Stay with Me

Cristina Baussan

2016 - Ongoing

Port-au-Prince, Ouest, Haiti

In Haiti, many families can’t realize the opportunities they dream of granting their children - so the families leave home, or send their children away. Some end up in safe and caring environments, but others encounter exploitation and abuse. This system, called child domesticity, involves over 300,000 Haitian children, most of them girls.

The practice of domesticity began during Haiti’s colonial era, when European settlers used young children living on the land they claimed for domestic work. In the 1960s, as urbanization sparked heavy internal migration, poor Haitian parents began to rely on family members living in the city to care for their children.

Working collaboratively with the young girls, this photo essay chronicles their lives in domesticity and their attempt to readapt to family life after being reunited with their biological parents.

Djuna Pierre, lives in Martissant, a dusty and deadly community in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Since her mother ran away last December, Djuna lives with Frisnou, her half-sister, and Fritz Belfleur, her stepfather, a stubborn man in his late forties.

For one, there is love; for the other, indifference. “I beat Djuna because she is not my real child,” Belfleur told me. “If my circumstances were better, my relationship with her would be different. We would live in harmony.” 

Faïka Lionel lives in Carrefour, an overpopulated neighborhood in Haiti’s capital. Her mother, Clermise Augustin, embodies the Haitian proverb 'pitit se riches': Children are wealth. Believing that the more children she brings into the world, the better chance she has of dodging misery, Augustin is a mother of eight. She was able to keep only two.

Faïka ended up at her sister’s. In her hometown of Laval, schools are a rare commodity. Most children end up picking crops in nearby fields or helping around the house. But Augustin wanted a brighter future for her children. 

“Every time I eat something, I think of them,” she said, sitting next to a burning stove heating a single portion of rice. “But I have to stay silent because there is nothing I can do.” 

Rose-Laure was born in Kenscoff, an agricultural village. To this day, Rose-Laure remains a mystery: An abandoned wanderer with no identifying documents. After being physically abused by her domestic parent, Rose-Laure ran away. A life on the streets felt safer than staying put.

Staffers from Sofalam, a local organization working to assist homeless girls, found her and took her in. Most Sofalam charges are reunited with their families after a month in a temporary home, but Rose-Laure has been here for more than eight months. 

Social workers cannot locate her family; she was too little when she left town and struggles to remember even hints of her past. Her mother, some say, has died.

This ongoing body of work sheds light on the different origins and consequences of each narrative, suggesting that domesticity is no singular concept or idea; rather, it is a spectrum in grayscale of all kinds of relationships that shape the realities of Haitian youth. 

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  • When her mother died in the 2010 earthquake, Jasmine was found in the street by a woman named Enyse Cibidon, who took her in and raised her. Due to the trauma of losing her mother and being separated from her family, Jasmine spends most of her days crouched behind the door of the small, unfurnished room in which she now lives in domesticity.

  • On Haiti’s National Day of the Child, children living in domesticity are invited to celebrate their existence. The parade is held at the Historical Sugar Cane Park, an industrial museum honoring the work of slaves in sugar cane fields during the French colonial era. Not knowing how to interact with other kids because of the isolation she experiences at home, Djuna (bottom), 13, spends the day on her own, away from social activities.

  • Djuna scrubs the floor at her stepfather’s home, where she is currently living in domesticity. The Creole term “restavek” – “to stay with” – is sometimes used to name a domestic child. Many social workers, however, believe the term strips children of their worth and are cautious about using it in their presence.

  • Naïka, 8, sweeps the kitchen floor of her domestic home after school. When Naïka’s mother died at a young age and her grandmother couldn't care for her, she was sent to live with Delna Dordisan. “I help her and send her to school, but she is missing something important. She is missing her mother’s love,” Dordisan said.

  • Rose-Laure (third from right), 16, sits in the courtyard of Sofalam, a local organization that rescues young girls living on the street. No longer able to sustain the abuse she received in her domestic home, Rose-Laure ran away and became homeless until found by staffers of the organization.

  • Djuna and her half-sister, Frisnou, carry buckets of water for their neighbors’ laundry. The poor treatment she receives at home forces Djuna to provide services for people in her community in exchange for food.

  • When funding allows for it, students of the Foyer Maurice Sixto, who live in domestic homes in the city, travel to their hometown of Laval to visit their mothers. The school provides goods, such as imported rice, for the girls to gift their families. The increasing importation of foreign products, with over 30 percent coming from the United States, means Haitian farmers earn on average less than $2 per day.

  • Faïka (left),17, attends an afternoon sewing class. Since living in domesticity at her sister’s home, Faïka has been able to attend school and learn a profession she can pursue once graduating. Since 2014, the Support Service for Professional Integration helps young graduates find jobs through trainings, internships, and partnerships with various companies. Only a small percentage of students, however, are able to find sustainable employment.

  • Enyse Cibidon gets emotional when talking about her relationship with Jasmine, the young girl she took in after her mother died in the earthquake. “I knew I had nothing to offer her but, as a woman, I couldn’t just walk away from an abandoned child,” Cibidon said. She is unable to find work and feels responsible for Jasmine’s condition.

  • Faïka walks home with a friend after school. She is one of the 300 students - mostly current and former domestic children - of the Foyer Maurice Sixto school. The school’s founding priest, Father Miguel Jean-Baptiste, opened its doors in 1989. His initiative tackled a staggering reality: a quarter of the children who live separated from their families don’t go to school.

  • The Maurice Sixto Foundation, a local organization working to assist exploited children, often receives images like this one of domestic children who have been physically abused. “To eradicate the issue of domesticity is a dream but, little by little, we want to change mentalities so that children are no longer mistreated,” said Johane Pierre, one of the social workers of the organization.

  • Rose-Laure (right) was first placed in domesticity when a family friend mentioned she “needed a child” to help around the house. In many cases, a middleman is in charge of facilitating the relocation of a child from one home to another. In Haiti, this person is known as “Madam Sara” - Ms. Sara - a term first employed by householders when asked about the children they had sent away.

  • A self-portrait of Stephanie, 19, as a domestic child. One night, as she was walking back to her domestic home, Stephanie was raped by four men. She was fourteen years old when she gave birth to her son.

  • Rose-Laure brings out lunch for her housemates at the Sofalam center. All of these young girls have known a life on the street after running away from a domestic home, being abandoned by a parent, or escaping abuse and violence. While temporary homes, like Sofalam, can offer immediate assistance to young girls facing exploitation, the centers face financial crisis that impede them from giving long-term help to abused children. They rely on the IBESR, the Institute of Social Welfare, for financial help but the government agency depends on external funding to further their support.

  • Naïka sweeps the floor of her domestic home. While making children help with house chores - whether they live in domesticity or not - is a common practice in Haitian culture, domestic children are expected to work more. Common chores include carrying water, doing the dishes, sweeping floors, and building a fire to cook breakfast.

  • Djuna sits inside her neighbor's home. Eight years ago, when a magnitude seven earthquake killed 220,000 to 316,000 Haitians, Djuna and her parents lost everything: their home, relatives, and the love that keeps families together when turmoil strikes. The guilt of failing to provide for Djuna had overwhelmed her mother. It was easier to leave than to stay.

  • The sun sets over Kenscoff. After several months of searching for her mother, Rose-Laure was unable to find her; most people in town believe she has died. From over 300,000 children living in domesticity, an estimate of 894 children were reunited with their biological families between 2011 and 2013. Those that are not reunited end up living in temporary homes, with host families, in the streets; or, like Rose-Laure, continue to be exposed to a domestic reality with no real place to call home.

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