I met Jesula when she was just 12 years old. She had sparkling eyes, a precious smile and several adorable braids tied with colorful ribbons. She became my instant friend. As I was starting to learn Creole I quickly realized her name meant “Jesus is here” and that made me love her even more. Back then we stayed at a local hotel and used to enjoy our air conditioned room as an escape from the Haiti heat. Looking back that may be why we made so many friends early on! We used to joke, “Welcome to America” when we walked into the cool room. Jesula would often visit me first thing in the morning and again in the evening, I would make her a snack and chat with her and sometimes give her little gifts. This went on for several trips until finally my Creole was good enough to begin to understand her story.
One morning Jesula visited, but it was as if a different girl was there. Jesula was withdrawn and crying, not at all her usual bubby self. She had red marks on her arms and her hair was a mess, falling out of the usually tight, neat braids. As I consoled her and heard the story I learned a new Creole word, “restavek”.
Restavek means “stay with” and is a word not used very freely in Haiti. Foreigners use the term often until they are corrected by the Haitians. Remember, Haiti is the only country who has had a successful uprising where the slaves took over their country. Haiti is the first independent black republic. Haiti is famous for having beaten slavery. Yet Haiti enslaves its own people. The restavek system is shameful, and the Haitians don’t want to talk about it, or admit it.
In Haiti if you have a regular job and earn a paycheck you are part of the elite. The country has over 70% unemployment, compare that to our 10% and you can imagine what that means. The majority of adults in Haiti do not earn a paycheck. The majority of adults scrape by on odd jobs or farming, trying to piece together enough money to survive. When a relatively small amount of money puts you into elite status there is so much room for abuse.
Over the course of the week we learned the whole story. Jesula was raised by her mother, who is HIV positive and has been followed at the local clinic for over 15 years. Their family was destitute and homeless, with no hope on the horizon. They stayed with friends or rented rooms occasionally until there was no money to pay the rent. Jesula and her mom attended church at a big, well known church in town. One day Jesula’s mother was given an offer she couldn’t refuse. Jesula was invited to live with a family in the church. They would take care of her and send her to school so that her mom could finally have peace knowing her daughter was being cared for. At the time Jesula was about 10 years old. In the beginning Jesula’s mom visited frequently and everything seemed to be going well. After the first few months though Jesula started missing school to work. She couldn’t get her assigned chores done in time so she had to miss school. Then she started getting disciplined for mistakes.
That morning she had been struck with a switch because she had been visiting the blans. She was told to leave us alone and got punished for not listening.
Later that week we sat with Jesula’s mother to talk about the situation and how we could help. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Jesula in that arrangement and would have done anything to rescue her. We finally learned that if we rented them a house and paid for Jesula’s school that would cover the immediate needs and Jesula could go home with her mom. We were able to do that and she no longer had to live in that situation.
Jesula is now a beautiful woman with a daughter of her own. She loves her fiercely and works hard to protect her. Whenever I see her it helps me to remember that in spite of the difficulties in Haiti Jesula, “Jesus is here”. I’m honored to be a small part of Jesula’s story.
If you would like to read more about the history and sobering reality of the restavek culture I encourage you to read this book.