On January 12, 2010, I happened to be in Florida visiting my only childhood friend from Haiti, Carl Vilfort. We were driving to a shopping mall when we heard news of the massive earthquake that had struck Haiti hours earlier. Our friendship grounded both of us as we came to grips with those awful realities.
I had lived with Carl's family in Port-au-Prince for a year in the late sixties as a restavek, a domestic child slave. (In my first book, Restavec, I gave him the name Olivier.) We were about the same age and quickly became best friends, even though Carl was forbidden to play with me or even to have a normal conversation with me. In the presence of the adults, I had to address him as Monsieur Carl. Our clandestine friendship was a microcosmic example of the class system that still pervades Haitian society. He and I would meet secretly to swim or play together whenever we could. It may be difficult for the reader to grasp, but my friendship with Carl stands out in my memory as the one and only "moment" of loving contact in my entire childhood. When I was sent to the United States at age sixteen, I expected never to see him again.
Reunited as adults, our conversations often focused on the complex sociopolitical situation (including that of the restaveks) in our native country.
Back at Carl's home in Florida, we hurried to seek information about the earthquake on TV and the Internet. The reports were understandably vague, and the early death counts seemed relatively low. I recalled an earthquake I had experienced while living in California in the '80s. I didn't know what was happening. I thought I was experiencing vertigo. Then a few books fell off a shelf, but there was no damage. It was a mild earthquake. Carl and I were hoping for the best in this case too. But, as the night wore on, and knowing our native country intimately, we began to sense that the situation there had to be much worse than what we were hearing. When things go wrong in Haiti (and for centuries many things have gone horribly wrong), Haitian people often respond with a dismissive shrug. "Well . . . Haiti is Haiti," they say as if that should explain everything that fate seems to reserve especially for the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
For my part, there were more than two hundred boys and girls in Port-au-Prince who were now living under the sponsorship of a large and growing organization that—at the time—bore my name. (Now the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Organization will carry forth my mission.) I was especially worried about two preadolescent girls, Magalie and Rachelle, who had been in restavek situations.
A number of these children were part of a subclass in Haitian society known as restaveks, the word I used for the title of my first book. My foundation had been sending all two hundred of these children to various schools, paying for tuition, books, and uniforms. Additionally, we had become increasingly vocal in advocating that the government put an end to this cruel practice.
I myself had been a restavek. In Creole, the word refers to any child who "stays with" people who are not his or her immediate family. The word, as well as the concept of "staying with" others, might seem benign to outsiders, but, in fact, those Haitian children are unpaid domestic workers, often treated as slaves by the families they "stay with," just as I had been. They perform the most menial household chores: carrying water, scrubbing floors, cleaning chamber pots, and walking the owner-families' children to and from school. By the time of the earthquake, the faces of many of these children, whom I had come to know personally, had fixed themselves in my consciousness. At this point in my life's journey, at age 54, helping individual children in restavek situations (and eventually putting an end to this nationwide system of abuse) had become my passion. For the most part, My Stone of Hope details the strange, and for me, amazing story of how I came to realize my life's purpose.
Carl and I stayed up late into the night, dealing—sometimes in tears—with the worsening news about the earthquake. Both of us resolved to make our way to Port-au-Prince as quickly as possible. Weeks earlier, I had booked one of my semiregular flights from Miami to Haiti for January 14th. The staff of my foundation and I had planned to use our time in Haiti to begin writing and filming public service announcements to aid in an aggressive campaign against child slavery.
I assumed I could easily move my reservation forward one day. So I called the airline, only to learn that all commercial flights to Haiti had been cancelled (it would be three weeks until they resumed semiregular service). I called my wife, Cindy, in Cincinnati, to tell her that I would be trying to get to Port-au-Prince in any way possible. She already knew that nothing would keep me from getting there. She gave me her love and told me to be careful. Carl drove me to the airport, and we promised to meet up as soon as possible in our native country.
My best option was to fly to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic (DR), where I arrived on January 13, at 3:00 P.M. (Both Haiti and the DR are located on an island known, in colonial times, as Hispaniola.) From this remote airport I took a nine-hour bus ride to Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, where I hoped to secure transport of some kind to the earthquake zone.
At one point during the long ride, I found myself listening intently to a Dominican radio station's call-in show blasting from the bus's speaker system. All the talk was about the previous day's earthquake in neighboring Haiti. I had taken four semesters of Spanish in college and could understand much of the conversation. Many of the callers were sharing their opinion about the "reasons" for the earthquake. These comments bore a remarkable similarity to the absurd statements I would later hear coming from some fundamentalist "talking heads" in the US. Some callers brought up the poverty of Haiti, which is so much more severe than in the DR. Some brought up the hurricanes that had devastated Haiti only a year ago. All this chatter was heading toward the same conclusion: that Haiti was a cursed nation. This may be true, but the curse has a human face, and an evil human history. I will never be convinced that God or nature has it in for Haiti.
A number of the callers were saying that my homeland's traumatic history had happened as the result of an acuerdo con el Diablo (a deal with the Devil), which some slaves, in order to gain their freedom, were supposed to have signed 230 years ago. One man even called Haiti "el campo del Diablo" (the land of the Devil). I was boiling mad, and for a long time I found it all but impossible to catch some much-needed sleep.
