When we drove into the CWS-supported Oscar Romero Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I was immediately struck by the contrast. Outside, the city was still broken and bruised by the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Inside the center, the walls were whitewashed and framed by flowers, with inspirational quotations from scripture, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and other peace and justice leaders painted on the walls in blue script.
Restavek children are domestic workers, the majority girls ages 10 to 18, who have been recruited in the countryside and brought to Port-au-Prince on false promises of a better life. The teachers at the center explain, “There are many large families who are unable to take care of their children due to lack of means. They think their children will have a better life in Port-au-Prince due to false promises made by the people who go looking for children, who say they will live well, go to school, have clothing, and eat well.
“Often, the children are glad when they hear they are going to Port-au-Prince, because they think they will have all the things they don’t have in the countryside. Port-au-Prince is for people from the countryside what the U.S. is for people in Port-au-Prince.
“When children see how hard life is, how miserable, they wish they had stayed with their families in the countryside.”
Working together, CWS and the Oscar Romero Center provide these restavek children with an accelerated primary education, vocational training, music, art and dance. “The children feel very well here especially compared to the treatment they get at home. When school is over, they don’t want to go back to their homes.”
Before the earthquake, the school was located in an old building with small classrooms and limited space, able to serve only about 40 children. That building did not survive the earthquake.
Following the earthquake, the staff started work immediately. They first looked for victims, but miraculously in that hard hit neighborhood, there were no victims among their students. They hung tarps in a space they found in the street, gathered all the children and met with them every day. They served meals and provided activities to help them with post-traumatic stress.
The Saturday we visited, most of the children were not at school. We were shown the new classrooms, latrines, kitchen and dining rooms that CWS helped to build after the earthquake. The Oscar Romero Center can now serve 200 children. It is an oasis in a city still reeling from the devastation of three years ago. While nothing good can be said of the earthquake, called Gou-Dou-Gou-Dou in Creole after the sound that it made, CWS liaison Don Tatlock reminded us that sometimes opportunities can come following disasters. The Oscar Romero Center is a shining example of just such an opportunity.
By Amy Porter, Associate Regional Director, Massachusetts