was shunned by other children when her restavèk status became clear. The attention and small kindnesses I had shown her at first later had to be offered in secret to keep from provoking retaliation against her.
Like other children trapped in restavèk, Sonia lived in the shadows, always on call for work, always available to be insulted, but otherwise invisible.
I was still new to Haiti and felt utterly powerless to help Sonia. There was no local child protection agency I could contact or law that would protect her.
The superpower I desperately wanted then was not just to be able to end Sonia’s humiliation and abuse. I wanted to transform her mother’s life too so that she could bring Sonia home and meet her basic needs for food, shelter, and education.
But I had no such superpower. I couldn’t even manage to tell Sonia, “You are not alone,” because, in reality, she was.
The abuse and exploitation got worse, and eventually, Sonia – unable to take it any longer – ran away. I never saw her again.
I soon left the family, too, but what Sonia endured stayed with me. It became part of what led us to launch Beyond Borders and commit ourselves to do collectively what was impossible for me to do as an individual – to free enslaved children and to ensure that every child – even the poorest – is able to grow up in a loving home where all their basic needs are met.
In movies and cartoons, an individual becomes endowed with a superpower after a freak accident or an experiment gone awry. In the real world our ability to transcend ordinary human limits does not happen by chance and is almost always the result of collective coordinated effort.
Real superheroes recognize this and invest themselves in collective efforts. Often in this context, those who would otherwise be the least powerful emerge as our champions.
Consider Dorsilia Janvier.
When we first met Dorsilia, she told us about becoming enslaved as a child and how the sexual violence and trauma she experienced haunted her into adulthood. “I got pregnant at a very young age. I couldn’t read. I didn’t have any way to earn a living or feed my children. I didn’t see any road forward.”
Desperate, homeless, and struggling to care for her own children, Dorsilia sent two of her four girls away. She knew firsthand the risks they faced, but she also knew that many children sent to live with other families are, in fact, well cared for.
Sadly, Dorsilia soon discovered that both her daughters had become enslaved. “I had no hope back then,” Dorsilia said. “I didn’t see any other options.”
Then Beyond Borders launched work in her rural community of Nan Kafe.
With critical support from someone like you who sponsored Dorsilia in our Family Graduation Program, she was able to build her own home, begin raising animals to breed and sell, and start earning a living. She also participated in our six-month Child Rights Training Program.
Beyond Borders’ approach finds those like Dorsilia who are the most isolated and marginalized and puts them at the center of our work. It isn’t just that their need for inclusion is greater. We have found that those who’ve been pushed aside and possess the least power often have the deepest motivation to work for change and the most intimate knowledge of a community’s weaknesses.
They become the biggest champions for collective change.
All this led Dorsilia to search for her two daughters and to bring them back home. “I went to get them so they would no longer suffer like I did,” she said.
Now, Dorsilia is raising all of her children together at home. They are well fed and in school, where they belong.
Dorsilia then joined the local chapter of Beyond Borders’ Survivors of Child Slavery Network and was elected to serve as a member of her community’s Child Protection Brigade, also organized by Beyond Borders.
Today Dorsilia helps lead the effort in her community to ensure that all local children are able to grow up at home, attend school, and have their basic needs met.
As courageous as she is, Dorsilia didn’t accomplish any of this on her own. She needed a cohort of others in Haiti and the generosity of people like you.
Supporters like you have made it possible for Beyond Borders to train and organize more than 1,200 survivors like Dorsilia who share their experiences as a form of healing from their trauma and turn their pain into strength.
Survivors are part of a growing movement of more than 75,000 Child Rights Activists trained by Beyond Borders over the past fifteen years. These activists know how to intervene to help parents keep their kids or find and free children they’ve sent away. They know how to intervene when they see a child in their community being exploited or abused.
We can document more than 800 children that activists like Dorsilia have freed. We know that their efforts have prevented many thousands more from ever becoming enslaved.
Working together with them we – and you – now have a superpower that I could only dream of when I agonized over the isolation and abuse Sonia endured.
When you make a gift to the BeyondBorders.net/NotAlone campaign, your efforts are multiplied many times over by literally thousands of people like Dorsilia who are working for change in nearly 200 communities and neighborhoods all across Haiti.
And that is why I’m writing to you now. All over Haiti there are communities with children like Sonia who are still enslaved or at grave risk. Our plans to expand are in jeopardy because we’ve not met our budget. We need to raise $300,000 before the end of the year to avoid making cuts next year.
This is a daunting challenge, but we know we’re not alone. The Vista Hermosa Foundation has presented us with an extraordinary opportunity. They will amplify the impact of your generosity by matching your year-end gift or pledge of ongoing support up to our $300,000 goal.
So, please, don’t wait. Please demonstrate the extraordinary power you have now to transform the lives of children like Sonia.
You won’t be acting on your own. Your strength will be multiplied many times over and will demonstrate to these children that they aren’t alone either.
For their sake, please join leaders like Dorsilia and use your superpower.
With deep gratitude,
PS – Please don’t let this matching opportunity go by. Your gift to the BeyondBorders.net/NotAlone campaign made by 11:59 pm on Dec. 31 is doubled, as is your check, dated Dec. 31 or earlier, and mailed to: Beyond Borders, PO Box 2132, Norristown PA 19404.