When at last we arrived in Santo Domingo, I found a hotel where I was able to connect my laptop to the front-desk computer and access my e-mail. Among my messages was a request from the BBC for an interview about the earthquake. Several months earlier, a BBC reporter had interviewed me about restaveks in Port-au-Prince and I had told him that I planned on being in Haiti once again in mid-January. Fortunately for me, I took a few moments to send a short reply saying that I was in the DR and would be trying to find transportation to the Haitian capital. Almost immediately, I received the following response: "Here's the cell phone number of a Haitian man in Santo Domingo, a fixer-translator who has worked with us. Give him a call." Fixers are bilingual locals used by news agencies to make connections for their reporters and camera crews, for whom they then translate. I placed a call to the fixer. He told me to meet a guy named Mike at a particular location in the Boca Chica. He said there was a group of reporters that would be leaving soon for Haiti. And, yes, they had room for one more person. This was incredible good luck. I realized that I could have easily been stuck in Santo Domingo for days.
I took a cab to the meeting place and met with the reporters near two big SUVs they had rented. Everyone was bristling with eagerness to cover so huge a natural disaster. But there was a glitch. Mike, the main reporter, told me there was no room after all. Instead of panicking, I assessed my situation. Finally, I got Mike off to the side. I was desperate to get to Haiti. This was no time for reticence.
"Look," I said, "you're a reporter, right? Well, I speak fluent Creole and I might be able to help you get some very special stories."
"But I've already paid the fixer."
"Does the fixer have international connections?" I explained that I was an advocate against child slavery in Haiti, that I had written a book, and that I was "known" in Haiti, as well as in the US and Europe. Mike remained hesitant. Finally I said, "You have an iPhone. Google me . . . Jean-Robert Cadet, C-A-D-E-T."
He promptly did this, and I watched as he scrolled down the list of "hits." His eyes widened a bit.
"Okay," he said. "You're in." I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It was 3:00 A.M. when we left Santo Domingo for what would be a seven-hour drive to Port-au-Prince. At sunrise I began to notice several medical mobile units and trucks of emergency food rushing toward Haiti, courtesy of the Dominican people. This goodwill quickly washed away the bitter residue left in my mind by the radio call-in-show.
It was mid-morning when we arrived at the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. I began to see the effects of the earthquake in outlying towns. Many homes had collapsed into big piles of rubble, and I found myself wondering how many people were buried inside each of them. The city reminded me of an exaggerated war zone, although I had never seen one firsthand. Bodies littered the roadside, as if they had been shot by snipers in broad daylight. Many people were carrying off personal belongings that they no doubt had collected from their own ruined homes—or someone else's. I was struck by the weird stillness, the absence of the usual horn-honking din that had been the heartbeat of this huge, boisterous, city. People were shouting and moaning, "Jesus, help me . . . Jesus . . . Jesus!"
The entrances to many streets were blocked with the remains of fallen buildings and homes. We saw women and children sitting in small clots in the middle of the sidewalks, many of them still weeping, although this was the second morning since that unmerciful earthquake. More than once I saw a man, himself clearly wounded, carrying a severely injured woman on his back. "Is it his wife, his sister, his mother?" I wondered. And where was he going?
Over the years, there have been many stupid zombie movies made about Haiti. I had never encountered a zombie. But here at last, I concluded, were the walking dead. Hundreds of them. And these were only the people we could see as our SUV crawled toward the airport. I knew there had to be thousands and thousands of others like them, confused, dazed, homeless, desperate, walking around half-dead, much like Hollywood zombies, except that they were real, and—for the moment, at least—alive.
Finally, at the airport, we pulled in front of a big building that was identified by a large sign, in English, as the "International Media Headquarters." Reporters and television crews from all over the world seemed to have been transported almost magically to the earthquake zone, all of them ready to record and transmit the story of Haiti's latest misery into the homes of the secure and comfortable. Military cargo planes—mostly from the US and Canada—were roaring down the runway, coming and going, while Black Hawk helicopters flew reconnaissance over the city, as they would for weeks to come. Search and rescue teams from various countries were erecting their tents in the tall grass alongside the tarmac. I could see that some team members were exercising their body-sniffing dogs and returning them to their cages. The scene was one of organized chaos.
Later that day I accompanied my new friend Mike, the reporter who had transported me from the DR, on a short trip to Petionville, the wealthy suburb on the mountainside overlooking Port-au-Prince. I was keeping my promise to help him out. Mike wanted to locate the mayor of Port-au-Prince and have me translate his hoped-for interview. We found the mayor's house. It was severely damaged. In the front yard was a tent. We were told that the mayor had gone to visit a nearby hospital, so we went there to find him. On the hospital grounds we noted hundreds of small pup tents that had mushroomed into every available space. People were using these tents as waiting rooms, but in many of them, the injured had already died. In the heat of the day the stench was all but unbearable. It permeated our skin and clothes. We found the mayor, a tall and robust man, coming out of the hospital with his right arm in a sling. Mike and I approached him. "I am in a hurry," he said in perfect English, heading toward the gate. "We need tents. We need water. We need medical supplies. We need . . . ," he rattled as he hopped into a large SUV. Mike took a few notes and we headed for our car.
