by Coleen Hedglin, Director, Beyond Borders' Child Protection Program
Every time my daughter’s school has one of those assemblies when parents are invited, on some special occasion, to come be audience for all the kids who get up on stage at different times and belt out songs, recite poetry, or perform sketches with total uninhibited abandon, creativity and joy, I cry. Be it the celebration of the death of Jean Jacques Dessalines, the annual Christmas concert, or flag day. Whatever it is. The students go on stage. I cry. No, it doesn’t have to be my daughter. This time it was the closing ceremony of Francophone week, which lasted a beautiful three hours.
Marika goes to one of the American schools here in Port-au-Prince. Founded in 1919 to serve families of US State Department employees, 93 years later, the school continues to provide a good education within the American curriculum. Things are different now, though. Most of the students who attend are not American citizens, but children of Haitian families. Others are international students whose parents have found their way to Haiti via NGO work or diplomacy. The tuition is high. Really high.
It’s a good school. During her five years there, Marika has grown so much, learned so much, been encouraged by teachers and staff, found her creative self, become an avid reader, and mastered her times tables. During the ride home from school, she often excitedly fills me in about what she learned that day. (Oh, God, please let her always do this!) She has had access to a decent library, after-school soccer, music, art, computer lab and, most importantly, a safe, encouraging learning environment. Every year the entire school body plus their families gather for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner together (I usually cry then, too – especially when the kids go up to say into the microphone what they’re thankful for.) It’s a good school.
So why do I cry? Well, it should be said that if my daughter’s an avid reader, then I’m an avid crier. It’s true. I’m a joyful crier, mostly. I’m also a contagious crier. (Don’t get me started.) But to explain why I cry at the school assemblies, I have to go back a few years.
Marika was 4. We had just moved to Port-au-Prince from Jacmel, and I was trying to decide where to place her for Pre-K. At the time I was working within Beyond Borders’ education program, helping our staff to develop programming to help rural communities strengthen education services so that parents can raise their children at home – to not send them into child servitude. That should give you some context for my parallel processes. While trying to find ways to help desperate parents KEEP and RAISE their own children at home, to keep them AWAY FROM SLAVERY, and here I am being choosy about my own child’s education. After much deliberation, I had pretty much made my decision. It was not easy. I had entered this intensely mind-boggling and heart-wrenching process of justifying my choice. “Depriving MY daughter of a quality education is NOT going to help all these Haitian children who don’t have access to ANY education.” “What if we need to move back to the US some day? She’ll need to already be immersed in the American curriculum.” “I can’t help her in the French curriculum. I don’t speak French!” “Even if I’VE chosen to make the sacrifice to live and work in Haiti, I’m not going to sacrifice her chance for a quality education.” The justification worked. I enrolled her. I couldn’t afford it at the time, but with the support of family and friends, we made it happen.
The support of family and friends. And community.
I cry from that deep place of joy that I like to assume every human being knows. The sight of any child or young person finding themselves, reaching deeper and expressing outwardly. The blessed music teacher: standing by and encouraging with the most humbly loving presence, taking in each and every one of those notes sung or played (on key or off), proudly standing by as witness to his work, the daily work in the classroom of giving children safe and encouraging space to find themselves through learning, experimentation and expression. The teachers: sitting with their children. Yes, those children are like their very own for the year they’re with them. Oh, the Haitian studies teachers – their own amazing enthusiasm and pride in their history mirrored in each of their students. That glow can only come from the positive learning experiences they’ve had with those teachers. I can’t forget the parents. The proud smiles. Their presence. I can’t help but to think that some of them are trying to hold back their own tears.
Inevitably, however, the tears transform into tears of anger, tears of deep, deep sadness. What kind of world do I live in, that right across the street from this amazing school there are probably hundreds of children living in slavery, doing their daily chores, NOT learning, NOT being given the chance to find themselves, to express themselves, to find their own creative power, but rather having their spirits beaten down? What kind of a world is this one where, because of some very confusing, screwed-up, global system of haves and have not’s, many, many, many children around the world do not get to go to school and desperate parents make desperate decisions affecting their children negatively every day? How can I NOT look at those kids on stage and see the Anne Rose’s and Rosemaine’s of the world? Because the Rosemaine’s and Anne Rose’s are not so far away. They’re down the street from my house. They’re across from my daughter’s school. They’re walking by with heavy loads on their heads while I drive Marika to school. They’re in the neighborhoods where my amazing colleagues work to raise awareness and to mobilize neighbors to do what they can with what they have to be in solidarity with one another and to protect the children. They’re the reason I wake up every day and go to work, and the reason I stay in front of my computer too long some evenings, while my daughter stands by and says, “Mom, it’s bedtime. Come read to me.”
After the earthquake, Marika spent five months living with her Grandmother in Ohio, going to the school I attended as a child. When the school year was over and it was time for her to come back to Haiti with me, she began her campaign for us to move to the US. It lasted just a few weeks. Each argument became more and more intelligent. She even argued quality dental care at one point. Then came the day I will never forget. Up to that point I had only listened silently, not voicing an opinion one way or another. But that day, I asked her. “Do you know why we live in Haiti, honey?” And she answered. “I know mom. So all those kids in restavèk can be freed. And so that every child in Haiti can have a grown up who loves them and takes care of them.” The campaign stopped there. She then began a new campaign, that very same day. “Mommy, I’m going to pray. I’m going to pray that all these children who don’t have parents find someone. I’m going to pray that people stop making children be slaves. I’m going to pray.” You do that, honey. You do that.
I never feel comfortable asking. It’s not a thing I like to do AT ALL. But this time, I can’t NOT ask. I HAVE to ask. Because this time, it’s coming from a very deep and real place within me. Thanks to our amazing friends at Equitas Group, if we raise $12,000, every dollar given to this program will be matched. This is not just some cause I believe in. These are communities I know. I have friends living there. I know children whose parents have brought them home from restavèk because of these schools. It’s amazing work in a few communities, but it’s making a very real difference in the lives of very real people.
The support of family and friends. And community.
If you already support Beyond Borders’ work, THANK YOU SO MUCH.
If you don’t, please consider this chance to do so.
Click here to give:
Coleen (and Marika)