MICHEL MARTIN, host:
More now on Haiti. The devastation there has raised new concerns about the welfare of some of the country's most vulnerable citizens, the child servants who are called "restavecs," which literally means "to stay with." These are children who have been handed over by their poor families to work in the homes of other families, some of whom are well off, but many have barely more than the families they came from, and in times of crisis these children are often cast aside like unwanted baggage.
Jean-Robert Cadet has been working for years to help these children. He was one of them. He wrote about his life as a child laborer in the book, "Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American." He has also just returned from Haiti and he joins us now. Welcome.
Mr. JEAN-ROBERT CADET (Author, "Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American"): Well, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here with you.
MARTIN: Does anybody know how many of these children are in Haiti? How widespread is this practice of taking in a child from another family and having that child essentially live with you as an employee or laborer?
Mr. CADET: Well, it's very widespread. It's a situation that has been around since Haiti gained its independence. I lived in it. I was raised in it, and these children, they're not domestic laborers. I call them domestic slaves because they don't have any rights whatsoever. They live at the mercy of the owner. Any minute they can be thrown out. They are severely abused physically, emotionally and sexually. There was a report that says there are about 300,000, but I think it's more. I would put it around between 400 to 500,000 children, because when I asked people in Haiti - the taxi driver, the barber or the person working at the airport - and it seemed like everybody seemed - you know, they have a restavec to work...
MARTIN: Do you mean just about anybody? Anybody who has any means at all?
Mr. CADET: The wealthy, when I was a child, the wealthy used to have the restavec because the person that owned me was from the upper class. I was at upper middle class. But today it's the poorest of the poor who have these children, and then their primary function is to go out and fetch the water and walk other children to school and do every domestic chores you can imagine.
MARTIN: But if this practice is so widespread, how do you know whom to help?
Mr. CADET: Well, you know who to help because those children, restavec children, you see them working the streets in Haiti. You know who they are. At four o'clock in the morning you see them carrying the water, and they're usually dirty. They're barefoot. They wear rags, basically. And then you can see the scars, the whip marks on their arms and legs, so that's how you recognize them.
MARTIN: The families who take in these children, the restavec, they don't call themselves owners, do they? What do they call themselves? Who do they think they are in this?
Mr. CADET: Well, they think they are helping the children, but I grew up in Haiti. I have never in my life in Haiti heard an adult say, I'm looking for a child to help. They always say, I'm looking for a child to help me.
MARTIN: Mm hmm.
Mr. CADET: Which I find strange, because they feel by feeding the child, give the child a meal a day, they feel that they're helping the child. I think it's a way to deal with the guilt because they're abusing the children...
MARTIN: There are no wages paid. There's no...
Mr. CADET: No wages paid, and they use these children like they were animals.
MARTIN: And course, as I mentioned, you wrote a book about your experience quite, you know, dramatically, but just briefly, could you just tell us how did you get out of that life? Why did you become a restavec and how did you get out of that life?
Mr. CADET: Well, I became a restavec at the age of four. My mother died and I was given to a family of middle class, and I was a restavec until the age of maybe 15 to 16 because I don't know my age, and the restavec children normally don't have birth certificate. And the family moved to the United States and then I eventually joined them to continue the work that I used to do for them as a restavec, and since school was mandatory in the United States, they decided that the work at home was not being done and then they ask me to leave. So they threw me out into the street, and which is exactly what is going on today with a lot of restavec children. They are thrown out when they are no longer needed. When they become old enough they rebel sometimes when - especially the boys.
But in New York, fortunately for me, I found a teacher, and that teacher took me and tutored me and helped me get on welfare, and eventually I graduated from high school, I joined the military and I become a U.S. citizen in the military and with the GI Bill I went to college. And then I wrote the book, "Restavec," to make the plight of restavec children known, to let people know that slavery is still going on in Haiti as we speak, and that's the reason we are trying very hard to advocate, to try to eliminate the system, to reduce the flow, advocate for them, send them to school. We are doing all this as an organization to bring a sense of humanity, to save as many children as we can.
MARTIN: But the irony being, of course, that you know, Haiti was first country in this hemisphere to throw off slavery. Right? Is it a status thing now to have a poor child living with you?
Mr. CADET: Well, when I was child, yes, it was. Unfortunately, it is the same way today. I spoke with an owner and I beg her. I said, you have to treat this child. You have to give the child affection and then treat the child humanely.
MARTIN: And what did she say?
Mr. CADET: She said that if you treat the child humanely, you give the child affection, often the child will not do the work. So in order to make the child work, you have to dehumanize the child. You have to beat the child. But that's just few. A lot of owners that we've spoken with, they have changed their minds. They have allowed those children to go to school. When they see that somebody else is taking care of that child, then for some reason they see a value, like the child has value, and then they see this child as though the child was their own. So I've experienced both ways. But we still have a lot of work to do.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break. After that break we're going to continue our conversation about the restavecs in Haiti with Jean-Robert Cadet. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CADET: (Unintelligible) self-sufficient very fast. They have to find a way to get food because often they are not fed, if they were fed once a day. So it's very, very difficult given the price of food has gone up tremendously so these children are extremely in danger of starvation.
MARTIN: Tell me what you did there and what are some of the things that you saw?
Mr. CADET: We were working primarily on the demand side. We work with the owners, persuade them to send the children to school. We found school that provide them a meal. So they wear uniform. They have books. They enroll in school and then they look like normal children. So we were working on the demand side. We hope to be working on the supply side but working with supply side means that we have persuade the parents who are very far away in the countryside not to send their children. We show them the reality of these children. We speak with community leaders to let them know that once their children leave the countryside and go to Port-au-Prince, those children actually become slave. They're abused. They are beaten. Some of the children would run away and they can't find their way back home. So this is how we advocate for these children.
MARTIN: And finally, is there anything that the international community can do to be helpful in this situation?
Mr. CADET: Yes. I believe they can. I had spoken at least half a dozen times at the United Nation trying to present the plight of those children to the international community. They know it's there. They know what's going on, but for the international community to work on the issue they have to address the issue with the Haitian government because a lot of time those children run away from abuse, and the police would take the child back to the owner. So the international community used to be a lot more forceful in addressing the issue with the government - with the Haitian government.
MARTIN: Why did they used to be and no longer are?
Mr. CADET: Well, I don't know, but you know, I am not worrying about it because we are not looking toward the government for the answer. We, as an organization, we try to - we're working on the issue. Continue towards awareness and continue to help those children, sending them to school, advocate for them, speak with their owners, to educate the owners to let them know that those kids - that children should be nurtured, not enslaved.
MARTIN: Thank you speaking with us about this.
Mr CADET: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Jean-Robert Cadet is a spokesperson for Jean-Robert Cadet Restavec Foundation. His book is titled, "Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American." He joined us from Cincinnati Public Radio. Thank you much for speaking with us, and thank you for your hard work.
Mr. CADET: Thank you.
MARTIN: You just heard our conversation about how recent hurricanes have affected the people of Haiti. Now we'd like to hear from you. Do you have family or friends in Haiti or elsewhere in the Caribbean who are coping with the devastation of recent storms? Are they getting the help they need? What could or should the U.S. do? Please share you story with us. You can call our listener line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. You can also comment on our blog by going to the Tell Me More page at npr.org.