On the way down the hill we passed near the famous Hotel Montana, where the rich would stay when they came to Haiti. Now it resembled much of the rest of Port-au-Prince, a collapsed wreck that, in minutes, had become a tomb for hundreds of people.
By early afternoon we returned to the airport. Whenever I was hungry, I would visit a large tent alongside the tarmac occupied by American soldiers and ask for a box of MRE (meals ready to eat) and a bottle of water. "Help yourself," a soldier would say and point to a box on the floor. I could have asked the Canadian troops, who were a lot closer to the media headquarters, but since I had served with the 82nd at Fort Bragg, I felt a special connection to that unit, as if I belonged with these troops. That night (and several more to follow) I slept deeply on the tile floor of the main airport terminal, using a flattened cardboard box as my mattress, and my backpack for a pillow. No one needed to remind me that my sleep situation was infinitely better than that of most of the people in Port-au-Prince.
The next few days—indeed, that entire first month after the earthquake—are a chaotic jumble in my memory, a rolling, ongoing nightmare. It has been said that the best way to remember a dream (or a nightmare) is to feel your way back into it, which I will attempt to do here. Days and dates are fuzzy, but the primary recollections are set in stone, and the feelings about those memories still reverberate in my mind and in my heart. I have no doubt, they always will.
Thankfully, even before I left Miami, I had been in e-mail contact with the staff from Cincinnati. I was relieved to learn that they were safe in my foundation's compound in Port-au-Prince. I promised to join them later.
During those first few days in Haiti, I decided to accompany Mike, as guide and translator, on many of his attempts to report various stories for the English language branch of Al Jazeera, the famous Arab news network. For three days I had access to information, Internet, and e-mail at the media center. Often, I found myself rubbing shoulders with famous news people and major television anchors, like Diane Sawyer (my favorite). Mike, of course, had the four-wheel-drive SUV and a driver to get us to places that I would never have seen on my own. For me, this was a way of seeing the effects of the earthquake through a special lens, the eyes of an experienced reporter. As we traveled about, I sometimes played the role of a reporter, questioning dozens of my fellow Haitians regarding their experiences of the evenman (the "event," as most Haitians referred to the earthquake). Some said that it sounded like a thousand bulldozers rushing down the street. Others called it "goudoup goudoup," because the ground had made deep muffled sounds.
One thing no one who was there will forget from the aftermath of the "event" is the smell of rotting flesh. All over the city were thousands of bodies still entombed under the concrete and structural steel that had crushed them, along with bodies littering many of the streets, singularly or piled into mounds. Some were carefully wrapped up in bed sheets. Some were rolled in cardboard and tied up with ropes. Some were stuffed into burlap sacks or garbage bags. Many were so swollen in the sun that they seemed ready to pop, their skin having turned ghostly white after being stretched to its limits.
We inched past a large street-side grocery store that had collapsed. A man with a handkerchief around his face stood on the sidewalk leafing through an American passport. Another man wearing a surgical mask dragged himself out of a small hole in the debris holding a fistful of cash. Apparently he had picked the pockets of the dead. Later, driving past a pile of rubble that once had been a police station, we saw dead uniformed officers, buried up to their chests like the busts of statues. Another policeman was upside down, buried to his knees, the soles of his spit-shined shoes facing the sky.
Knowing how Haitians love to honor their dead with expensive funerals and ornate aboveground tombs, it seemed surreal that so many people's remains were—in a sense—trivialized, almost to the point of desecration, by the brutal realities surrounding those first days and weeks. As most will remember, due to the incredibly difficult (and dangerous) circumstances, thousands of good people had to be buried in mass graves. It couldn't be helped. All of Port-au-Prince went through a living hell, and the living coped as best they could.
Most of the world saw some of this horror on TV news shows, and many viewers, grief-stricken and torn, responded with incredible generosity. Perhaps I don't need to mention that, whatever grizzly bits and pieces television audiences may have endured, nothing can compare with the ongoing, numbing trauma of being there, of living through those seemingly endless days after the most devastating earthquake in human memory. I can say one thing without a doubt: You would not have wanted to be there.
On Sunday, five days after the earthquake, I engaged a motorcycle "taxi" to take me to my foundation's offices on Route Frère, some five miles north of the airport. We had, a year before, rented space in the large walled-in compound owned by the Church of the Nazarene, one of the many fundamentalist megachurches that had sprung up in Haiti over recent years. The compound, located a significant distance from the epicenter of the evenman, had survived with little damage to its buildings.
I was overjoyed to find my foundation's Haitian staff alive. We were relieved to have come through our various ordeals, and to have found our way to this relatively secure situation where, almost immediately, we could begin planning our postearthquake work.
Considering the enormity of the chaos, we were not really sure of what exactly we should be doing. With so much need, with so devastated an infrastructure, with supply systems severely disrupted, and with many communications systems limping along, what could a small organization do? My impulse was to find Magalie and Rachelle. Hours after I had arrived at the compound, the couple who would be adopting Magalie informed me by e-mail that they had been receiving text messages from their daughter-to-be. Magalie was safe.
