Magazine article Newsweek

The 'Barrel children.'(Jamaican Children Left Behind by Mothers in the US)

Magazine article Newsweek

The 'Barrel children.'(Jamaican Children Left Behind by Mothers in the US)

Article excerpt

THE CARDBOARD BARREL HAS BEEN sitting empty in Marsha Flowers's backyard for more than a month now, but the Jamaican teenager hangs onto it as though it were a sacred totem. And in a way, it is. Five years after her mother immigrated to the United States, leaving Marsha and two sisters to fend for themselves in a Kingston slum, the barrel is one of the few tangible signs of her mother's love--and of her own frustrated desires. The barrel arrived from New York before Christmas, filled with food, photographs, clothes and the tantalizing prospect of escape. Marsha, now 15, with ebony skin and a brilliant smile, is so fixated on "going foreign" that she has disengaged from nearly every aspect of daily life--except for the twice-annual barrels and their cargo of dreams. "MY mother keeps promising me that I will soon be joining her," Marsha says, as much to herself as to anybody else.

Marsha is lonely, but far from alone. So many Caribbean children are being left behind by emigrating parents -- tens of thousands in Jamaica alone -- that they have acquired their own name: "barrel children." This phenomenon can be found in almost any country with heavy emigration, from Mexico to China. But it is especially acute in the caribbean. Nearly 30 percent of all Jamaicans now live in the United States, and the newest arrivals are often women trying to provide for their children. But as months turn into years, and as dreams of riches and reunions fade, reality is sinking in: this new wave of emigration has wreaked havoc on a generation of Jamaican children. "It's not that Caribbean mothers are wicked and cruel," says Claudette Crawford-Brown, a sociologist at the University of the West Indies. "They are simply forced to make a choice between satisfying their children's material needs or their emotional needs."

The barrel children, many of them unsupervised at home, are victims of circumstance, but not all of them remain so innocent. "Children with such freedom at home have a hard time going to school and accepting its rules," says Pauletta Chevannes, the principal of a high school in the gang-ridden Jonestown area. She estimates that two thirds of her students have at least one parent living abroad. And some barrel kids don't stay in school at all. A recent study by Crawford-brown found that 60 percent of delinquent teenagers at two correctional institutions had mothers who had migrated. "These kids are starved for affection and attention," says Richard Troup, director of the Hope for Children Foundation. "That's why gangs are such a big attraction."

Unlike the street urchins who roam many Third World cities, barrel children are virtually invisible to the broader society. They often stay with relatives or friends. …

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