During a recent trip to Haiti, our international projects director, Michael Wilson, interviewed several restaveks who attend a basic literacy program we support at 19 schools throughout the country. If you aren’t familiar with the term “restavek,” you can read more here, but it’s basically a Haitian social system in which poor children are sent to live with strangers in urban areas. In exchange for shelter, food, and education, the children are expected to perform some house work. But often, they are treated as slaves, kept from school and forced to do backbreaking work.
Michael was jarred by the stories of these poor children, especially that of Roselyn J., a 12-year-old who described her life as a restavek as one of “labor and difficulty.” Below is an excerpt from his trip report:
For 19 years I’ve been working in Haiti. I knew in my head what a restavek was, but Roselyn J., a girl we talked to at one of the schools, really opened my eyes and made the idea tangible to me. It’s the first time I’ve heard the truth not being told by someone next to me, but by a restavek.
Roselyn J. doesn’t remember her exact birthday, but she remembers the exact day she was brought to Les Cayes, Haiti to be a restavek: November 30, 2005. She was only 7 or 8 years old, and she hasn’t seen her mom since. Roselyn is one of more than 300,000 children in Haiti living a difficult life of domestic servitude as a restavek.
Roselyn instantly broke down crying the moment we asked about how her life is with her “host” family. That hit me like a ton of bricks. In that moment I saw the heart of an abused 12-year-old little girl. Because of her, the idea of a restavek is no longer abstract for me. It has a face, her face. On this trip I saw the depth and despair of what being a restavek means.
It was hard to hear about her life, but I was also glad to hear that she finds hope in the literacy program we support at 19 restavek schools in Haiti. It is her three hours a day where she is among her peers and finds an escape from her harsh reality.
I was very impressed with the education taking place in these restavek classes. It’s better than some of the education I’ve seen at public schools in Haiti. But the program goes beyond education. It is a social outlet for many children — the only place they have friends or feel like they are worth something. And the teachers at the schools are amazing role models as Christians, educators, and people. They go above and beyond.
We may not be able to immediately change this deep-rooted cultural situation, but we can live out Christ’s command to help “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). These restavek schools bring the hope of Jesus into the lives of these poor children and provide them with the tools to build a better future.