Building Community Around ‘Barrel Children’

Audience engagement at the Feb. 23 Beyond the Barrel event in Harlem (Photo by Dominic McKenzie)

What does it mean to build community around an issue? This is the question I asked myself over and over as I explored the long-term psychological impact of parental separation due to migration on “barrel children” and their families, both in the Caribbean region and in the United States.

When I started reporting on this issue in 2016, I hoped that the stories I wrote might actively engage people affected, and serve as a catalyst for further change in a community where discussion of mental health is often taboo.

Barrel children are the children left behind in the care of relatives or friends when parents migrate to other countries for work opportunities. They receive material goods via shipping barrels, as well as money, but they often lack emotional nurturance from their parents.

To me, as a Caribbean-American, the brown cardboard or blue plastic barrels have been a familiar sight. They’ve been a cost-effective way for so many families (including my own) to send things like food, clothing and other items to loved ones in the region to support the household. Once a barrel reaches its destination and the contents taken out, it is often repurposed as a storage unit, used to catch rainwater or halved and filled with soil and plantings for kitchen gardens. I always thought of the positive things that these barrels represented – love, care, support.

That changed in early 2016 when I attended a Caribbean Film Academy screening in Brooklyn of the short film “Auntie” by Barbadian filmmaker and Barrel Stories Project founder Lisa Harewood. Both the fictional film and the documentary project highlight some of the very real ways migration and separation impact Caribbean families.

After the screening I met Melissa Elias, originally from Trinidad and Tobago. She told me that her childhood separation from her mother still negatively affected her as well as their relationship 20 years later. I knew immediately that I needed to look into this further.

Looking at migration differently

Generally, migration from the Caribbean region is viewed through an economic development lens, since cash remittances from abroad are a valuable source of income for many households across the region.

What I reported on, instead, is the negative impact migration can have on families, particularly the well-being and mental health of children, who are often separated from their parents for five or more years.

After reporting on this issue in the Caribbean diaspora communities of New York City for Voices of NY, I received the support of the International Center For Journalists “Bringing Home The World International Reporting Fellowship,” the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism. This funding and training allowed me to expand my reporting in Caribbean diaspora communities and to the island of Jamaica, where this has been an important issue for many years, with mental health professionals conducting detailed research on its impact.

I interviewed more than 30 children, teachers, mental health professionals, parents and others in Jamaica, Miami and New York City – home to the largest Caribbean diaspora, and one of the largest Jamaican ones, in the United States – about the complexities of parental migration, the long-term psychological impact it can have and the difficulties parents and children face when reuniting after years of separation.

I felt it was important to focus on the perspective of children currently separated from parents who have migrated, as well as young adults who have reunited with their parents in the United States after many years.

People like Monique Campbell, who was 15 when she emigrated from St. Andrew, Jamaica, to join her mother in Brooklyn. She lived with her grandmother and aunt throughout childhood and says she doesn’t remember if her mother ever directly told her that she was leaving in order to earn a living here.

“I get why she had to do it. Because of her I’m sitting right here, because of her I went to college,” she said. “But I think that oftentimes we need to really take a step back and think about the impact,” she said. Campbell, now 27, says that experience is why she struggles to open up to people and show emotion or vulnerability. Almost 12 years after reuniting with her mother, she is still unsure about how to approach a conversation with her mother about the effects of their separation.

“I don’t know if I’d be able to do that tomorrow, or next month, or even within a year. I know for my well being and my mental health that I need to talk to her, but it’s kind of frustrating, because why do I have to be the one who – the one to kind of initiate that conversation,” she said.

What parents miss

Parents make the difficult decision to leave their children behind and migrate to another country out of love and the desire to provide more for their families. It is done with the best intentions, but there are consequences. They miss birthdays, major milestones, the everyday exchanges on which family bonds are built, the opportunity to comfort their children when they’ve had a bad day at school or to spur them on when they need encouragement. These are things that cannot be replaced by receiving money and goods every so often over a number of years.

“It’s different. You make all these long-distance phone calls and your kids can’t tell you exactly what they’re going through and you’re not able to touch them, put them into bed, and kiss their boo-boos. That kind of stuff…The bond wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there because I wasn’t,” said Janice Smith, who had to leave her children behind in St. Lucia when she migrated to New York City in 1989.

Mental health professionals say that the absence of parents can lead to things like low self-esteem, depression and feelings of abandonment among the children left behind. These feelings, in turn, may exacerbate behavioral problems and raise the risk of poor academic performance. Some children can be also vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse and are predisposed to risky behaviors, which can affect them for years to come. Even after parents and children are reunited, there can be difficulties in reconnecting and repairing bonds damaged by the separation.

Not all of these stories have unhappy endings, as many families have navigated the separation and maintained their bonds. In my reporting I did my best to show that there are a variety of experiences as well as ways to mitigate emotional impact with proper planning.

In response to what many people in the Caribbean region and throughout the diaspora expressed as an essential need for collaboration around this issue, I created and produced a special event, Beyond the Barrel: Sharing Our Stories of Migration and Separation. Held on Feb. 23, 2018 it offered about 75 attendees an interactive film screening and panel discussion on parental migration and its impact on Caribbean families.

Panelists at the Beyond the Barrel event Feb. 23 in Harlem. Left to right: Meschida Philip, Monique Campbell, Dr. Claudette Crawford- Brown, Melissa Noel and Andrea Crichlow. (Photo by Mikhael Simmonds)

I partnered with the Barrel Stories Project, and arts and culture organizations Museum Hue and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in Harlem to bring together parents and children once separated due to migration, social workers who counsel these families, as well as creatives and community members who use their platforms to advocate for expanded community programming and policy changes.

In the course of my reporting, several Caribbean social workers expressed to me the need for families, teachers, mental health professionals and organizations to get out of their silos and work together to bring about both cultural and community change. It was time for change, they said, because communities impacted by this issue wanted to move from conversation to strategic action.

A migration studies center in Jamaica?

For more than 30 years, Dr. Claudette Crawford Brown, the clinical sociologist who coined the term “barrel child,” has studied the phenomenon. Her work has been crucial in showing the long-term mental health impact this can have on children and raising awareness in communities across the Caribbean and countries around the world.

In Harlem, she spoke about her groundbreaking work at the Beyond the Barrel panel I organized. Dr. Brown noted that the story series I wrote helped reignite interest in creating a migration center with resources for families at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica. It’s something she has advocated for over many years.

The event attendees in New York found the experience so worthwhile that I am now working on making Beyond the Barrel an event series in several cities including Washington D.C., Atlanta and Toronto, which are home to large Caribbean diaspora communities.

I also had the opportunity to brief international policy makers and UN delegates negotiating the Global Compact for Migration, about the plight of “barrel children” in the Caribbean at the UN on World Day of Social Justice. Additionally, I have participated in several local and national panels about this topic, the reporting process and resulting collaborations.

For me as a reporter to see the impact of my series play out in such a way is so affirming. It is a reminder that tackling topics about issues that impact mental health are necessary, despite cultural attitudes which have made them taboo.

More than 30 people trusted me enough to share their very delicate, emotional and difficult stories and I am immensely grateful to them all. They all were willing to share their pain, hardship, triumphs and everything in between because they felt it could be of help to someone else. That is so powerful.

I’m grateful for the support this reporting received. I’m hopeful that it’s but the start of seeing greater visibility of social issues in the Caribbean and its diaspora in U.S. media outlets.

Melissa Noel is a TV correspondent for news and lifestyle programs in the Caribbean. She has written for NBCNews.com, Ebony, and other outlets. Her first story about barrel children ran in Voices of NY. 

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