I drove to Rachelle's neighborhood. The entrance to most streets was blocked with debris. I parked on a main road and began to walk with a backpack. I had stuffed it with rice to give to Bertha, Rachelle's aunt, in case I found her. The stench of decomposed bodies was unbearable. Eventually, I located Rachelle's house. It was split in half, with the front section on its side. In the back room was a large wall hanging of the Last Supper. People had erected shacks near their destroyed homes to guard their personal belonging, buried in the rubble. I climbed on top of a pile of debris and yelled, "Rachelle, Rachelle. Bertha, Bertha." Finally I heard a voice. "Se Bertha, Map vini" (It's Bertha, I am coming). I saw her in a black dress, running toward me with Rachelle in tow.
I gave Bertha the rice and piggybacked Rachelle to the car. Back at the compound, I learned that the Haitian government and the US State Department had approved all adoptions that were initiated before the earthquake. In a matter of weeks, Rachelle and Magalie would join their American families in the states.
As a foundation, our course of action was determined, to a certain extent, by the arrival, providentially, the day before the earthquake, of a huge shipment (more than a ton) of rice, mixed with freeze-dried vegetables. We began to feed about two hundred people, roughly forty families, who had crowded inside the walls of the Nazarene compound. This turned out to be no small task. As I walked around their tents looking to see if they had children in servitude, I would encounter families who were diligently sifting through the rice and discarding those hard, scary little vegetable pieces. I explained that they could cook it just like rice, and the vegetables would puff up and taste wonderful mixed with their beloved rice. But they would not deviate from their cultural traditions, or habit, regarding food. They wanted their rice and beans. It was as if I were coaxing small children to try Chinese food for the first time, and it was a battle I finally gave up trying to win.
I continued walking, especially early in the morning, amongst the improvised tents and keeping a watchful eye for children in domestic slavery. Knowing my culture so well, I knew that during times of crisis, the plight of restaveks would only worsen. These children would be lucky to eat twice a day, as some families often saw them as extra mouths to be fed. Within days I was able to identify eight girls living with families in the compound. They were dressed more shabbily than the rest of the children, and they were constantly hauling water to their families' living space, or carrying plastic bags, often full of human waste, away from the tents to some outside area where they could dump it. I did my best to work with the families of these children. I told them the story of my own childhood and gave them extra food and blankets, explaining always that the children staying with them were sent by God and should be loved and fed like their own children. Before long, these eight girls were calling me "Pappy Jean-Robert" with the biggest smiles on their faces.
I noticed one little girl watching "her family" eating spaghetti. She was standing beside a mat with a plump toddler in her arms. The child would cry when she sat him down. I asked her name. "Manouchka," she said. She was nine years old. Later, away from the family, she related her story. It was much like my own story. Her mother was dead. She had been "given" to her "family." They had not sent her to school. Now, like many city people after the earthquake, they were planning a move to the countryside of Lagonave, where they would have little need of her services. She said they were contacting other families in the area to see if they wanted a restavek. No doubt Manouchka would find herself in yet another bad situation. It was an old Haitian story. In disastrous situations (e.g., hurricanes), many restaveks are simply abandoned.
At one point Manouchka looked me right in the eyes. "Please take me, she said. "You can have me. They don't want me anymore." Hers weren't the limpid eyes of dog, begging for a treat from the table. Here was a child, begging for her life. With my heart breaking, the best that I could do was to see that her family received more food and supplies. In the hopes of showing them Manouchka's potential "value," I arranged that she would be the one to come and pick up these various goods.
When my foundation's supply of rice ran out, we went into high gear to obtain more food. It became clear that a lot of hoarding was going on by merchants and suppliers in the capital city. My foundation's contributors had made certain that we had plenty of money. At a time when very few organizations were getting food out to people, we did. In such desperate circumstances, we paid the inflated prices. Why not?
We began distributing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of food to Haitian groups that claimed to be working with children. Although we were very small compared to many organizations that had come to Haiti, we were agile in adapting to "market conditions." There is little doubt that we made a significant impact in terms of feeding our contact groups during this perilous time.
Two weeks after the earthquake, I tried finding my way to a "partner organization" called Foyer Ovide Xavier, or FOX, which, for many years, had been housing runaway restavek children and reuniting them with their birth families. I knew most of the girls by name in that prisonlike home.
Two years earlier, I had accompanied twelve-year-old Marika for a joyful reunion with her birth family in Benet, a mountain village in the south. A social worker had come along to secure the signature of the parent who would be receiving her. The road was treacherous. It had taken us nine hours to get there in a large SUV. When we arrived, Marika, who had been a slave for two years, ran into the house.
"Manman" (Mother), she screamed.
"Marika, is that you?" her mother asked, as if she couldn't believe her eyes. "Oh, Jesus, I didn't think I would ever see you again. Last year your uncle went to Port-au-Prince. He was told that you ran away. How did you get here?"
"A man named Jean-Robert brought me home," said Marika.
Before long the family, with three other children, appeared on the front porch. They greeted me warmly. In a matter of minutes the entire village had gathered in the yard. They had come to see who brought back Marika.
"Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Mr. Jean-Robert for bringing home my child," said the mother with tears of joy streaming down her face. Because dusk had begun to settle, I didn't want to prolong my stay. I asked Marika permission to show the crowd her scars. She nodded and I asked her to stand on a chair and face the house. She complied. "How many of you have a child living with strangers in Port-au-Prince?" I asked. Five women raised their hands. Everyone looked perplexed. I pulled up the tail of Marika's blouse. "Oh, Jesus, that's not right," a woman said. Every face expressed shock, looking at the whip marks that crisscrossed Marika's back.
