Globally, it is not a secret. In America, word of its inhumanity is beginning to spread. And in the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, agreed by most to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it is an accepted part of a culture where poverty trumps conscience.
It is called Restavek. In French, it is “reste avec,” and in Creole the term is defined as “... to stay with.”
In its simplest, and seemingly most cruel perspective, Restavek is an accepted system in which children are handed over to others by parents who cannot take care of them ... and presumably for a better life. Generally young girls aged 5-15, the life of a restavek is often anything but better. Some even describe it as legal child slavery, and that’s where a growing number of missionaries, churches and nonprofit organizations are entering the picture.
One is the Restavek Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Cleveland resident Joan Conn, along with her husband, Ray, the owner and president of Tricon Inc., a local construction company. Ray is the brother of Dr. Paul Conn, Lee University president, and Joan is his sister-in-law.
Joan, who serves as RFF’s executive director, is not working alone. One who has joined her cause is Tammy Rockwell, a talented, 10-year Cleveland resident who operates her own business, Pure Light Photography. Her love for missions work, her personal outreach as a child advocate, her belief in the camera lens as a viable tool for public awareness and her involvement in the Church of God Headquarters Women’s Discipleship Department all brought her to Joan Conn and to the plight of Haiti’s children.
Rockwell recently returned from a missions trip to Haiti, one that left her emotionally drained yet one that has spurred her to launch a public awareness campaign against the Restavek system. She is no stranger to missions work, already having worked in the field in Asia and Africa since 2010.
“In theory, [Restavek] is a practice where children are sent to live with others so that they can have a better life,” Rockwell cited. “[But] the reality is different than the theory. The reality is children living in horrible conditions. They are often beaten until they bleed and many are raped. They are not treated as children of the Creator, these children are slaves.”
Due in part to its own longstanding culture, and compounded by its poverty, Haiti is a breeding ground for Restavek.
Agreeing with others that such a system amounts to nothing less than child slavery, Rockwell pointed out, “For children in Restavek, work begins at dawn. They clean bedpans, careful not to leave traces of feces or urine. They fill [water] pails at the well, struggling under the weight of the water as they carry it home. They cook breakfast, but when the family eats, the child continues to serve.”
Rockwell’s eyewitness accounts weren’t the first documentation of the Haitian system. In a Jan. 29, 2010, report by Elizabeth Cohen, CNN senior medical correspondent, the reporter wrote, “[Restaveks] usually sleep on the floor separate from members of the family they serve, and are up at dawn before anyone else to do household work. Sometimes they’re physically and sexually abused.”
Similar reports have been filed by “60 Minutes,” CBC News, the Cincinnati Enquirer and World Magazine.
Rockwell, who will be returning to Haiti in 2014 to further assist the RFF in its quest to end child slavery, said the physical and emotional demands placed on these displaced Haitian children is too much.
“The work is exhausting and demeaning, far too much for a young body to bear,” she stated. “But no matter how difficult it may be, that’s not what leaves so many children fearful and hopeless. The worst moments are the constant reminders that they do not belong, that they are not wanted, that they’re objects to be used and discarded ... work mules good only for their ability to make others’ lives easier.”
Although the system is accepted in a third-world culture where day-to-day life remains an ongoing struggle — especially since the devastating 7.0 earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010 — public awareness of its inhumanity is growing. Organizations like the Restavek Freedom Foundation are working to create change among a people whose plights are among the worst in modern society.
From Cleveland alone, RFF’s outreach is supported by sponsors like Lee University, Perry and Pam Stone, the North Cleveland Church of God Women’s Ministry Department and the Church of God Headquarters Women’s Discipleship Department, according to Rockwell.
Helping to lead Conn’s charge, Rockwell was quick to point out the RFF is also being spearheaded by Haitians. She said the organization works with 30 Haitian employees who share the nonprofit’s belief that Restavek is wrong, but that its end can come only with the buy-in of Haitians themselves.
Rockwell quoted Conn who she attributed with the comment, “We are working to change the attitude of the culture.”
Rockwell stressed, “The system of Restavek does not value children. In a speech to a group of future leaders, Joan once pointed out that Haiti is losing almost half its brain power to the system of Restavek. Many of the children who are being denied an education are very bright and would have the potential for being leaders if they could go to school and if they were not being traumatized by the system.”
The RFF is working with Haitian pastors to develop a curriculum that trains and educates ministers about the wrongs of Restavek. The curriculum is called “Get Up, Stand Up For Liberty.”
