Caribbean Matters: Immigration has an impact on those left behind. Meet the ‘barrel children’

Caribbean Matters: Immigration has an impact on those left behind. Meet the ‘barrel children’

People of the Caribbean diaspora, whether in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, or even further afield, have a long history of outmigration—when people leave one place, permanently, to live in another—for primarily economic reasons. Though the month of June is celebrated as Caribbean-American Heritage Month in the United States, it is important that we also consider the negative impact of immigration on the families and communities left behind in home countries.

In this series, we have covered the Windrush scandal in the U.K., and explored Haitian history. However a new documentary produced by Nadine White, journalist and race correspondent for The Independent, explores what happens to the children of immigrants who are left behind. Often dubbed “barrel children,” this moniker conjures images of the large shipping barrels immigrants send home, packed with remittance items. 

RELATED: ‘If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas’: MP blasts Brit Home Secretary over ‘Windrush Generation’

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

White’s documentary, which runs just 19 minutes, can be viewed in its entirety over at The Independent. 

The Windrush generation saw people answer the call of ‘the mother country’ to help rebuild Britain in the 1940s and 1950s.

The story of Windrush has come into painfully sharp focus but what is less well-known is the story of the children of Windrush; those whose parents left for Britain and who they only knew of through the ‘barrel’ care packages sent back to the Caribbean.

This is their story, told to Nadine White, of growing up away from their parents before being ‘sent for’ and finding themselves in a world that made little sense to them.

White shared a one-minute trailer this week. 

NEW: The #Windrush generation saw people come from Caribbean to Britain but what is less well-known is the story of the children left behind. Watch my self-produced short documentary on ‘Barrel Children’ now via @Independent. A labour of love. 🎬: https://t.co/03YiczHrDm pic.twitter.com/PwRvrbX6r1

— Nadine White (@Nadine_Writes) June 26, 2022

And here, the full-length (three-minute) trailer:

White is not the first journalist to have covered the issue. NBC profiled the so-called “barrel children” back in 2017, including an interview with Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown, senior lecturer in Clinical Social Work at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and the director of the Institute for Caribbean Children and Families.

Dr. Crawford-Brown has also helped to create change in her society and to make the lives of children better through her work on migration and the barrel-child, play therapy, and violence-prevention. She coined the term barrel-children and defines it as “children who are left behind in the migration process. These children receive material goods in the form of clothing and food etc. in barrels for their sustenance and as compensation for their parents’ absence but they lack the emotional nurturance they need”.

Before Dr. Crawford-Brown coined this term the word ‘barrel-pickney’ was used as a curse word to ridicule children who faced this plight. Through her research and advocacy she has sought to help people understand that the children are not to be blamed for their circumstances, and to help parents understand the detrimental effects of the lack of emotional nurturance on children. Her work in this area has had a global impact. Research on barrel-children is being conducted internationally, and in 2017 NBCBLK did a documentary on this issue and featured Dr. Crawford-Brown’s work.

Here’s the four-minute segment from NBC:

The short film Auntie, from Black independent filmmaker Lisa Harewood, was produced in 2013, exploring the relationship between a woman in Barbados who is caring for and raising her niece, whose mother left her behind to go to England.

At just 15 minutes long, it’s worth your time.

Film curator Tracey Francis profiled the film for Women in Film SE15 in 2016, and provided this synopsis:

The teenager Kera has been in Auntie’s life a long time and they have a strong bond. The film starts with Auntie and Kera on the beach and she points across the ocean and says, ‘Look can you see England, can you see your mummy?’ Mummy and England are just subjective concepts for Kera. However, the barrel arrives with goodies but this time there is also a one-way ticket to London for Kera. In the moment of discovery Auntie hides the ticket until she can actually think what to do in this stalemate situation.

[…]

Lisa chooses a simplistic style of filming to emphasise the basic family life the Kera’s mum has left behind, but the viewer can feel it is rich in love and familiarity of space and culture. The abandoned and up-cycled barrels in the background are obvious metaphors of abandonment and a reference to silent histories, but they merge into the background of daily life.

Francis also linked to Harewood’s Barrel Stories website, where you can listen to interviews with women and men telling their experiences, whether as a “Barrel Child,” the caregivers left to raise them, or the parents who chased the better life. Harewood launched the site in 2016, due to overwhelming response to Auntie. The site offers this concise explanation of the “Barrel Children” phenomenon:

The Caribbean’s migrant parents work hard to establish new and stable lives primarily in the US, UK and Canada, in the hopes of bringing their children to join them at a later date. Due to the uncertainty of immigration regimes and employment opportunities, these periods of separation can last for years and, in worst-case scenarios, for decades.

During the time apart families try to stay connected through phone calls as well as the shipping of barrels filled with goodies, clothes and household items back to the Caribbean as a form of support and a token of affection. Children parented in this way are referred to as “barrel children”.

Once these barrels reach their destination in the Caribbean they are emptied, kept and repurposed. They remain dotted around the landscape – in back yards, in the spaces between houses and in the corners of rooms. Once a source of excitement and abundance, they become a persistent and haunting reminder of everyone who has left.

In 2018, journalist Melissa Noel shared what she learned from her own efforts to tell the stories of barrel children for the Center for Health Journalism.

As a Caribbean-American, the brown cardboard or blue plastic barrels have always been a familiar sight. It’s a typical and 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.

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 turned into kitchen gardens. I always thought of the positive things these barrels represented — love, care, support.

That changed in early 2016 when I attended a Caribbean Film Academy screening of the short film “Auntie” in Brooklyn. The fictional film presented some of the very real ways migration affects the lives of those left behind.

[…]

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.

Noel’s work has continued, with support from the Pulitzer Center.

Pulitzer Center grantee Melissa Noel (@NoelKnowsWell) travels throughout the Caribbean region, reporting on stories from culture to mental health. Her Pulitzer Center project focused on the impact of parental migration on Caribbean children, called “barrel children.” pic.twitter.com/gxvKgyxuks

— Pulitzer Center (@pulitzercenter) October 19, 2019

I want to thank Nadine White for her film, which inspired this edition of Caribbean Matters. I’m glad that I saw her tweets and watched the documentary in its entirety. To be honest, despite all the writing I’ve done about Windrush, the struggle of the “Barrel Children” wasn’t an issue I had thought about, even though I’ve paid attention to the plight of Caribbean immigrants both here and abroad. 

Join me in the comments to discuss this story and share your insights and experiences, and to catch up on the latest Caribbean news.

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