"Jesus, Jesus," screamed Marika's mother, who quickly held her daughter in a tight embrace. "Look at what they did to my child," she said, moaning as if she were having labor pains.
"That's not right. That's not right," said her father.
"If you have children living with strangers in Port-au-Prince, go get them before it's too late," I said. Some women nodded. The crowd began to leave, shaking their heads. "How could they do this to Marika?" Some asked.
"It's time to go. We have a long drive ahead of us," said the social worker. She handed Marika's father a document on a clipboard. "Write your name here to show that we've delivered Marika to you." She handed him a pen. The father printed his name awkwardly on the signature line like a child who had just learned to write the alphabet.
The FOX girls' home was in downtown Port-au-Prince. I walked into an area of town where I remembered the building had been located. The neighborhood looked so different from the way it was before the earthquake. As soon as I saw the big steel gate, still standing, I recognized a large image of Mickey Mouse painted on it in bold colors. I had found it. But beyond the gate, I could see that the three-story building, including the residence floors for the girls, had collapsed into a huge pile of rubble. My heart sank.
At the top of the pile, two men were working with picks, obviously looking for bodies. I climbed carefully up to join them. At first I tried to help, but my bare hands were all but useless on the rough concrete and cinder block debris. I got down on my hands and knees, peering into the area where the men were pulling away concrete. I noticed something in the shadows that looked like the arm of a white mannequin sticking up.
"Is that a body?" I asked. One of the men looked closely.
"Yes," he said without emotion, "it is." They began clearing away the debris near the arm. After a few minutes we could make out some hair on the back of the head. Then one of the men put his pick gently behind the head, turning it in our direction. The girl's face was white with dust, but even so, I recognized her. I didn't remember her name, but I knew her.
That had to be one of the worst moments of my life. I broke down, crying uncontrollably. "I know her, I know her," I kept saying. One of the men did his best to comfort me. After more work, we were able to remove the girl's body from the clutches of the concrete. With that, we saw another body, but could not recover it. "We would have to pull her out in pieces," the man said. I left before the men carried the dead child down from the pile. I couldn't take it. Later I learned that at least four more girls were down there in the rubble.
A week later, a staff member and I visited the other facility: FOX Boys, in the town of Medor, which was east of the city. I knew that this area had been undamaged for the most part and that the girls who had survived the tragedy in Port-au-Prince had been moved out there. By this time, I had gotten more or less accustomed to some of the postearthquake realities in Haiti. Not all of these realities had to do with death and destruction, but they were almost as unsettling.
Partly, this had to do with the fact of "Haiti being Haiti," as mentioned earlier. Long before the earthquake, it had become almost a cliché to mention that Haiti was "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." Being so known, my birth country had gained a certain notoriety for attracting a huge number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help with Haiti's ongoing social and developmental problems. Unfortunately more than a few of these NGOs had become semiparasitic, feeding off various forms of aid money that poured (or sometimes trickled) into the country from foreign governments as well as private donors. Whenever I saw one of those huge SUVs driven by many of the NGOs, I would become almost sickened. "Why do they need such fancy gas-hogs?" I would ask myself, knowing, of course, that the question was rhetorical.
After the earthquake, this situation became even more pronounced. Haitians, at all levels of society, were aware that mountains of money would be coming to aid the victims of the evenman. No doubt there would be even more of these wasteful NGOs. Of course I am aware that there are many NGOs that are doing incredible work for the people of Haiti. The same can be said for many small groups and individuals, hundreds of whom were arriving every day, people who genuinely wanted to help.
When we arrived at the FOX Boys facility, I saw a teacher I had known from past visits standing near the entry door. I inquired how many kids were now living at the group home. He told me that, with the addition of the girls from downtown, there were about 120. That seemed like a large number.
Just then, six of those FOX girls came running up to me. I had visited with them in November, before the earthquake. They hugged me and touched me and, for the longest time, wouldn't let go. Considering what had happened at their living facility, I was happy to shower them with affection. But as our little reunion was taking place, I noticed a young boy in the recreation area leaning against a wall and weeping uncontrollably. I pulled myself away from the girls and walked over to him.
"Ki jan ou rele?" (What do you call yourself?), I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder.
"Jean-Woody," he said.
"And why are you crying, Jean-Woody?" There was another burst of tears.
"I want to go home," he sobbed.
"Where is your home?"
"Chuotte." (This is a town in the country, several hours from Port au Prince.)
"Who brought you here?"
"Your papa?" I asked. "Then you are not a restavek?"
"No, sir," he said.
"Then why are you here?"
The boy explained that a few days earlier, a man had come to his house in Chuotte and told his parents to bring him here. The man assured the family that the boy would be well treated and returned to them when he was eighteen years old. This was a new wrinkle in the restavek system. The FOX organization, which had in the past been housing and returning runaway restaveks to their birth parents, was now collecting children from their families and passing them off as displaced victims of the earthquake. The obvious reason: to get money from a major NGO. Like many charities in Haiti, it appeared that FOX had become part of a numbers game, one in which both the NGO and its grassroots partner benefited financially. It is a simple scam: the more children you are "helping," the more money you get. The longer you keep the children, the steadier the income. I found it incredible that the enabling NGO benefactor had failed to interview any of these kids and thus determine their actual status.
