Inspiration Information — Jean-Robert Cadet

by aaron on August 15, 2010

I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it.  Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.”  –Frederick Douglass

Nowadays, most American children get their first job around the age of 15 or 16.  Walk into any retail store, fast food chain or movie theatre in these hot summer months and you’ll find them folding clothes or buttering popcorn.  For some it’s a badge of pride, a notch on the belt of maturity.  But for most (and perhaps I speak here from personal experience) its a bitter entrée into the tedious grind of adult living, where the reality of survival is a medicine no amount of sugar can help go down.

And yet, American teenagers have it lucky.  No matter how soul-crushing the job, they are guaranteed the benefit of a minimum wage income.  More often than not the work involves flipping burgers versus heavy labor.  They get cash upfront, a recommendation to plug into their resume.  But more important than anything else, they get to choose the work they want.  They can quit whenever they please.  And they’ve been spared labor all those wonder years of adolescence when the world is a happy place and childhood is a gift to be explored, not exploited.

This wasn’t always the case.

A hundred years ago, over 2 million American children under the age of 15 worked in factory jobs for wages.  This was the bi-product of the Industrial Revolution, an age of rapid innovation and progress in the developing nations of the world, much of which was powered by the little hands and feet of underage workers.  Since then, the rise of universal public education and harsh child labor laws have essentially eliminated child labor in our country.  And yet, according to UNICEF, there are over 158 million children globally age 4 to 15 involved in child labor today.  That’s a staggering number when you break it down… nearly 1 in 12 kids worldwide.

And then there’s the slaves.

Unlike the highly visible Trans-Atlantic Trade of the 16-18th centuries, or even the coal worker and chimney sweep kids of the 19th, modern slavery today is a vast and invisible ocean whose sinister currents affect all levels of society… and yet which we know so little about.  Ours is a world where child slavery and trafficking accounts for over 50% of the 27 million slaves existing in the harshest conditions imaginable.  I know personally, such statistics short-circuit the mind.  That I can’t even begin to put a face, let alone a feeling, to what these glaring truths unravel inside me.

And then I discover Jean-Robert Cadet.

Like many Haitian children, Cadet was born into a family of extreme poverty.  Without enough food to feed the whole family, Cadet was “given”  by his father to a wealthier family at the age of four, under the promise of a better life.  In exchange for food, shelter and schooling, Cadet would serve as the new family’s Restavek, or “domestic servant”.  But this is not Cinderella, and the daily reality of Cadet’s childhood was one of brutality and forced servitude.

“I was beaten, I would say almost every morning… but it’s when the family leaves the house and they lock the house and they leave  you outside, all day long without food.”

In Creole, Restavek translates as “Stays with”, as in stays with the family, but is not part of the family.  It is a practice all too common in Haiti, a country with an estimated 300,000 Restaveks, the majority of which are children (mostly girls) .  But Restavek is just another name for a widespread, culturally homogenized and surprisingly legal form of slavery.  For a country born out of a slave revolt, the only country in which former slaves fought and won their own freedom, the sad irony sits in the popular acceptance of this Restavek system.

For Cadet, growing up meant carrying 5o pounds of water in 5 gallon buckets up and down the steep slopes of Port Au Prince, several times a day.  It meant scrubbing the floors, cooking the lavish meals of which he might only receive leftover scraps, like an animal.  It meant never receiving a hug or a kind word.  Being whipped with sharp lashes.  Suffering endless physical, verbal and sexual abuse.  And worse than anything else, it meant the loss of innocence and the abandonment of hope.

“I don’t know when I was born, I don’t know my age.  I never had a name.”

Fortune changed for Cadet when his host family moved to America and brought him with them.  They were required by law to enroll him in school.  And when they could no longer hide the truth of his enslavement from America authorities, they were forced to abandon him.  Cadet was taken in by one of his high school teachers, who provided him a new life full of promise and opportunity.  He graduated high school, served as an US Army Ranger and eventually went on to earn a masters in French Literature, get married, have two beautiful children of his own, and become a teacher himself.  It’s a wonderful fairytale come true, as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching, in that Jean-Robert’s happy ending is such a rare exception for most Restaveks.

And yet, it is this exact happiness which Cadet has committed himself to providing as many enslaved Haitian children as he possibly can.  In 1998 he wrote and published  a memoir about his life entitled Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American, which blew the lid open on this unconscionable practice.

He has spoken at numerous UN gatherings against the Haitian government’s refusal to change policy regarding Restaveks.   In 2007, he founded the Restavek Foundation dedicated to ending childhood slavery in his homeland.  The foundation provides aid and educational scholarships for children who are domestic servants in families other than their own. Because the Restavek system is legal, Cadet has to personally knock on family’s doors and convince them to release their “stay withs” to him.   To date, the foundation has succeeded in freeing 455 children and placing them into 33 schools.

It is a tedious, almost Sisyphean task pulling these kids out of their families one at a time.  But to Jean-Robert, every single child free is a victory.  In his own words: “you have to know somebody made a big difference in my life… and I can come here to my country to make a difference in those kids lives.  So saving one is worth it to me.  It’s worth it.”

With the onslaught of the earthquake, the number of impoverished families and orphaned children has swollen to critical mass.  And the amount of child slaves only expands in such climates of desperation.  Still, heroes like Cadet are waging their personal wars, slowly hacking away at the monsters of darkness that threaten our world.  This is how hope begins, how small candle flames ignite into brushfires of inspiration and change.  It begins with one man, with a story carried on the wind and spread far and wide.  This is inspiration information at its essence, where the light of truth burns brightest and purifies best.  And this is the mark Jean-Robert hopes to leave in his homeland of Haiti, until things finally improve. 

“All I can do is share their story.  Write their story.  Knock on doors… I have not found the right one, but I will keep on knocking.”

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