Helia Lajeunesse is part of a women’s group, Limye Lavi, which works to end the institution of restavec in Haiti. Restavèk is a traditional system in which Haitian children from homes suffering economic and social difficulties are sent by parents to live with other families and work for them as domestic servants. There is a perception that the child will be enrolled in school by the host household and treated like one of the family, but often the reality is completely different. For many children, the day is filled with work. Lajeunesse’s own children were put into restavec fosterage when they were young, but with the help of Limye Lavi, her children are now free as well.
My name is Helia Lajeunesse. I was someone whose mother died when I was seven months old and left me as a tiny baby. My grandmother took me in because my father, when he impregnated my mother, he left. And my grandmother took care me from that time until I was about five years old. Then my grandmother died. And then a neighbor took me in.
I was five years old when the neighbors took me in. But then I had to do all the work in their house. I had to go and get water even though I was so little I couldn’t do anything really, but they decided that I should be the one to doing that work. I had to sweep the whole house, and I had to do all the dishes. They showed me how to cook food, but it was my own food that I cooked because when they made food for themselves, they didn’t give me any of that. I was the one that went to bed the latest, and I was the one who got up first. As soon as it was four o’clock, I had to be on my feet to go and sweep the kitchen and to light the fire and wash all the dishes and put the water on for coffee.
When they would make their coffee they said I couldn’t do it because they said I wasn’t clean enough to do it. And they would make coffee, but they wouldn’t give me any – they would just drink it with their own children. Then they would tell me that I had to go behind the breadfruit tree to make my own food.
Sometimes the children of the house would hit me on my head even when I didn’t do anything. And sometimes the children would set it up so that one would take the money of the other, and they would say that I was the one that took it.
All the children in this neighborhood were in school. There were four of them. But she said she wasn’t going to put me in school because I was just an animal without any family. I stayed there because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I didn’t know anybody in my mother’s family till I was about eight or nine years old.
There is a marketplace that was very far away, so then I had to put a basket on my head and go very far and sell in that village, so that I would bring back all the provisions for them. But the road for me to leave that marketplace to go back was very far. And after I had finished selling, they said I can only get ten cents out of the profit. But there was a type of bread that would sell four for fifteen cents, and they would just give me three for ten cents. And then to eat just that so that I would to go all the way back home - it wasn’t very close. And then she would have me do a lot of different errands, but the money she made off of the sales wasn’t enough. She would say that I had eaten the profits instead of doing what she had asked me to do.
They would have horses that they had saddles for. She wouldn’t saddle a horse for me. She said I had to carry it on my own head. There was water very far away, and I had to go down and get the water. It was very far down below a mountain. And I had to walk very far, very steep. And the clothes I had, if they got torn, she wouldn’t buy anything new for me.
But I had other neighbors that looked, and they would say to the woman, “Adeline, you should take care of her just like she was your own child.” She would say, “Oh! I should take care of her like any of my other child of my own? No she’s just an animal without any family.” But they say, “No, even though she’s not your own child, you should take care of her like she’s any other child because maybe tomorrow when she could do something for you she will say thank you to you too.” But she’d say, “What’s that going to be useful for me? What could she learn for herself that she could take care of herself?”
I just stayed there, and I was in a lot of misery. And I was just barefoot too. And then when I was eleven years old, no ten, there was a school that they closed in with some coconut leaves. The man who was making that school were close to the house. The children of this woman went to the good Catholic school. [The man would say,] “Adeline, this child, we don’t need any money for her to go to school because you say she’s just an animal of the family. So all you have to do is buy a little milk. We’ll help her as family.” And so she said, “I should buy a notebook? What she’s supposed to do with the notebook? When you have people like this that have no family, they’re just like animals. We should just treat them like animals.” The teacher would say, “That’s not something that you should say because you have children.” But she didn’t agree.
And so one day she went away into the city, and her children were old enough they were going to be baptized. One day when she was going to be gone for three days, one day when I was washing the dishes in the kitchen, and the man called me “Helia!” and [I] responded, “Yes, Mister.” And he said when you’re done doing the dishes, come to me under the little shade house. The teacher said “Come out, and while Adeline isn’t here, you can come and learn a little bit like zeros and things.” And for those three days when Adeline was gone, I sat there under the shade house with this teacher. And when Adeline came back from the city, I didn’t see that she was coming, and so when she got there and I saw her, I got up and ran away.
I went inside. She asked me what I was doing. “You think you need school?”
“No it wasn’t me. It was the teacher who called me.”
And so she beat me all up, and she said, “So when you learn to read what’s that going to be useful for you?” And she whipped me with a whip, and she opened my skin, so then I never learned again. I stayed there, and I went through a lot of misery.
And then there was a neighbor that said, “I’m going to get you out of this. I’m going to put you in another neighbor’s house.” But I said, “No, I don’t know where that is. Leave me where I am. Let me go through this with my courage.”
