In the Caribbean, “Barrel children” are the children of migrants who are left behind in the care of others while they wait to rejoin their parents in a new country. In the intervening period they are often supported with goods sent from overseas in shipping barrels, hence the name. Barrel children exist in every corner of our societies, yet we have barely begun to assess the impact of these living arrangements on them, their parents and the people who step in to care for them.
This lack of discussion is perhaps not that surprising. We in the Caribbean are infinitely resourceful and inventive. One of our most adaptable institutions may be the Caribbean family unit. Due to the small sizes of our economies, the varying levels of opportunity here and our vulnerability to forces beyond our control – whether an annual hurricane season, trade decisions taken in far off places or the changing tastes of tourists – we are constantly adjusting in order to survive. When it comes to child-rearing, we don’t just say “it takes a village” – we practise “child-shifting”. Even where migration does not come into it, many of us move between the households of our parents, aunts, grandparents and sometimes even family friends. The childless but child-friendly woman down the street may be “lent” a child to keep her company. Or parents with too many mouths to feed might elect to hand one over to someone of greater means. The shifts could happen over a weekend, a school vacation or even a period of years.
We may see the shifting of barrel children just as another such arrangement. But that assumption has caused most of us to overlook the scale of the effects of parental separation due to migration.
Two years ago I made a short film for the Commonwealth Shorts programme called Auntie about a barrel child and her temporary carer (or Auntie). With the release of the film, I received emails from people who had been through the experience, telling me they could relate to what they had seen on screen. People came up to me after screenings and gently pulled me aside to whisper the outlines of their own story. Those who hadn’t experienced it spoke to me about others they knew who had – friends, partners, co-workers. These exchanges ignited my search for a deeper understanding.
This is how the Barrel Stories Project was born. I have begun recording the experiences of parents, “barrel children” and caregivers who have agreed to have their stories shared on a website dedicated to this experience. We are meeting people in their homes for video or audio interviews and we are also hosting a series of public events where the film is screened and interviews are conducted in a separate private area. Submissions can be made in writing via email or through the contribution of photos, artworks, an original song – any expression which conveys the feelings associated with the experience. Contributors also have the option of using their names or remaining completely anonymous. We hope it will give voice to both the blessings and the burdens of the experience.
‘Every family has a story’. This is the phrase I’ve used time and time again to introduce the project. But I couldn’t have begun to imagine what it meant.
On the evening of my project launch in early April, I dropped into a local copy shop to collect some promotional postcards and posters. As the employee sorted my order, he told me that he had read my material and wondered what it was all about. He told me that he and his mother were raising his young nephew, as his sister had gone to the UK to work. I hadn’t yet launched the project officially and I had my first story.
That night, as the launch screening ended, as the lights came up a woman leaned over to her friend as the l and said “Wow. I am a barrel child and I never even knew it until I saw that film. I guess I have a story to tell.”
On a site visit for one of our public events, we were discussing arrangements with a representative of the host organisation when she told us that she would also be a contributor to the project, as her mother, her mother’s mother and her father’s mother had all been migrants from a neighbouring island who had left kids behind, made new families in their adopted countries and integrated the two branches with varying degrees of success. As she spoke, I tried to picture the dizzying complexity of her family tree and was reminded that Caribbean people move, not just outside but inside the region as well.
In the beginning, my intention was to limit myself to Barbados, where I live, but the interconnected nature of our region and diaspora quickly put paid to that idea. I soon started receiving encouragement from friends and acquaintances on other islands to set up collections there too. A visiting psychotherapist from New York found his way to a screening and mentioned that he had two juvenile clients currently grappling with issues that stemmed from their having been barrel children. This added to the picture I was already forming of the lives of these families in their new countries. Some time ago I, received an email from a social worker acquaintance in Brooklyn who clued me into just how many Caribbean children end up unable to adjust to being reunited with their parents. She had handled a few cases of children in the care of the state who asked to be sent back to the Caribbean. It was becoming clear that our project would need also to pick up the threads of these family histories at their ‘final’ destinations.
