September 15, 2006

Former Child Slave Speaks

Print More

When Jean-Robert Cadet’s five year-old son struggled to see his food over their brand-new dining room table, Cadet bought a saw and cut eight inches off the bottom of the table legs. This did not seem too extreme to Cadet; he knew from an early age what inferiority felt like, and wanted to shield his son from anything similar.

Cadet discussed his journey from Haitian “restavec,” or child slave, to American university professor last night in Goldwin Smith’s Lewis Auditorium. Joining him was Laurie Konwinski, head of Cornell’s Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, who prefaced Cadet’s talk with some Haitian history and ended it by discussing current grassroots efforts to promote change.

The talk was organized by Brian Herbst ’07 and Jeff Purcell grad, Sun columnist, and sponsored by several Cornell departments, faculty and student organizations.

The U.N. estimates that Haiti’s “restavecs,” literally those who “stay with,” number about 250,000. About three-quarters of them are girls.
These children usually have been given by their poor parents to families who promise food and education. Theoretically, the child will maintain his end of the exchange by performing small services, such as errands or chores.

For many restavecs, the reality is practically at the limit of even the darkest of imaginations. In thousands of households, restavecs are the first to rise and the last to go to sleep. They work every day of the year, cleaning the house, taking care of the other children, fetching water and whatever else their hosts command. For dinner they eat scraps of leftovers; at night they sleep on concrete. They must be invisible unless called, yet always within earshot. Any mistake could result in further physical and emotional abuse.

This was Cadet’s childhood. He carried this story with him, through his arrival in the U.S. — he had to follow his “grown ups” to New York, but was then thrown out when they realized they would have to send him to school— through a high school education, through army service, through the receipt of U.S. citizenship, through college at the University of South Florida and onwards.

Cadet said that as a child, “I thought this was normal … I grew up with it …” In college, he wanted to speak of his childhood to his globally-conscious peers in his Model United Nations group, but kept it a secret, out of embarrassment and shame.

Cadet began to write out his story as letters to his son —pages “wet with tears,” he said, which he hid in closet box, planning to present on his son’s 16th birthday.
Instead, his wife found them earlier, and encouraged him to publish. His book “Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American,” came out in 1998. He has also made a documentary with CNN, titled “Nobody’s Children.”

Cadet, a professor of history and literature at Northern Kentucky University, has spoken before the U.N. the U.S. Senate and the International Labor Organization, as well as numerous public audiences, to promote awareness of this invisible undercurrent in Haitian culture.

It is invisible indeed. Diana Louis ’07, whose father is from Haiti, left the lecture asking herself, “Is this really real?”
“Being a Haitian in America … it’s something you’ve never heard of … It must be so embedded in Haitian culture,” Louis said.
Ta’mahr Baptiste ’07, whose parents are both from Haiti, added that Cadet’s efforts to challenge restavecs’ invisibility are the first steps toward change.

Cadet is the founder of The Restavec Foundation, where he travels to Haiti about four times a year with blankets, clothes and toys to distribute at children’s shelters.
On a larger scale, Cadet believes that education is the key to ending Haiti’s child slavery. He said that foreign donors, especially the U.S., can create a huge impetus for change via aid conditionality. If donors mandated that money be spent on educational infrastructure, children would be at school, thereby freed from their domestic servitude.

“…When Americans want to do something, they do it,” said Cadet. As an example he cited the 2004 transition of power post-Aristide.
George Bush, Cadet said, pointed to the clause in the Haitian Constitution which mandates that the head of the Supreme Court becomes head of state if the President vacates office.

“So it was done,” said Cadet.
He wishes the U.S. would put the same weight behind the Haitian Constitution’s universal education clause, as well as its laws outlawing restavecs less than 12 years of age.