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December 2002/January 2003
The Cruelty of Invisibility: A First-Hand Account of Child Slavery in Haiti

By Jean-Robert Cadet


One of the worst forms of abuse I faced when I was a slave child in Port-au Prince, Haiti, was exclusion. It leaves no visible scars, but the trauma lasts a lifetime. At the age of four I was given away to live with another family after my mother was murdered, and I soon become a victim of the abusive and institutionalized practice of domestic servitude. My most basic rights to a family’s love and protection, health, and education were denied. I became an invisible child, an observer instead of a participant in my own society.

Haitian society referred to me as a restavec, a French term that means “stay with.”

As a slave child, my day began at 5:30 in the morning and ended when the last adult went to sleep. I had to sweep the yard, water the plants, fill the tub for everyone’s bath, empty and wash chamber pots, hand-wash diapers, boil baby bottles, wash the car twice a day, dust the furniture every day, serve people drinks in the front yard every evening, wash people’s feet every evening, run errands, wash women’s monthly napkins, fetch water from afar, be borrowed by the family’s friends, and cook my own food. I worked seven days a week with no pay and no time for rest or play. I was also excluded from all family activities—meals, school or church attendance, birthdays, Christmas, New Years’ celebrations, weddings, First Communions and even funerals. And I couldn’t speak unless spoken to. For any minor infraction, such as not answering quickly enough when my name was called, I was beaten without mercy. Like all restavec children, I was only an observer rather than a participant in my Haitian culture and society.

It was by a twist of fate that I came to the United States. In 1970, the family that owned me moved to the U.S., and later sent for me to resume the duties that I had performed in Haiti. A birth certificate was purchased on the black market, and I was listed as my owner’s son to fool U.S. Immigration officials.

In New York my situation improved a great deal. My owners made sure that I wore shoes and clean clothes to hide the fact they had a slave living with them. However, by my having to address everyone as Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle, they made sure that I didn’t forget my status as a restavec. I no longer had to wash their feet, fetch water, or hand-wash feminine napkins every month, but I continued my duties of washing dishes, cleaning the house, setting the table, babysitting three children, and washing the car.

One day, a friend of the family who knew me in Haiti came to visit and told the family that it was against the law in the U.S. not to send a minor to school. At about 16 years old, with the equivalent of a third grade education and no English proficiency, I was taken to Spring Valley High School in Rockland County, and placed in the ninth grade.

When the family realized that their children and I would be attending the same school, I was shown to the door and told to leave, and was left to fend for myself. However, I was attending school, participating in extracurricular activities and eating in the cafeteria with my fellow students, which made me feel like an integral part of American society. For the first time in my life, I could express my needs, feelings and opinions.

After four years in high school, I graduated and joined the U.S. Army for three years. I then completed my university studies and eventually wrote my autobiography, Restavec‚ to raise international consciousness to the plight of Haiti’s more than 300,000 slave children.

You cannot tell from looking at me that I never had a childhood. It was stolen and the accomplice is Haiti’s institutionalized practice of domestic servitude, and it can never be recovered; I will feel its absence for the rest of my life. To give you an idea of what it’s like, let me read part of the forward to my book that my wife Cindy wrote.

“My days and nights reverberate with the truth of this story that my husband has written. I was not there to witness the circumstances of his birth, the horrors of his childhood, or his surreal assimilation into American society that form the basis of his memoir, but I lie beside him now each night as he sleeps. And when that sleep is fitful—when I hear his laboring breath, his muffled cry, or feel his arms tremble and his legs thrash about—I know that the reality from decades ago is upon us again.”

Four months ago while I was in Haiti distributing clothes to street children who once were slaves, a Haitian acquaintance invited me to spend a weekend as a guest in the house of his family. It was a two-story, yellow and white brick house in an upper class suburb of Port-au-Prince, protected by an eight foot high wall and a large, red iron gate. I was awakened from a light sleep at around four in the morning by the crowing of roosters. I went to sleep again, and I opened my eyes to daylight when I heard a new noise coming from the yard. It was quarter to six. I got out of bed and looked down from the balcony. It was the sound of Celita’s large broom sweeping the cement yard. Everyone else in the house was still in bed.

