Beautiful as she is, Hillary Clinton looked grim and distressed this morning at the White House. She had flown for ten hours from Hawaii, after cutting her planned Pacific trip short, and gone straight to the White House to address the crisis in a place dear to her heart. As I have mentioned here before, Haiti was home to me for ten years during which I was happy, acculturated, and completely embedded with the local population. Just knowing how much Hillary cares about Haiti, it is written all over her pretty face, comforts me. But, of course, neither Hillary nor I, as distraught as we are about this, are the ones the most in pain. It is the people of Haiti, a people I love, that are suffering and in need of the help that Hillary is mobilizing.
Rarely, I have taken advantage of the State Department website function “text the Secretary,” but last night I did because I watched that little girl Bea rescued on CNN. She’s 13 and does not have parents anymore. Suddenly the implication of the huge number of children orphaned by the earthquake hit me, and I realized that among all the enormous problems of every stripe that must be addressed to get Haiti on its feet, hiding under a banana leaf looms the threat, for these children, that is Haiti’s dirty little secret.
It is supremely ironic that in the First Black Republic, born of a slave revolt 206 years ago, a covert form of child slavery is practiced more-or-less in the open even in the 21st century. Peasants (not a slur, in Haiti there is a rural peasant class, “paysannes”) with more children than they can care for routinely farm small children out to other families. Sometimes godparents are chosen specifically to receive these children once they are four or five and can accomplish some chores. In some cases, the children are even installed with blood relatives of better means. These children might be afforded a year or two of primary school, but the older and stronger they become, the less likely they are to continue in school and they end up stuck at home and working for their keep. They do laundry by hand, sometimes at the river. They iron with dangerous charcoal irons. The irons shoot sparks. If you burn it, you pay to replace. They carry water. ALL of them carry water. It is hard work They have no childhood. They work – hard – and for no compensation. They are little Haitian versions of Cinderella and Jane Eyre living with her aunt and cousins. They are called “rests-avecs.” It means “live with” or “stay with.”
We tend to have a negative concept of orphanges. There are orphanages in Haiti. Perhaps, today, we prefer to call them children’s homes. Some people who run these homes have been interviewed over the past few days, and over the years some have received coverage by American media. They are kind, happy places. Some might think that putting a child in an orphanage is cruel when there are families willing to take them in. In Haiti, I would exercise a great deal of caution placing an orphan of the earthquake in an unrelated, and perhaps even a related family. There is a danger that an innocent child, who has been through the worst thing any of us have ever seen, might be assigned, with all good intentions, to a childhood of servitude. In planning the social-humanitarian steps for the future weeks and months, we need to ensure that these children-at-risk are not subject to further cruelty of fate.
SO! Last night I texted my dear, beautiful, and distressed Madame Secretary to remind her that we cannot let that happen.
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