On Saturday, October 2, 2010 I went to a event on child labor slavery, hosted by the ACT (Against Child Trafficking) club, from 4 to 7 PM at the NYU Kimmel Center. It was hosted in a small classroom of the Kimmel Center with about 20 students and teachers attending the event. The main speakers for this even are Carmen Russell, the director of Restaveks, and Jean-Robert Cadet, a former restavek turned activist. Basically, the panel consisted of two short films followed by a Q&A discussion with the speakers kind of on this topic. At the beginning of the event, the focus was on child slavery in general, but it seems the true focus of the event by the end was on the restavek system of Haiti.
The first short film was a fictional, yet realistic short indie film called Kavi. This movie was about a small Indian boy who was a domestic slave for a loanshark due to his father unable to payback his loan of 100,000 rupees. Every day, he and his family get up and work with many other people forced into domestic slavery into making new mudhouses for the loanshark. As they work, a group of school children ignorantly pass by this construction site playing an Indian version of baseball. Kavi constantly see these kids everyday and longs to be a normal boy going to school, having friends, and playing ball. When everyone stops working for the day, they are forced to return to their very tiny mudhuts, pretty much prison cells, for the night. These families are barely given enough food for even decent meals everyday and Kavi is forced to watching and taking care of a potted plant as his only entertainment, toy, and friend. Eventually, the audience was shown that the brutality of the punishments and trickery given to Kavi by the loanshark such as convincing him to move a huge pile of bricks all by himself by the end of the day in order to play ball with the loan shark and getting beaten and chained to a wall for failing to follow orders. By the end, the Indian police with a couple of UN workers show up to the site to free the workers from their contracts with the loanshark. However, he had already managed to move everyone except Kavi, who was still chained up at the time, to a different as the police searched the original site for them. Kavi became freed at the end by managing to escape from the chains by squeezing his hand through it and running up to the UN workers.
The second short film was called “Restaveks: Haiti's Child Slaves,” which was created by Carmen Russell, was simply an informational video displaying facts and statistics on the domestic slave system going on in Haiti as well as some interviews with some of these domestics servants and others. In Haiti, domestic slaves are known as Restaveks and are kids who were given away by their poor families to other, richer families, known as host families. Each poor family in Haiti usually have anywhere from 4 to 12 kids and due to Haiti’s weak government and economy, it’s nearly impossible for the parents to support all their kids with clothes, foods, and especially schooling. As a result, a family might give one or more of their kids to another family not only to slightly ease its burden with supporting the other kids and themselves, but also with the hope that the child(ren) can have a better future and eventually grow up, become successful, and help out his/her family in the future. Unfortunately, these kids become nothing more than domestic slaves for the host slaves and are abused for manual labor and chores from day to night everyday, physically abused for doing things “wrong” and are even sexually abused sometimes as well. They are treated badly, given barely to no clothes and food, and are never given a chance to go to school. Once these kids grow to the ages of 15-18, the host family kicks these restaveks from their homes and out onto their street. Without any education or support, these kids usually end up as prostitutes or beggars. Plus, since the true family and host family never remain in contact with each other, the parents never know about what happens to their kids.
After the second short film, we headed straight to the Q&A section of the event with Russell and Cadet. While Russell did answer some people’s questions or added additional comment to Cadet’s statements, Cadet was the one truly leading the entire section answering the most questions with the most details, explanations, and personal stories. Cadet was a former restavek who’s former host happen to move to New York when he was young. Despite moving to the US, his host family continued to use him as a domestic servant until he was 18. At that point, he was kicked out onto the city streets and was forced to become a beggar in the city. By chance, a priest met him and after learning his situation helped Cadet get into Welfare, an apartment, some furniture, and some money. Eventually, Cadet found a job and started a brand new life for himself. Later on, he went to and graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in communication, got counseling for his issues from growing up as a restavek, and got married. Years later, after his four year old kid embarrassingly asked Cadet where his grandparents, aunts, and uncles were on his side on his fourth birthday, Cadet began to write a letter for his son answering his son’s question by writing about his experiences as a restavek. He continued to write his letter nonstop until it evolved into his first novel, Restavec: Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American. Afterwards, he became inspired to help his fellow restaveks as well as find and implement a way to end the system once and for all. He created his own organization called the Restavek Foundation to help promote education in Haiti and help with the relief efforts still going on now in Haiti. Every now and again, he would also visit Haiti with the intent of helping a restavek by improving his/her life through getting an education for him/her, getting the host family to consider the child as part of the family or helping him/her escape the restavek life.
Using a powerpoint presentation, Cadet quickly gave us some additional stats on the restaveks system and showed pictures of restaveks and the culture surrounding them to illustrate the horrors of this system to the people of Haiti in general. He summed up that ultimately this system is still around to this day because Haitians grew up learning that this system was ok and a part of life. Thus, this system is considered part of their culture or norm and become ignorant to the truth of how truly evil it is. As a result, the host family is led to believe that a restavek is not part of the family and is just free labor, nothing more. Does this make the host family evil? No it really doesn’t because the parents in Haitian culture only considered their own kids as truly important. Anyone else living with them is not important. So the reasoning for restaveks not going to school is not because the host parents don’t want them to go, it’s only because they don’t want to pay a lot of money for basically strangers to them.
His solution to getting rid of the system is by trying to inform the current and next generations of the horrors of the system until Haitians no longer consider it part of their culture. One way he plans to do this is by going to Haiti and work with the politicians and schools to create a program that will train teachers to teach the kids that the system is wrong. Thus the new generation will eventually try to fix the problem and even convince their parents to let current restaveks to go to school as well. The second way is to create a yearly national singing contest like American Idol in Haiti on the radio and TV with a $10,000 prize to the winner. In order for the host family to win the prize, they have to have the restavek(s) living with them to write and sing a 2-3 minute song that is either about their personal experiences as a restavek, mocking the system, or making fun of their host families. The prize is a merely a huge incentive to convince host families to participate in the contest since it would help any family in Haiti greatly as well as the fact that Haitians love to gamble. The whole point of this contest though is to try making the people of Haiti in general aware of the horrors of the system. Whether this plan will work or not is up in the air at the moment. But we can always wish the best for Cadet. As for the singing contest, it will begin tentatively on November 25th with it ending on June 11th, the National Day of Children’s Rights.
For more info on the Kavi movie: check out @ http://kavithemovie.com
To see Restaveks: Child Slaves of Haiti – check out @ http://pulitzercenter.org/video/restaveks-child-slaves-haiti
To find out more info on the Restavek Foundation: check out @ http://www.jeanrcadet.org/
You can also find Jean R Cadet and friend him on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001022797513 . It has also some pictures of his most recent trips to Haiti as well.