Celita was an eleven-year-old slave girl who had been living with the family for the past two years. Her mother, who lived in the countryside, had handed Celita to the host family because she was no longer able to provide her daughter with what every child needs—three meals a day and a decent school. Celita was dressed in an oversized, sleeveless T-shirt and a skirt. Her small budding breasts were visible from the sides every time she leaned forward.

She cleaned up after the dog, washed the yard with buckets of water and dried it with a rubber squeegee. Then she repeatedly carried water from a bucket upstairs to flush toilets and fill up bathtubs. And she repeated the process after each of the four adults and one child bathed. She set the table and made a trip to the bakery while the cook prepared breakfast. As everyone ate, Celita stood near the doorway with her hands behind her back, waiting for requests to pass the butter, the sugar or the salt, or whatever someone didn’t care to reach for.

After breakfast, Celita cleared the table and ate the leftover food, sitting on a cement block near the gate. Then she washed the dishes and went upstairs to make the beds, dust the furniture and mop the rooms. While doing these tasks, she was interrupted with several requests: “Celita, fetch my slippers;” “Celita, bring me a comb;” “Celita, bring my purse.” Besides being the doer and the fetcher of everything for everyone, Celita also cared for the family’s bright-eyed, nine-year-old daughter Maida, whose face looked healthy and was always ready to smile. She was often praised and affectionately touched by her mother, father and grandfather. A large picture of her First Communion in a gold frame graced the small coffee table in the living room. Maida was Catholic. She had toys, and attended an expensive private school.

Celita was a dark skinned child with a thin, scarred, and hardened face that didn’t seem able to smile. Her eyes were deep and dull. She was often criticized and threatened with the back of a hand. She had no picture of herself in the house. She didn’t go to school and her owners never took her to any church. She had no religion. She entertained Maida instead of playing with her, and she obeyed Maida’s every command.

As her owner began to back his brown Mitsubishi SUV out of the driveway, he honked his horn and Celita ran out at full speed to open the heavy iron gate that kept the house and everyone inside safe from intruders. As soon as Celita finished her other house-cleaning duties, she sat on a cement block and began to wash by hand a huge pile of dirty clothes. And, again, she was constantly interrupted with, “Celita, come wash this pot;” “Celita, come dry the floor;” “Celita, come flush the toilet;” “Celita, come set the table.” By late afternoon the SUV returned and the horn was honked again. Celita rushed to the front yard and pulled open the heavy iron gate. The car entered, and she pushed the gate shut.

By late evening, the family members sat on the front porch relaxing in the warm tropical breeze. Celita carried a bucket of water to the side of the house where the dog was tied. She bathed there, changed to an oversized dress and remained out of sight, but within the reach of everyone’s voice. The requests soon began, and continued until everyone went to bed: “Celita, bring me a glass of water;” “Celita, fetch my slippers.” Celita’s sole purpose was to slave. Her right to be a child ended the very moment she walked through the red iron gate. Her masters’ comfort was her hell.

Later I shared Celita’s plight with my good friend Doris Charollais, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Doris telephoned a friend in Haiti who knew Celita’s masters. When I returned to visit Celita a month later, I learned that she was returned to her mother.

Haiti’s institutionalized practice of using children as domestic slaves violates every article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which passed the UN General Assembly unanimously, along with Haiti’s ratification of it, in 1989.

Haiti is now making preparation to celebrate its 200th year of independence in 2004. Leaders of many nations will be invited to attend the ceremony, and every Haitian will take to the streets to celebrate, except the children forced into domestic slavery, who are excluded and invisible.

Jean-Robert Cadet
recounts his experiences as a child slave in both Haiti and the U.S., as well as his escape and long journey to become a college professor, in his autobiography, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American (University of Texas Press, 1998). Cadet advocates on behalf of Haitian slave children and has testified before the UN and U.S. Congress, and is currently working on a documentary on Haiti’s restavec children. He founded The Restavec Foundation to raise awareness of slavery in the modern world and to help rehabilitate freed child slaves. To learn more, contact The Restavec Foundation, P.O. Box 43156, Cincinnati, OH 45243; (513) 272-6113; email:; or visit


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