Monday, May 16, 2011

Indentured as children, empowered for life: CWS aids children in Haiti.

Just by sheer numbers alone, young people in Haiti are a vital force in society--roughly half of the country's population of about 10 million is now under the age of 20. But young people face enormous challenges: in a country where still only half of the population is literate, acquiring an education is not easy, with students and parents struggling to pay fees or enroll in schools.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children and teenagers find themselves in some type of indentured servitude. In Haiti, youths who are domestic servants are called "restaveks."

There are not many havens for restaveks--but luckily Church World Service partners with one. The building housing the Ecumenical Center for Peace and Justice, known by the French acronym FOPJ, was destroyed in the Jan. 2010 earthquake. But thanks to about $100,000 in support from CWS, its US church partners, and other supporters, the center quickly revived and re-opened its doors in late 2010.

With its training classes for cooks, hairdressers, masons, electricians, and others in a comfortable, airy space, the center is like an oasis in the din of Haiti’s capital city. Nearly 400 students attend classes here. FOPJ is not only a haven for restavek children and youths. It is also providing support and educational training for former gang members and teenage mothers.

"It would make a big difference if there was a center like this in every neighborhood in Port-au-Prince," said CWS Haiti program manager Burton Joseph.

"Any day I don’t go to the center, I feel awful," said 22-year-old Mikency Jean, a native of the city of Cape Haitian. Jean came to Port-au-Prince at age 11 to work as a restavek for her aunt. That experience proved difficult--12-hour days of cleaning and cooking without pay. But Jean has been determined to do something better, and has taken cooking classes and training at the center, embracing a hoped-for vocation in cooking. Jean’s specialty and love is making salads – she wants to work at a restaurant someday.

She and classmates know that the future remains uncertain in Haiti--"we talk about it all the time"--and it is by no means certain that there will be jobs for them. But with the training at FOPJ, Jean and others will be ready.

"Oh yes, I’m hopeful," said Jean’s classmate, Moise Raphael, as he and Jean prepared kibbe, a dish of bulgar wheat and minced meat. "What’s most important is the knowledge and training I’ve received here," Jean said, adding that the camaraderie and fellowship has also been important. "That’s what makes me feel good about FOPJ."

"The things we get here, we don’t get anywhere else."

Polycarpe Joseph, head of FOPJ, said his center’s programs, with the support of CWS, its denominational partners, and others, is an example of grassroots, sustainable development that gives Haitians a voice in their future. "This is a living example of the partnership between the US churches and the people of Haiti."

-- Chris Herlinger is a writer and photographer with Church World Service. CWS is a partner organization for the work of Brethren Disaster Ministries and the Church of the Brethren in Haiti. CWS celebrates its 65th anniversary this month, "and we're continuing to build a world where there's enough for all," said an announcement in the "Service" e-newsletter. A timeline of highlights from CWS history is online at

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