Several other children came to talk to me, with very similar stories. They kept asking me to call their parents. Every story ended with the same moral: "I don't want to be here until I'm eighteen. I want to go home." Three children from the Brice family, along with their cousin, had been brought to the compound. They begged me to call their father, and later that evening I did. He told me that representatives of FOX had promised that the children would be fed, schooled, and cared for. I was very direct with him.
"They are your children," I said. "You can't give them up like this. They will grow up hating you. They won't get any love in that camp."
He responded that he was afraid to go back there again to pick them up. To his way of thinking, the people who ran FOX represented the government, and he was afraid of them. All in all that day, I spoke with nearly two dozen very unhappy children at the facility. Their lives were in turmoil, not because the earthquake had destroyed their homes or killed their parents, but because some greedy people with power had decided what was best for them. This is an old story. In Haiti, and elsewhere.
Our foundation had always had good relations with Madeline Ganoud, the Haitian woman who ran FOX. I was shocked, as if I had walked into a sinkhole. "Madeline has been our partner," I said to myself. "I can't believe she is doing something like this."
I located our staff person and recounted the situation. He didn't seem too bothered by it. He said something about these being crazy times, and that Madame Ganoud was probably doing the best she could. He added that we needed to be cautious, because her husband worked for the government.
I told him that I wanted to go into her office right then and there and confront the woman. I wanted to ask her why she had brought all these children in from the countryside, kids who were neither runaways nor restaveks, kids whom her agents had coerced away from their parents. I saw this as another Haitian tragedy in the making.
Later, I contacted two major news organizations and related the story to them. They showed no interest.
On many mornings, accompanied by a few of my foundation's Haitian employees we called "child advocates," I visited tent camps. The advocates were so desensitized, they couldn't recognize a child in domestic slavery even if she served them a glass of water. In every one of these makeshift communities, I was easily able to identify restavek children and to establish that the earthquake didn't seem to have changed anything in the way they were being abused. Often, it had made things worse. The kids were slaving away, often for groups of neighbors, not just the family they were staying with. On many occasions, I saw them being beaten with wooden spoons, or shoes, sometimes even whips.
I recalled when I was a child during another disaster, one of Haiti's worst hurricanes of that era. The government radio station was warning people not to send their children out of doors to fetch water, because people were being sliced in half by flying tin roofs that had been dislodged from so many makeshift houses. Guess who was sent out for water? Right. Me . . . and every other restavek kid I knew, boy or girl. Not much has changed.
Mid-February came. I had been in Port-au-Prince for a solid month. The first day after I returned to Cincinnati was my birthday, and Cindy tried to celebrate with me, as much as I would let her, but I really wasn't in the mood. Birthdays have always been difficult for me. As a child, not only was the date of my birth unknown, but celebrating a restavek's birthday was unthinkable for the owner-family. In fact, the date of my birthday (February 15) is a fiction. I determined the time frame of my real birthday when I was an adult, but never the actual date. Cindy was sweet, and didn't push the birthday on me too hard. Cindy was teaching school at the time, but we managed some caring and comfortable times together, punctuated by various engagements related to Haiti, of course.
During my second week at home, I flew to Columbia University in New York for a major symposium on Haiti's restavek problem. The panel of speakers included a representative of UNICEF, one of the higher-ups from the Haitian consulate, and myself. There were two hundred people in attendance, including a man who was in charge of producing a proposed segment for the 60 Minutes television show on CBS. He did not bring a cameraman, and I think he may have been there to make certain I would be returning to Port-au-Prince by the first week of March, when his crew was scheduled to film a segment with me.
Back in Cincinnati from New York, I conducted several major fundraisers for my foundation. One of them was a gala, including dinner and music at the University of Cincinnati. It had been arranged months earlier by one of my foundation's board members. I wasn't feeling very "gala," so in my twenty-minute speech following the buffet, I mentioned the earthquake only briefly. As the centerpiece for my speech, I projected a photo from my laptop of a shabbily dressed little girl walking another girl, in her pristine uniform, to school. "In a nutshell," I said, "what we are trying to do is to see to it that the other little girl can go to school as well."
There were several other fundraisers at local schools. Loveland Middle School raised $18,000. I was blown away by such generosity. Maybe, I thought, that was why the village was called "Loveland." Basically, my brief time at home helped cauterize some of the pain that was in my heart, stemming from what must have been the most traumatic month of my adult life.
In late February I returned to Haiti, and almost immediately I found myself involved in the 60 Minutes project. These things tend to be more complicated than one would expect. I had been through tapings for CNN and Nightline on ABC in years past, but for me (and certainly for the children in restavek) this was a pretty big deal. In my mind, bringing attention to the restavek issue, on a show with the credentials of 60 Minutes, would result in nothing but good for the children.
