Zoe Rogers, ‘Doah Contributing Writer
December 4, 2013
Jean-Robert Cadet, former Haitian child slave and founder of the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Organization, addressed a full auditorium of Shenandoah University students and faculty in Halpin-Harrison Hall on Nov. 20. Speaking from his personal experience, Cadet highlighted the issue of child slavery in Haiti today.
Introducing the guest-speaker, President Tracy Fitzsimmons reminded students that, unlike those enslaved, they had a choice of what to wear that morning; they probably had two meals already and if not then it was their choice not somebody else’s. President Fitzsimmons impressed that Cadet is somebody who “didn’t just study” slavery, but has “lived it”.
Cadet’s story immediately captured the audience’s attention. It is a story of enslavement and a stolen childhood. It is a story that continues to define Cadet who works to end the plight of child slavery that not only dominated his younger years but also continues to overshadow his life as he still suffers from nightmares of his past.
Although he does not know his official age, with no formal documents of his birth, Cadet was given to a family in Haiti around the age of 4 after his wealthy, white father abandoned him. Cadet belonged to that family as a restavek.
“Restavek” is a creole term meaning “stay with”. The former restavek explained that to “stay with” did not mean to be part of the family, but to be at the mercy of the family. He was named “Bobby” by the family, slept under their kitchen table, cooked, cleaned, fetched water and was even hired out to other neighbors.
Then in the early 70s, the family moved to the United States where it was legally required for Cadet to be sent to high school. This was seen as a burden on the family who soon kicked the teenage boy out of their home. A homeless high school student, Cadet lived in a 24 hour Laundromat and continued to attend school where a teacher learned of his situation and helped him secure welfare.
Cadet graduated high school, joined the army, attended college and continued on to attain a master’s degree. Cadet is now married with a family. He told the audience that, at first, it was hard for him to grasp the concept of family life having never experience the affection and inclusion of a family in his childhood.
The guest speaker reminded the audience that, just like him, there are many individuals who only know a childhood of enslavement. That is why, today, he works tirelessly to see the eradication of child slavery in Haiti where “slavery is part of the social fabric”. There are 27 million slaves in the world today– 300,000 of which are children in Haiti.
Cadet published his first book, “Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American”, in 1998. Since then he has addressed the United Nations on the issue and established the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Organization. The book began as a letter to his son, explaining his past, which his wife then encouraged him to publish.
By publishing his writings, Cadet placed the spotlight on the restavek culture of Haiti. He has since released another book, “My Stone of Hope” and is currently in the process of meeting with government officials in Haiti in order to have a song, penned to address child slavery in Haiti, incorporated into the country’s national curriculum.
In a question following the guest speaker’s presentation, one student asked what happens to restaveks as they grow out of childhood. Cadet struck a chord as he explained to listeners that, whilst some boy restaveks escape at 15-years-old, most are too scared to run away for fear that the family would never take them back and they would be left with nowhere to eat.
This thought sat uncomfortably with those listening, following President Fitzsimmons reminder of our very own personal freedom. Slavery is an ever-present issue in today’s society. To prevent it, a change in societal attitudes must occur. This is what Cadet hopes to see in Haiti.
For more information, visit http://www.jeanrcadet.org.