And then one day she started to have an argument about me, and she said, “Oh! You’re treating this child like an animal. You’re the one that’s an animal!” And she said, “You don’t even give her your clothes, or the food you cook for your own children you don’t give to her.”
And so she told the school. The little school had a catechism class, and it was for everyone. And so when the lady invited me to go to catechism class, I said, “No, I can’t because Adeline is going to beat me.” And so the ladies of the neighborhood put a lot of pressure on Adeline. They told her if she would beat this little girl, they were going to call the police or burn her house. And then when she saw that, they let me go to the catechism class.
And then when they had tests, I went to the test for my catechism, and I passed it for the first communion. And she said “Oh! I’m going to have to give you a communion? And because they pressured me, intimidated me, said they’re going to burn my house, I guess I’m going to have to give you a first communion.” Then I was eleven years old.
But the day of the communion, she took a dress that had three different kinds of fabric in it, and I wore that to the communion service. All the children had parents. They were so pretty. But I went to church with this dress and barefoot. And all the other children had nice shoes, and I was the only one barefoot.
And when I left church and went home – as soon as I got home she told me to take that dress off and put that old rag on. And then I did that, and she told me to get the board, which is a calabash, to go and get water in it. And the sun was so hot. And then when I was coming back with the water, there was another child that was in the same communion service. And the mother of that child saw me; she cried. “Oh what a pity!” That day I remember very well because she said, “Oh! How hard it is for a child that doesn’t have a mother!” And then she called me; she gave me a little food of the party food of the other child. And there was some lady that saw that, and she told Adeline that I went and that I was eating at somebody else’s, and then Adeline beat me up. She said that I had gone and gossiped, so they gave me food. I told her, “No. It wasn’t me. It was because the lady saw me, and she offered me the food.” And I told Adeline that “You know, today I am just little, but I know that there is a God, and one day I know that he’ll say something for me.”
And so I stayed there. Then all these people that came from Port-au-Prince, they said they’re going to take with them, and I said, “No, I don’t know where that is. I can‘t go there because this is what I know. Even if I stay here and she kills me, I’m going to stay here.” All the things that she did to me, I just stayed there. When she would beat me, I would say, “No. You have children. Even though my grandmother left me here with you, it wasn’t to beat me like this.” And she said, “Oh! So now you’re starting to talk back to me? Oh, and you want to take my husband away from me?” I said, “No, I would never do that. Even though I just get a little food here, but you give me a place to sleep. Even when you don’t give me the food that you to give to your other children, at least I have a place to sleep here.”
And then one day I saw that I just couldn’t stand it any longer. There was a woman from town, and I said, “I’m going to go with you because I can’t stand it any longer.” And so when I came to understand that she was offering me her husband, I couldn’t stay there any longer.
And I got up and left. So one day when she went out I took the clothes that she gave me – not the clothes from the communion – but I got the clothes that she had given me, and I ran away. And so the lady told me where she was going to be waiting for me, and I found her there. I thought it was a good thing that I was doing, but I should have stayed at Adeline’s house. So I got to the second person, then I was twelve years old.
So I had to get up early because she was doing a lot of commerce, this woman. She had a restaurant; she needed food. So then I had to get up really early because I was the one who cleaned all the pots and the pans for the restaurant, and then I had to get to the marketplace. She used to hire people to work for her, but then since I was there in her house, she didn’t have to hire anybody any more. Then I had to light the fire. Had to do all these things. She was the one that would put oil in the pot, but then I had to do everything else. But to know if there was enough salt, I had to bring her a spoonful so she would taste it to know if it was correct, enough salt. And after she sold all the food, she would tell me that I can scrape the pot to eat.
I left because I was so bad, and now I’ve gotten worse off. But there was a woman who said, “Now you’re old enough. You could probably work for yourself.” There was another woman that was living across from this woman I was working for, and she saw the misery I was going through. And she told me that when I was old enough I can make a living myself, and I said yes, because when I need some clothes, I need to be able to buy them myself.
I always had the hope that somebody would deliver me. I always had that hope. Because I believe that not everybody can be the same way.
So I spent two years at this woman’s house with the restaurant. And so the woman said, now I was fourteen, I can work for myself. And so I asked her to go look for some work for me. This is the other woman has said I can work. And so she found some work for me. And so then I was working for nine Haitian dollars, at forty-five gourdes a month [$1]. And I would make food, and I would wash clothes, and I’d iron, and I’d carry water, and I did the marketing. The woman I was working for had two children, and I was taking them to school. And then at noon, I had to go back and get them. And so I thought it wasn’t too bad.
Even though I would feel tired, when I was able to get forty-five gourdes, I could buy some sandals or a dress with it. So I stayed there, and I stayed there, and I spent six years there. And so they treated me well because they saw that I liked children, and they really took care me. Even though they gave me forty-five gourdes, sometimes if they saw a brand new pair of panties, they would buy it for me. And so I spent six years there, until I was twenty.