Carl, my childhood friend, came to visit me. I wanted him to see some restavek children in action (i.e., at work). At the first camp, we observed the "routine" of a psychosocial program director, hired by UNICEF to aid in the healing process for traumatized children. This guy was a genuine hoot, very animated and clownish, using a battery-operated megaphone as he worked his young crowd, rallying the children's spirits, and regaling them with funny little stories. He was loud, very loud, jumping up and down all over the gathering space, telling one slapstick joke after another. Carl and I could see that the kids were really into it. His job was to come there every day as a sign of continuity for the children, and a boisterous hint that a normal, happy life might one day return for them. He reminded me of an energetic Haitian version of Barney, the beloved purple dinosaur of children's television. Carl, a gifted photographer, took pictures of the performance and the kids, including several restaveks who were returning with buckets of water.
Afterward, we treated the man to lunch at a little restaurant. I suggested that he use the megaphone to draw more children to his performance. I told him to roam through the tent camps urging parents to send their children to his event—all the children, including the ones who were doing chores. I cautioned him about using the "R" word. Over the last twenty years, the word restavek has become taboo, almost like the "N" word in the US. I suggested he tell them to send "ti moun ki rete ave ou" (the child who lives with you). After lunch, we accompanied this wonderful man to another camp for a second performance. I don't know how he summoned the energy, but he was doing this show three times a day. He followed our suggestion for using the megaphone to drum up business. Afterward he told us that more kids had joined in than usual. Thanks to Carl and our crazy friend, that day proved to be the most relaxing, positive time I had had in two months.
At the end of the month, I once again returned to Cincinnati. This was a few days before the Sunday evening 60 Minutes piece was to be broadcast. I was exhausted and ready to simply hang out at home.
One day in early April, I received an e-mail from US Lieutenant General Ken Keen, who was the point person for the Army's Southern Command unit, which had been headquartered in Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. He wrote that he had been impressed by the 60 Minutes piece and wanted to meet with me. In the televised interview, it had been mentioned that, many years earlier, I had been an enlisted member of an Army Ranger unit at Fort Lewis, Washington. It seems that General Keen had served in that same unit. Both of us found this an interesting coincidence. He invited me to visit his office in Port-au-Prince. Through the general's aide-de-camp (whose patriotic-sounding name was Major Betsy Ross), I quickly made arrangements to meet with the general. I sensed that this could be a very important meeting.
I made my third trip—this one very brief—to the earthquake zone. I located the Southern Command Headquarters on the US embassy's grounds in Port-au-Prince, a huge complex of massive army tents. As usual, I was wearing slacks and a T-shirt. I went to the main gate and asked to see General Keen.
"Who?" The guard, an enlisted man, asked.
"General Ken Keen," I responded.
The guard gathered his composure and then turned and called to several other enlisted men who were standing behind him.
"This guy wants to see General Keen," he announced, a wry smile coming over his face. I guess I couldn't blame him. Here I was, a smallish brown man with a Haitian accent, asking to see the commander of all US forces in Haiti.
"And why do you want to see the general?" he asked.
"The general wants to see me," I said. "He asked to meet with me." The man looked perplexed, so I added, "If you contact his aide-de-camp, she will vouch for me. My name is Jean-Robert Cadet. My last name is spelled 'C-A-D-E-T,' but pronounced 'Ca-day.'"
"And what is the name of this aide, Mr. Ca-day?" He over-emphasized the pronunciation.
"Betsy Ross. I believe she is a Major."
Once again, that smile came over his face. "He says, the general's aide is named Betsy Ross." Everyone within earshot sniggered at this.
"That's her name," I said. "Look it up in your directory. She made the arrangements for my meeting with General Keen."
After several additional exchanges, they contacted Major Ross. Within minutes she was there at the gate to escort me in.
"It's good to see you, Mr. Cadet," she said. "The general will see you now."
As the two of us walked off, I didn't turn around, but I pictured all the personnel at the guard station scratching or shaking their heads. I relished that image.
The major led me to another huge tent, at the end of which, sitting at a large table, was the general. We greeted one another and sat down with Major Ross to a long and circuitous conversation. He asked about my time at Fort Lewis.
"I learned a lot about leadership in that Ranger unit, Sir," I said.
"I'm sure you did," he responded, "but how did you ever wind up in the army in the first place?"
So I told him about wandering into a recruiting station when I was just out of high school and admiring the posters hanging all over the walls. I told him I had asked the recruiter if I might be permitted to change the oil in a tank. The general smiled.
Then Major Ross brought up the situation of the restavek children. The two of them seemed pretty well informed about the problem. Ross told me of a recent meeting they had had with Haiti's president, René Préval. When they brought up the restavek issue, Préval had responded by telling them that even in the US, adopted children were not treated as biological children. Everyone in the room was stunned by this misconception. Someone from the US Department of State had gently corrected him.
"We tried to be respectful in informing the president that his understanding was not, in fact, the reality, and that adopted children in the US are usually well loved," said Major Ross.
I explained to them how, in Haiti, many parents turn their children over to strangers in the belief or hope, first of all, that they will be treated with care, and secondly that they will receive what the birth family is unable to afford: a basic education, which in Haiti promises a way out of systemic poverty.
"Unfortunately," I added, "that rarely happens."
"This is no different than colonial slavery," General Keen observed, shaking his head. "How can this practice be brought to an end?"
I told him that two vital components would probably be necessary: the decentralization of Port-au-Prince and mandatory public education. Then the general asked the million-dollar question:
"What do you think we can do for these children out of this office?" I was ready to respond.
