Barrel Stories oral history project captures the Caribbean migration experience
Still from the short film, “Auntie,” by Lisa Harewood.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets at @celestehdennis.
An empty barrel is many different things for someone living in the Caribbean. It might capture rainwater in the backyard, be cut in half to make a kitchen garden, used as a chest of drawers, and more.
The story of how it arrived at the person’s house, however, is the same.
The tan paper or blue plastic barrel is sent home from a family member who migrated overseas. The items in the barrel—everything from canned food to clothing to sweet treats—are a source of financial support, as well an attempt at an emotional connection.
“[The sender] is trying to communicate and express something. But it’s always going to fall short,” said Barrel Stories founder Lisa Harewood in an interview with ivoh. “And in keeping the barrel, you’re constantly reminding yourself of the person who’s missing. The barrel can be a really complicated, conflicting thing for people.”
Modeled off NPR’s StoryCorps, Barrel Stories is an oral history project that captures the complex experiences of those who leave and those who are left behind—specifically “barrel children,” a term coined by Jamaican sociologist Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown in the 90s.
“It’s can sometimes feel like it’s a normal part of Caribbean family life to say someone’s parent lives overseas,” UK-based Harewood said. “But what does that mean for the family? What does mean for the child? What does that mean for the parent?”
Harewood, filmmaker and founder of Gate House Media, takes her audio recorder around the Caribbean and its diaspora and talks to former barrel children in an attempt to find out. So far there’s a handful of stories up on the site, with many more she’s in the process of editing. Oscillating between heartbreak and hope, the stories run the gamut of experiences.
There’s Trinidad-born Tonni, who was was split between her mother and aunt in Trinidad and Canada while growing up, the arrangement loving and seamless. Samantha was born in London but was sent to Guyana to be with her aunties as a baby, and still grapples with a strained relationship with her mother to this day. C.H. stayed behind with various relatives in Barbados and was often neglected, sometimes left hungry, but now works with foster youth.
While some participants use their real name, many choose to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms. Caribbean migration is a sensitive topic — one barrel children don’t tend to talk about much in fear of being seen as ungrateful. A parent acquiring a visa in the hopes of making a better life for the family is regarded a privilege, after all.
“We don’t look at it in terms of being psychologically traumatic. As long as the children are being cared for and your parent is able to send you money and goods, you’re not seen as being at risk in anyway,” Harewood said. “You’re considered lucky.”
But as Harewood has learned, the feelings are complicated. The project began from outreach around Harewood’s first short film, “Auntie,” about a caregiver grappling with her child’s inevitable reunion with her birth mother. After screenings people would share their own story of being a barrel child, a term they’d usually never heard of but one they’d identified with immediately. Harewood knew she had to do more to capture these multiple narratives of the migration experience.
“I really didn’t want that one fictional film to be seen as some sort of truth. It’s just one story and each person’s story is very specific,” Harewood said. “The film also doesn’t tell the story of the reunion with the parent and the aftermath of all that, the adjustment to a new country and life. ”
Harewood herself is not a barrel child, but grew up shuffling between family households in Barbados when she was younger. She wanted to facilitate Barrel Stories precisely because it wasn’t her story, but one that continues to be commonplace.
“Unfortunately the Caribbean is a place that’s chronically, perpetually challenged in its development,” she said. “If you’re a parent leaving your child behind, you’re often doing it because you want your child to have a chance at a better life.”
While countries like Jamaica have identified barrel children as a social problem, it’s hard to pin down exact statistics elsewhere and study its effects. Mainly because people are afraid of putting their immigration status at risk, or have the state intervene in their caregiver arrangement. Globally, however, there are an increasing number of female migrants. What Harewood can infer is that more mothers are leaving.
Barrel Stories has scant voices of the parents themselves, which Harewood would like to change. Of the few stories that feature a parent, however, a conversation between a mother and son has stuck with her. The mother recounts her harrowing experiences abroad after migrating, including being in an abusive relationship, working 130 hours per week, and saving up money for her children’s plane tickets only to find it was a fraudulent scheme.
“She’s an incredibly strong woman and afterwards her son and I had a conversation about this kind of toughness. I think we’re a little too bought into this image of Caribbean people as some of the most resilient and resourceful people in the world. We’re not showing our vulnerabilities,” she said. “I want to show that while we’re incredibly resilient, there is a price we pay. It takes a toll.”
Even the process of recording these stories for Harewood has been much more emotionally difficult than she anticipated. After a while, watching people break down in their houses and hearing the sadness in their voices through her headphones started to take a toll on her.
“You can’t help but feel a duty of care to people beyond taking their story,” she said. “What I can offer them is an outlet and hope that it is a start of some kind of healing. And there are also the stories that lift your spirits because they show arrangements that work where children feel loved and cared for.”
Harewood posts resources on the site — academic papers, books, art, films, etc. — for barrel children to access. Although most participants express relief after they’ve shared their story, she doesn’t generally hear from them again. A few have used their recorded story as a tool to have a conversation about the past with their families. Ultimately, Harewood wants Barrel Stories to encourage more people to speak honestly about what happened.
“I want people to feel like they have permission to say it wasn’t all great. Some of it was actually really hard,” she said. “And hopefully it encourages a parent to sit down with their child and explain what they went through or why they made the choices that they did. Quite often those choices were really limited.”
As for the future of Barrel Stories, Harewood hopes to create an interactive site where people can upload stories themselves. Further down the road, she’d love to see offshoots of the project in other regions — the Philippines and Nigeria, for example — where migration is equally as common.
For Harewood, who believes the barrel is going to be around forever, there’s never been a better moment for the project.
“It’s an issue whose time has come and I’m fortunate to have offered a tool to help people make their voices heard,” she said. “I think Barrel Stories has it’s own momentum that’s driving it. The stories need to be told.”
Related: 2016 ivoh fellow Heidi Shin explores the reality of being an asylum seeker in the U.S. | Documented cIRCA ‘86: looking to the past to impact future immigration reform | Turkish day laborer in Berlin challenges stereotypes | A conversation with Rupa Shenoy, creator of the ‘Otherhood’ podcast