And why did I leave? One day when I went and got one of the kids from school – at that time the child was four – so I was walking the street, holding her hand, and I just passed the priest’s house. The child fell down while I was holding her, and so her leg got scraped up. And the woman that I was working for called the police. She said that I scarred her child. “It wasn’t my fault, Madame Danielle, because while I was holding her hand and she tripped and she fell. To be spending six years of this, it is not now that I would do something to hurt them.” And all the people around said, “How is it, after six years, that you would do this? You would make the police come and beat her too?” And she said, “Oh! I am working so hard for my own children. If my children have a scar, they’re not going to be able to do what they want to do. If they want to leave, they can’t leave.”
And so one day I saw that there was someone that was going back out to the countryside, I decided that I wasn’t going to stay there any longer, and I would go with them.
So I went to a place called the town [unintell]... a place very, very far from the town of Jérémie, that’s on the southern peninsula. So then this person took me to this place very far. They weren’t my family. So I went there, and so then I bought a machete, and I started making a garden just like a man. When they had coffee and needed to harvest, I’d go out and get coffee. And those places, they would pay you for a day’s work in the garden and they would buy coffee from you. Sometimes they’d pay you for a day’s work but they’d just give you a can of coffee for payment.
I stayed there, and I worked for people and I just stayed, and then I found a man who loved me. And he wanted to know my family, and I said, “Well, God put me on this earth; I don’t have any family.” But his parents liked me a lot, and so I stayed with them. And I had a child, and so the parents of the man got mad at me because I had this child. And then I didn’t know where I was going to go, and then I was really having lots of misery then. I was just perishing.
And this man had a brother here. When his brother came to visit, I was the one that washed and cleaned for him. And his brother sent word to a brother-in-law of his in Port-au-Prince. At that time, to get a boat from Jérémie, it cost fifty gourdes, and they sent seventy-five gourdes to me. And they said that they would pay for the boat trip, and then the rest would be for food….
I was passing so much misery because I was living with my husband’s mother. And it was so bad that his brother saw that and sent for me to come into Port-au-Prince. And he lived in the area called Cite Soleil, and then he went to the area of Matisse, and I stayed with them. And I still live with my brother-in-law, his wife, and his child. And then I had another two children at his house. And then my husband came. They rented a house together like a family, and we had one room in their house.
1994, 95, 96 time. One night while I was sleeping with my husband and my three children, I heard a knock on my door, but I didn’t open it. That should be my husband knocking on the door, but he’s with me, so I don’t have anybody else. And I saw that they knocked the door in. So these people had black masks over their faces, so you couldn’t see their faces. They asked “Oh! You didn’t open the door?” And I said, “No, Why should I open the door? I don’t know anybody outside. My husband is here with me.” There were several that came. There were three that raped me. When they were finished, they took my husband, and to this day I don’t know where he went.
And then my brother-in-law left that area, and I left too and went to another place and stayed with people. And then I had a lot of troubles because I had nobody to give me anything to help me. And so then I found a man who was already married, but he said he would take me, but I wouldn’t have chosen that, but for my children I did. And then I had a child for him. And we had no problems, really; he helped me when I needed something. And I left with my children. And then there was a woman that went and told the wife of this man, and she brought him to my house. And so that wife…every day she would come to my house, and she would swear and persecute me, and so she would come every day and scream and holler and give me problems every day.
And so I decided I’ve already gone through two stages of life. If God’s going to give me something, I’ll take it. But I can just at least do little job, wash somebody’s clothes, maybe give me a little food, and I can share with my children. And rather I’d not have anything but have peace with my children. And so the man left. And so I told him that, “Now that I have two children for you, if you remember them, send something for them through another person. I don’t need to have anything to do with you anymore.” So then I went, and I rented a little room, and I went to Fodasyon [Fondasyon Limyè Lavi, an organization dedicated to ending restavec slavery in Haiti] and I was able to get a little loan, so I can do a little commerce. But it’s not really anything you would call money. It’s only a thousand gourdes [$25], and every fifteen days you have to pay back part of it. And so sometimes I would go and I would sell a few candles or some juice powder. And so whatever I would sell, I would buy some whatever it was… tomatoes or potatoes… and give to my children to eat.
So there was a school close by, a rural school, that I was able to put my children into. But I wasn’t able to buy books, and every day they sent them back because I didn’t have any books. And so then in 2005, my second daughter was twelve years old. In 2005, when things got heated up politically, so that Aristide was going to be having a coup d’etat, she sent her daughter to a friend of hers in Village de Dieux. And while she was at this friend’s house in Village de Dieux, there were bandits that came in and raped her, and now she has a child at twelve years old. And now she’s taking care of a rape child, and I don’t have anything. I don’t have any commerce. I don’t have anything.
And then now I’ve found an organization, it was like a delivery when I found them. And so sometimes when I’m not able to go to the meetings, they pool their money together, so I can give something so I can feed my children. So the two children that are in school can’t do their final exams, even though it’s not their national exams. I don’t have the money to pay for it.
As told to Peggy Callahan, for Free the Slaves, on June 15, 2007, in Haiti.