RFF is also striving to recruit young allies from within the country.
“RFF is working to educate children and young people who may not be restaveks, but who could possibly have restaveks in their home because a lack of education is a big reason why the system of Restavek remains,” Rockwell pointed out. “Many of the parents who give their children as restaveks lack education on everything from the importance of children to birth control.”
She added, “The foundation provides university scholarships and school vouchers for children. They are working with adults through literacy classes, maternity and health classes.”
One creative initiative taken by RFF is the design of a music competition — no stranger to Lee University whose own successes in music are internationally renowned — in which Haitian contestants in all 10 departments (the U.S. equivalent to geographic districts) write original compositions and their lyrics must address the issue of Restavek. The contest has seen strong interest and a grand finale will occur in Port-au-Prince in June 2014.
“The music competition has proved to be an effective means of raising awareness,” Rockwell said. “Several well-known U.S. Christian artists will be participating in this event.”
Physically, the foundation is also building from the ground up. A transitional home for girls who have been rescued from the Restavek system is now operating in Port-au-Prince. It is called “Kay la nan fie bel” (The House of Beautiful Flowers) and currently it houses 13 girls, Rockwell explained.
“These girls are learning what it means to be safe, to be loved and to be valued,” Rockwell observed. “One of the girls scored the highest score in her school on the state exams. A second home is under construction. RFF has also built a community center.”
The second transitional home is being built in another Haitian town called Port Salut.
Giving the tragedy of Restavek a Cleveland perspective, Rockwell suggested multiplying Bradley County’s total population by three ... and the number of restaveks in Haiti exceeds it.
“I have photographed in Africa and Asia,” she said. “Nothing has ever gripped my heart like this issue. I have never seen children treated with such a lack of kindness and gentleness. The cruelty with which almost half-a-million children are treated broke my heart and overwhelmed my mind.”
For restaveks, it is a way of life. For Americans, it is inhumanity at its worst, Rockwell noted.
“For restavek children, insults, beatings and rape are the norm,” she stressed. “The Restavek Freedom Foundation is fighting for these children, and by doing so they are fighting for the development of Haiti, because as Joan Conn said, ‘Haiti will rise when all Haitians are allowed to rise.’”
In the meantime, and now that she has returned to Cleveland pending her next trip to Haiti, Rockwell is taking on her own brand of public awareness against what she calls the atrocities of Restavek.
She is doing it with a “Fun Run” in which anyone can participate and its naming is appropriate.
The “Run to End Restavek” 5K is set for Saturday, Nov. 9, at the site of the old Rolling Hills Golf Course on Candies Lane. Calling it a “trail run,” Rockwell said the course is regularly used by Cleveland Middle School students and by the Lee University track team.
It’s an RFF fundraiser, but it’s also a public awareness campaign.
Registration fees are $25 for adults and $20 for students. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. and the “Fun Run” begins at 8 a.m. Participants who want a “Run to End Restavek” 5K T-shirt should call Rockwell at 423-715-8892 or send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than Tuesday (Nov. 5).
Saturday’s public awareness and fundraising event can also be found on Facebook at “Run to End Restavek.”
“This is an effort to raise funds and awareness for the Restavek Freedom Foundation,” Rockwell stressed. “This is simply a ‘Fun Run’ so anyone can participate. We invite everyone and we encourage a strong turnout.”
Rockwell, who is single and has no children of her own, stressed, “... I do a lot of stuff that involves outreach. I do a lot of work for nonprofits. My big thing is child advocacy.”
She praised the work of Joan Conn and pointed to how she admires the Cleveland woman’s tenacity.
“Joan found out about [Restavek] ... she went to Haiti, and she decided to do something about it,” Rockwell said. “She’s in the field. She’s not just in an office. If you’re sweating [as a volunteer or missionary], then she’s there sweating with you.”
Rockwell refered to an article she wrote shortly after returning from her first mission trip to Haiti, an alarming voyage that clouded her vision in tears but opened her eyes to reality. In the article, she wrote:
“I want to close with a story. She is 13 years old. She was sent by her family to live with another family. She was beaten. She was raped. She became pregnant. She underwent a Cesarean and gave birth to a 3-[pound] baby. She is so innocent in her mind that she doesn’t understand what has happened. She will forever bear the physical and emotional scars. She is a resident of the transitional home. Sadly, this story of abuse is not uncommon in Haiti.”
Rockwell already knows her next visit to Haiti in early 2014 won’t be her last.