For every person who has been eager to share, there are another ten who found the topic too difficult to approach. Some people have tried to outrun their reckoning by outrunning me, making appointments and then neither showing up nor answering their phone when I tried to reach them. During this project, I have been stood up more times than I can count. Our small team of three has spent more hours than we care to remember sitting at a public event, trying to pass the time while we hoped more people would appear. I learned very quickly not to take it personally. As Caribbean people we’re not fond of discussing feelings or sharing information about our lives. But with this issue it seems that it doesn’t take much for those feelings to be triggered and come spilling out anyway.
An attendee at one of our public screenings – a manager at a credit union – related to us how that week an elderly female customer had come into her office. In the course of applying for one of their services, she had ended up weeping about her life as a child when she was sent to live in the UK under circumstances that had haunted her for a lifetime. How burdened must she have been for all those years to reveal these deepest hurts to a virtual stranger over a financial transaction? A friend who runs a small clothing boutique called one night to say that a customer had talked to her about moving into her own home for the first time at 63 years old. Up until that point she had always lived with her auntie, having returned to her after a brief reunion with her mother decades earlier, that failed to make up for the missing years. This was a revelation that came out of a perfectly ordinary conversation.
Even people who have been happy to talk in casual conversation have balked at the idea of being recorded or widely shared, worried about the impact their disclosures might have on their families, even after 30 or 40 years. Some would make the recordings and then call later, deeply apprehensive about how the things they had said might be perceived. Other people told me outright that the mere thought of delving into the past had caused them to be overtaken by feelings that they were not yet ready to tap. I soon came to appreciate that the ‘material’ was not the point. Even if I couldn’t take anything ‘useful’ back I believe there was a value in facilitating conversations and feelings that people may not have have had a chance to have before.
The feelings stirred are complex. For parents who make the choice to leave their children, it is almost always intended as a temporary sacrifice they are making for their children’s future. But the woman who told me she didn’t see her child for 10 years after she left and could now only consider herself a friend, would she have made a different decision if she could see what that future would cost her? For the caregivers, there is the satisfaction of having shared a special bond with a child but in parallel to this are also feelings of subsequent abandonment. It is a lot to ask of another human being to love your child as their own and then to disregard that bond when their “services” are no longer needed.
For some of the adult barrel children I’ve talked to (we made a point of only talking to adults), there is a hollowness to the relationship with their biological mother – gratitude for the opportunities provided, but no real affection. For others, decades after the separation from their temporary caregivers, they are still grieving the loss of the only person they considered a parent. I have been deeply moved by the palpable affection between a woman and her beloved aunt who rekindled their relationship after years of separation, caused primarily by the envy of her biological mother.
One of the most important things I have learned, however, is that while migration and separation are inevitable, these kinds of traumatic outcomes are not. There are happy stories of seamless transitions: of parents who focussed not only on their children’s material well-being, but carefully laid plans to ensure that their emotional ties were maintained; parents who provided not just money, toys and new clothes but weekly phone calls and frequent letters; parents who insisted that siblings living in separate countries, spent lengthy holidays together to help bridge the gap and reduce the likelihood of resentment. There are adults who proudly declare that they have two mothers, both of whom passionately love and support them and appreciate and respect each other’s place in their life. I’ve learned that men can and do act as loving caregivers as well as women, a fact that is often overlooked because it is overwhelmingly the women of the Caribbean who carry the weight of these arrangements. And I know that thanks to new technology, no child should have to suffer through complete lack of contact with a parent – whether biological or surrogate.
I entered into this project with a great deal of dispassionate intellectual curiosity. In the six short weeks since we’ve launched, I have ended up an evangelist. We’ve received the encouragement of people in the media, academia, the private sector, the juvenile justice system and random strangers on Facebook. The task before us now is to be patient, to build trust at the community level and work towards sharing these stories and lessons with as many people as possible. I am confident that with the right tools and information, we can apply that legendary Caribbean ingenuity to creating alternative family structures that support the emotional needs of migrant parents, barrel children and caregivers.
Auntie – a film by Lisa Harewood
Lisa is a passionate film fan from the island of Barbados. After a working life spent mostly in the fields of advertising, marketing and development communication, she decided to pursue her long-held ambition of making a film, joining writer/director Russell Watson’s micro-budget feature project, A Hand Full of Dirt (2010), as Producer.
AUNTIE is Lisa’s debut as a writer and director and came about as a result of a last-minute decision to enter the Commonwealth Shorts. To see all of the Commonwealth Shorts, follow this link.