The 'Barrel Children'

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. Parents usually keep them fed and clothed by sending barrels and cash a few times a year. Wealthier parents sometimes give their kids portable telephones so they can do what's known as ""mothering by cellular.'' The kids, who often grow obsessed with status, want Nike Air shoes, which cost half the average monthly salary in Jamaica. Joseph, 15, is not satisfied with his Filas. ""Fila is OK,'' he says, ""but my mother is in the States. I should have more than this.''

Still, these kids suffer. Separated from their mothers and often from their siblings, they feel rejected and, eventually, resentful. Few are literally abandoned. But they are often passed from aunt to cousin to second uncle once removed, sometimes ending up on their own or with virtual strangers whose main interest is the money their parents send back. Girls, in particular, are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by stepfathers and guardians. Recently a boy left in charge of his siblings got his younger sister pregnant. An 11-year-old girl who lost a pair of eyeglasses so feared being beaten by her uncle that she hanged herself from a tree. One barrel child named Anika doesn't see the point of her mother's seven-year absence: with the crackdown on illegal immigrants in the United States, her mother can't seem to find a job, and Anika is left with her aunt, who she says beats her regularly. She once tried to have her mother persuade her aunt to stop hitting her, but the abuse only got worse. ""I haven't tried since,'' she says. ""What's the sense? She's not here.''

The barrel kids are not completely here, either. They live in waiting -- for their parents to get green cards and the greenbacks to summon them. For many, it will never happen. But dreams die hard. Even when the barrels stop coming, even when their mothers complain of American racism or unemployment, the children cling to their vision. Take Alicia, 15, whose mother left her two years ago with a great-uncle who pocketed her support money. Alicia was forced to sleep on the concrete floor without a blanket and to buy her own soap and food. Two weeks ago she moved in with an old family friend. She hasn't told her mother yet; her mother won't accept her collect calls anymore. Alicia worries that she has started a new family. ""If my mother were here,'' she says, blinking back tears, ""I would tell her that she made me go through hell.'' Then, at the mention of the United States, she stares off into space. ""I'm always dreaming,'' she says. ""I imagine that I'm up there in college, finally seeing my mother, living as a happy family again.'' Sadly, for Alicia and the other barrel kids, the families may have been changed forever.