"General, I've been knocking on hundreds of doors over the past twelve years, hoping that one of them might help open up the restavek problem and move it toward genuine resolution."
"What kind of doors?" he asked. I conducted a shortened litany.
"Well, I've spoken before the UN in Geneva four times. Three times I've addressed the International Labor Organization. I've testified before Congress. I've even been on the Oprah Winfrey Show."
"Wow, you've been around," the General said, and we all laughed.
"And General," I added, in total seriousness, "You are one of those doors. I made a special trip to Haiti in order to open it." Lt. General Ken Keen nodded his head.
Before we said our goodbyes, I pulled out a copy of my book, Restavec, and inscribed it to him. Later, in my notebook, I wrote down—as carefully as I could remember them—the words I had written there:
Please help convince Washington to push Haiti's government to make education a mandated gift to all Haitian children; otherwise economic growth will not be possible and democracy will never take root.
When I first started writing My Stone of Hope, using a snippet of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech as its title, I had a straightforward reason for writing it, and a simple theme in mind.
In 1998, my first book, Restavec, had been a modest publishing success. I was a high school teacher when that book came out, and I felt more or less satisfied that I had done something that had certain relevance, even importance. I had written a book that, in recounting the typical life of a Haitian slave child (me), had, far beyond my expectations, helped place the issue of child slavery in public view. I was proud of this accomplishment, and felt that I had done enough. What else could I do? I was helping to raise a family. My deepest hope was that—with my story as a catalyst—some talented individual might be motivated to champion the cause of child slavery in my native country, and also perhaps in other places around the world, where this horrible practice perpetuates itself. In the years that followed, various writers detailed the horrors of worldwide modern slavery, authors like my good friends Ben Skinner (A Crime So Monstrous, Free Press, 2008) and Keven Bales (Ending Slavery, University of California Press, 2007). We should be grateful to them.
But no anti-slavery knight riding a white horse emerged on the horizon. Well over 300,000 Haitian children, according to UNICEF, are still living in a daily, loveless hell. By a kind of default, I became the leading spokesperson in the effort to bring an end to this horrible, dehumanizing institution.
The theme of My Stone of Hope, in that first writing, had to do with how the cards in US society are stacked against an outsider. There I was, a non-native black man trying to make his way in the "land of the brave and the free." Early on, the book simply recounted my problems in acculturating, in being accepted. Even as the first draft came into existence, I more or less believed that all my issues were outside myself. My problems had often been caused by others. In a conversation about why good people sometimes do very bad things, a friend of mine made a universal statement that I disagreed with. "Let's face it, Jean," he said. Everyone has kinks." Without a moment's hesitation, I responded, "Not me. I don't violate the innocence of children and hurt others on purpose. I live by the rules."
If the reader has waded this far through my unusual life, spent early on as a restavek, she can't help but know that my life here in the US was anything but an easy one. And the reader can't help but have seen a few of my "kinks." Pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps can be a Herculean task.
Then, as the final drafts of this book were being tweaked and edited, came the unthinkable evenman. Haiti's earthquake shook everything, including the foundations of my being. Before the evenman, I thought I had become who I was supposed to be. I thought I had hewn my own little stone of hope out of that mountain of despair, and made a life (yes, a "me"). The earthquake, with its ongoing psychological aftershocks, was a sobering reminder to me and much of the world of the incredible fragility of just about everything, including, in my case, the image I had of myself.
These few remaining paragraphs will, I hope, bring down the curtain on all of that, and will do so in a way that is, if not healing, at least generative.
But other aspects of my situation were not as encouraging. The foundation that I had started in 2002 experienced what can perhaps best be described as "growing pains." From my point of view, my foundation was no longer living up to its singular mission. The situation was so bleak that, on the advice of lawyer friends, I had little choice but to withdraw my affiliation and my name from this internationally acclaimed and well-funded organization and start over from scratch.
In the midst of all this, I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for the graduating class at Northern Kentucky University, a thriving young school across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The ceremony took place in an indoor stadium on a beautiful spring day. Just before I was to give my speech, I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university president and was given a beautifully framed diploma. Nine thousand people were in attendance to listen to a capsulation of my life and my life's mission. As I received a standing ovation, I was moved to tears.
After the ceremony, I found Cindy and handed her the framed document. She looked at me, her own face stained with tears, and smiled at me with eyes that I could see were filled with pride and love. We joined Dr. Votruba, the president of the university, for a delicious lunch. Said Dr. Votruba, "In my fourteen-year tenure, this is the first time a commencement speaker has received a standing ovation."
Within days of the "divorce" from the old foundation, I made up my mind to create RESTAVEK NO MORE, INC., d/b/a Jean R. Cadet Restavek Organization. As this book goes to publication, this organization will have become official, a legal entity, with its own articles of incorporation. Its mission: To advocate for the demise of child slavery. Those who join with me in this new endeavor will be fighting the same odds. Bureaucracy, history, and the traditions of Haitian slavery will continue to be aligned against us. We will be fighting an uphill battle, against all odds.
And so we pursue the struggle. Dr. King tells us that "The arc of history bends slowly, but it bends toward justice."
In the hopes of accelerating that bending process, I hand each of you, my dear readers, this Stone of Hope.