By Tamar Hahn
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 16 July 2010 – For the people of Port-au-Prince, the last six months have been fraught with difficulties in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake that left their lives in shambles. But while the images out of Haiti still show displacement and poverty, they were replaced yesterday – at least for a few hours – by a sense of uncontainable excitement, as Haitians poured into the streets to greet UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lionel ‘Leo’ Messi.
|VIDEO: 15 July 2010 - UNICEF correspondent Patrick Flynn reports on Goodwill Ambassador Lionel Messi's visit to children in Haiti.|
The world-renowned FC Barcelona and Argentina national football team player made a quick visit here, eager to experience firsthand what he had only witnessed through media coverage until now.
“It was overwhelming to see the overcrowded displacement camps, the poverty in which people here live,” Mr. Messi said after a visit to Carrefour Aviation, a camp where 50,000 displaced Haitians live in tents.
Survivors share their experiences
The crowds’ enthusiasm was such that Mr. Messi could barely make his way into the area. Hundreds had gathered, wearing Argentina t-shirts, waving Argentinean flags, screaming his name and desperately trying to touch their hero.
|In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lionel ‘Leo’ Messi stands with Rikelme Marseil, 12, who was hit by a stray bullet two weeks after the earthquake, near his home in Cité Soleil, and is still convalescing.|
From the camp, Mr. Messi went to a field hospital managed by the Argentinean contingent of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti. Besides signing countless autographs, he spoke to doctors and nurses about their experiences assisting survivors in the days following the earthquake.
Later, at UNICEF’s office in Port-au-Prince, Mr. Messi met a group of children who participate in sports activities organized by the Haitian Olympic Committee and supported by UNICEF. They told him about their ordeals during and after the earthquake, and he sat with them on the floor as they talked, holding their hands and joking with them despite the language barrier.
“I believe that sports are really important for children,” said Mr. Messi. “I learned my most important lessons in life through sport. It is where I had my opportunity, and I wish the same for them.”
‘An inspiration to so many’
The reality for most of these children is grim, however. They live in an overcrowded camp and have lost their homes and schools, as well as many of their relatives and friends.
|UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lionel ‘Leo’ Messi visits with young people in Haiti to help draw attention to the situation of children six months after the 12 January earthquake there.|
Temporary schools assisted by UNICEF are slowly restoring structure and stability for quake-affected children and providing them with and psycho-social support. But these efforts represent only the most urgent measures needed to ensure continuity of education amidst the emergency. The real challenge is expanding access to learning opportunities for all children, across the nation.
Only about half of school-aged children went to school in Haiti even before the earthquake – meaning that a large-scale, nationwide movement for learning is required to inspire and mobilize change.
“We are immensely pleased to have Leo with us today,” said UNICEF Representative in Haiti Françoise Gruloos-Ackermans during Mr. Messi’s visit. “We are in awe of the response we have seen from people everywhere, and we think that his presence gives a sense of joy to Haitians today, which they have not had in quite some time. And that is incredibly powerful. Leo is an inspiration to so many children through his talent, his discipline and his humanity.”
Earthquake in Haiti