Migration and Separation: Stories of ‘Barrel Children’
by By Melissa Noel
For almost a decade during her childhood, Melissa Elias communicated with her mother mainly through phone calls – or she’d hear from her when she received goods sent in a shipping barrel. “I remember the barrels… there were a lot of foodstuffs she (my mother) would send. She would send sneakers and clothing. But I don’t remember her visiting that often,” Elias said. Her mother, like what many other Caribbean immigrants have done and continue to do, migrated to the United States for better job opportunities. She left Elias, then six, and her baby brother in the care of their grandmother in Trinidad and Tobago. They were to be reunited once her mother was settled, but it was not until Elias was 15 years old and her grandmother passed away that she joined her mother in Brooklyn, New York. “It was difficult coming here as a teenager. It was very difficult to adjust and I had some issues with my mother… Really I didn’t know her,” Elias said. “I always wished I had the choice to stay in Trinidad and finish off my schooling, stay with my friends and other family members. I was angry that I didn’t have that choice.” The children left behind when parents move to another country and receive material support instead of emotional support and direct care are often referred to as “barrel children” — a term Jamaican sociologist Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown coined in the ’90s. Many parents from the Caribbean region often have to make the hard choice to migrate alone (due to immigration restrictions) with the intent of having their children join them at a later date. While the term “barrel children” was coined in the Caribbean, the situation it describes is one that is common in countries around the world. Now 35, Elias says she does now understand the sacrifices her mother made, but never talked about her experience publicly until she learned about the Barrel Stories Project after watching the short 2013 film “Auntie,” a fictional story that highlighted another aspect of this situation — the separation of a loving caregiver from a child to whom she has grown close.
The movie was financed by the Commonwealth Foundation’s Commonwealth Shorts initiative, which gives emerging writers and directors an opportunity to make a film that focuses on issues affecting them and their communities. Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood, in exploring the lives of children and their caregivers left behind as the parents of the children migrated, managed to unleash a wellspring of emotions among some viewers in the Caribbean and the diaspora. A year and a half later, Harewood started conducting audio interviews with “barrel children” like Elias, who decided to share her story after seeing the movie. “I could relate to it in a sense because I was once that child…a barrel child,” Elias said. Harewood interviewed more than 40 individuals, and 20 or so of their recorded stories can be heard online where the Barrel Stories Project lives. “Many people just wanted to talk and they didn’t necessarily want to record their story and share it with the world on the internet… But, I would say over the last few months it’s picked up [people wanting to share their stories], especially outside of the Caribbean, in the Caribbean diaspora,” Harewood said.
The website, says Harewood, is a place where people can “find fellowship and find healing.” In addition to the featured stories, the Barrel Stories Project also includes links to news articles, books and academic papers, among other resources, exploring the impact of migration and the separation of family members. Harewood, using her own resources and financial support from Commonwealth Foundation, has traveled to several countries in the Caribbean as well the United States, the U.K. and Canada to interview people about their experiences and audio record them. “There’s such diversity to the experiences that people have around migration and parental separation. I wanted to reflect as much of those experiences as possible,” she said. Those varied experiences include the fact that while some “barrel children” are well taken care of by caregivers and reunite with parents, others may be left to fend for themselves or face abuse. There are also those “barrel children” whose family reunions with their parents never happen. These children are particularly vulnerable. “The longer apart these children are [from their parents], the more trauma sets in,” said Andrea Critchlow, a Family Team Conference Facilitator at the Graham Windham Foster Care Agency in Brooklyn. Critchlow, who is originally from Barbados, was so moved after watching Harewood’s short film “Auntie,” she changed her master’s thesis in social work at Hunter College to focus on the impact of migration on Caribbean children. Critchlow also shared it with her co-workers, some of whom are of Caribbean descent andexperienced parental separation due to migration as children and now work to help other families.
Her 2014 research found that there is a high correlation between children separated from their parents due to migration and issues including low self-esteem, feelings of abandonment or rejection and “acting out” or violent behavior. Several other recent academic studies including ones conducted by the UNICEF Office for Barbados and Eastern Caribbean and The American Counseling Association had similar findings. Critchlow says that both “Auntie” and now the Barrel Stories Project have sparked a much-needed conversation on an issue that some are oblivious to because it is rarely discussed. “It’s an invisible group of people,” she said. In her efforts to bring more attention to this issue, Harewood says she plans to tour cities with large Caribbean populations in the U.S. and Canada. “We want to actually be able to present the project in person to people to assure them that the project is really for a good cause…that they can trust us,” Harewood said. After that, she says, she wants to develop a way for people to submit their own stories. “Obviously we can’t be everywhere, we can’t go everywhere,” Harewood said. “We want to get to a point where people can use their phones, people can be interviewed on Skype and then upload to the site.”
Harewood wants the Barrel Stories Project to not only be a tool through which people can share their stories, but also a resource to promote change. “The primary thing that I’m really aiming for is that it’s also a place for parents who have to make this difficult choice and leave their children behind to be able to get some sense of what’s the best way to do this to minimize emotional trauma,” she said. The filmmaker hopes the project will encourage parents to find ways to stay in touch with their children other than sending material goods and function as a space where adults who have never talked about this experience can share their stories. “It’s meant to be something that actually reaches out and touches you. I want this project to provide some answers for people.”
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