I was sitting in the monthly meeting of a Jamaican based organization in the U.S.A. when the attendees were challenged by one of the officers sharing a story that “touched her heart.”  She had read an article stating that the rate of suicide amongst the “barrel kids” (children whose parents are overseas but receive the regular barrel filled with clothes, shoes, food, etc.)  is greater than those whose parents are with them; and compared to the other Caribbean nations, Jamaica’s children fared worse. 
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Barrel Kids?

I was sitting in the monthly meeting of a Jamaican based organization in the U.S.A. when the attendees were challenged by one of the officers sharing a story that “touched her heart.”  She had read an article stating that the rate of suicide amongst the “barrel kids” (children whose parents are overseas but receive the regular barrel filled with clothes, shoes, food, etc.)  is greater than those whose parents are with them; and compared to the other Caribbean nations, Jamaica’s children fared worse.  The officer felt we needed to do something to help; and for a while, we discussed what we could do to discourage parents from leaving their children to come to the U.S.A., the “promise land.”  Another tale was told of a mother who left her children, which included a toddler at that time, to come to the U.S.A, and he was killed at age 16.  She had not gone home in between the time when she left him and the time he died, and could not go home for his funeral because she did not have her “papers.”  Talk about a getting caught between “a rock and a hard place” – a place most expatriate dread finding themselves.  The sad reality, however, is that some do.  In all of this tale telling, the crux of the matter is, “what about the children.”  Is the “running off” to foreign lands to gain material “fluff and stuff” (that in the American economic structure is unstable  and can be lost overnight) worth the price of having healthy, functional, emotionally stable children? 

As much as we brainstormed, we realized that this is a sensitive issue and would be a “catch 22” situation for some; for we realize that each situation is unique and that parents have to individually confront that issue and come to their own conclusions and peace with their consciences.  We wondered should we run interference by dissuading a friend or family member from pursuing what he or she perceives to be “the American dream”; if so, how do we do it?  For which of us want a tongue lashing when we try to discourage family or friends not to come to “foreign” by letting them know that the reality of attaining that dream is harsher than the dream of it.  The harshness of this reality is greatly multiplied when a person does not have their “papers.”   We tentatively concluded that, for one, those of us in America (or any other first world foreign nations we find we must run off to achieve success) need to educate our compatriots back home about the reality of America by being truthful about the real life in America.  You may ask, how so?  For one, we can be truthful that it’s hard – life in America is not a bed of roses and the streets are not paved with gold waiting to be picked up; that to attain the nice cars, houses, clothes and “fluff”, most of us work more than one jobs, basically becoming a slave to the American system of gaining and achieving.  We have to stop deceiving our friends and relatives back home, especially when we go home for that Christmas or summer holiday that we are people of wealth when in truth when we return after our visits, we are up to our ears in debt (money we borrowed from credit card companies) and have to work from sun up to sun down to pay off the bills we incurred to buy the stuff to “show off on” our friends and relatives back home.  That most of us are stressed, and at times oppressed, because of the burden of our debts.  Many of us become disillusioned by the reality of America, and some even come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it.   Some of us try to figure out why it never seemed so hard in Jamaica, even though we thought we were coming to a better life (what’s the definition of better anyways).  Another reality of the American dream is that sometimes the road to the dream is lonely, and the support systems of family, friends and neighbour to “bail you out” whether financially, emotionally or socially are not there.   You can’t say “lend me a smalls ‘til pay day,” for we all have bills and debts to pay off.   In this country you can live amongst your neighbour for years and don’t get past the polite “good morning” and “good evening” stage (now you understand why the tourists keep saying Jamaicans are friendly and warm).  If you are not in a pre-dominantly West Indian/Caribbean/Black community, you find you come up against – well… prejudices as you are judged for the color of your skin or even your accent (can you imagine that?).  We need to tell them, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so they know what they are likely to encounter if they want to “run off”; and not have them hankering after a life of half truths. 

In telling the truth, we hope to reach some who are in the “valley of decision” of whether or not they should leave their children and come to America.  We need to educate them that they may be sacrificing their children’s future for something that is not worthy of their overall wellbeing, especially if they don’t have their papers.  And if you are not convinced and think you can handle the above, here’s more.  Since 9/11, there have been crackdowns on and tightening of immigration policies.  Laws are being tabled in the government that makes it harder for a non-immigrant to “run off” and survive.  There is a sinister undercurrent of blaming the immigrants (moreso the undocumented ones) for the ills of society.  In the state I’m living in, you can’t get a driver’s license, health care or help from society if you don’t have your “papers.”  I have received e-mails asking me to add my name to petitions that would limit social resources to undocumented immigrants.  I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it.  To open a bank account you have to provide proof of legal status under the Patriot Act (courtesy of 9/11 again).   Also, if you find you can get your children in school here, the options for them to achieve beyond high school is limited because they need their  “papers” to go on to college or get a decent paying job and many are in a state of limbo regarding their future beyond high school.     Marrying for immigration papers, a much sought after option, is not as easy as it was, as the government put conditions on that; and you have to prove that you have a legitimate marriage, if they find out that’s the reason, you are deported;  and more often than not, they treat immigrant visa petitions through marriage with suspicion.  I know that’s a fact, for I worked for two years in an immigration law office.  Plus you may suffer many indignities of “contracting” with someone who is manipulative, who want to control your life by that issue, and you become a slave to their whims and fancies.  This is just a tip of the reality; and for each scenario, I know of people who went through or are going through those issues.  

We are cognizant of the fact that some do make it, and make it well - but through blood, sweat and tears. We are also cognizant of the fact that not everyone will take heed to counsel, as some people can only learn through the “school of hard knocks,”  so we may not change everybody’s mind; but we hope that the ones we do influence may be the ones whose children will be the future leaders of Jamaica and for them to become those leaders they will need their parent’s love and support by their active day to day presence in their lives. 

In concluding, I go back to the mom referred to above, can we blame her for leaving her son as a toddler, when the very reason she left was for the welfare of her children?  The reason was noble, and who knows what circumstance(s) drove her to make that decision in the first place, so I would caution you regarding your judgment of her.  But in the end one can’t help but wonder, that after 13 years and not getting your papers, was it worth it?  If you find her or those like her, keep that question to yourself and reach out to her in compassion, as I know she must have heaped condemnation on her own head and that period must have been a tormented, hellish experience for her.  The future of any nation depends on the stability and wholeness of its present youth population, before you “run off,” stop and consider – if I do this, what will become of my children?  What will it cost their destiny?

About the author

Karen McFarlane