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Jean-Robert Cadet is an advocate for children enslaved in the Haitian Restavek system (spelled restavec in French) and the founder of Jean R. Cadet Foundation, based in the United States. He is an author, husband, father and onetime member of the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. He has collaborated on several documentaries and has testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress regarding his experience as a survivor of slavery.
Born in late 50’s to a wealthy, white father and impoverished, black mother, Cadet was given to another Haitian family for their use upon the death of his mother. He was four years old.
In this way, Cadet became a restavek, or child servant, forced to work long hours in the home of his master. Physically, verbally, sexually and emotionally abused by his masters, he was often lent out to neighbors and friends so that he might work for them as well. Excluded from all family, cultural, civic, and religious activities, Cadet describes himself as an "observer, rather than a participant, in my Haitian culture and society.”
When Cadet was 15 his owners immigrated to the United States and he joined them, again as their domestic servant. He was turned out of the house when his owners realized that domestic servitude was stigmatized in American society and that he would be required to attend school alongside their own children.
Despite this abuse within his own culture and the racism he faced from American society, Cadet went on to finish high school, join the United States army, finish university, get married and start a family and earn a master’s degree in French literature.
Published in English in 1998, Cadet's memoir, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American
, contributed significantly to the slim body of literature written by survivors of contemporary slavery. Especially striking is Cadet’s bravery in so frankly describing his experience since, "In Haitian society, [being a restavek is] the lowest possible status. It’s like being a dog. And no one wants to reveal that he was once a dog.”
The book depicts the lasting psychological and social damage inflicted on those held in slavery and the suffering that persists from constant physical and emotional abuse. Cadet's overwhelming sense of not belonging—in society, in family, in relationships—is the most acutely painful reminder that he, in his own words, "never had a childhood.”
The Restavek system (from French term Reste-Avec, meaning "to stay with”) has continued since Haitian independence (1804) despite Haiti’s own constitution, its ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its 1984 Child Labor law. Improvement for children trapped in the restavek system remains difficult as Haiti struggles to address its root causes: poverty, overpopulation, a lack of access to education and both political and societal acceptance of this form of child slavery.