At a glance: Haiti

Schools reopen in Bel Air, bringing hope and stability to Haitian children scarred by violence

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2006
At Ecole Milou, a school in the rundown Bel Air suburb of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, children make use of the new supplies that UNICEF has been distributing to all of the neighbourhood’s 80 schools.

By Sylvana Nzirorera

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 31 March 2006 – Sitting in rows of four on benches newly provided by UNICEF, young girls and boys fill classrooms in the schools of Port-au-Prince’s rundown suburb of Bel Air. And you can read the joy and excitement on their faces.
 
At Ecole Nationale Isidore Boisrond, for example, girls in blue uniforms are once again enjoying their time to learn, play, chat and giggle. “I feel really happy to be at school and not to hear any gunfire around,” said Madiana, 15. 

“Last year, I missed my exams and I had to stay in the same grade for another year,” she continued with a grim expression. “Nobody would dare walk to school. It was very dangerous. In a family that I know, gunmen broke into the house. They killed the father, they killed the mother, they killed three children and set the house on fire. I saw that.”

Vivid memories of violence

In the last two years, the kind of violence Madiana described has risen significantly in Bel Air, one of the most impoverished areas here in Haiti’s capital. Kidnappings and killings have created panic among the local population. Children here have been kidnapped on their way to school. Houses and schools have been burned down. Women have seen their street business taken away by mobs, gunmen and general social unrest. Many families have moved to other areas or to the countryside to get away from armed gangs.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2006
One of UNICEF’s top priorities in Haiti is getting children, especially girls, back to school in communities afflicted by poverty and violence.

Students and teachers vividly remember what they have endured. “In April 2005, students were busy in classes when shooting broke out in this neighbourhood, getting closer and closer to this school, and all of a sudden bullets started pouring inside the compound,” recalled the Director of  Ecole Nationale Isidore Boisrond, Bernadette Jean Joseph. As she spoke, she pointed to a bullet hole in one of the school’s walls just above a doorway.

“We were having a grammar class when the shootings started,” said Carmen, 11. “We all laid down under the benches. I was shaking, but I couldn’t cry. Tears were running down my friend’s cheeks, making a puddle on the ground next to my face.”

Added Ms. Jean Joseph: “I felt so helpless that day, because I had not only my own life at stake but also that of 200 children.”

Elections bring hope for stability

Violence and insecurity are still rife in Bel Air, and not all children have gone back to school, noted Sister Erna, the principal of the Soeur Marie-Christine primary school. “I used to have 500 to 600 school children,” she said. “Today, the attendance is 275 children.” Finding the money to pay teachers’ salaries is another concern for Sister Erna.

Getting children back to school is one of UNICEF’s top priorities in Haiti, and the organization has been distributing school supplies to all of Bel Air’s 80 schools. The much-needed materials will help the schools provide children and families with a sense of normalcy. UNICEF has also been focusing its efforts here on immunization and other aid to vulnerable children living under the most difficult conditions.

“For years, Bel Air’s children, like in many other parts of Haiti – especially in the metropolitan areas such as Cité Soleil, Martissant and others – have been deprived of their rights to education,” said UNICEF Haiti Representative Adriano Gonzalez-Regueral. “It’s about time these children enjoyed their rights to security, education and health.”
 
Results of the recent presidential elections in Haiti have brought some prospects for stability after years of violence and uncertainty. “The current political process represents hope for parents and children,” said Mr. Gonzalez-Regueral. “The President-elect has renewed his commitment to children, stressing that all children should be in school.”


 

 

Video

31 March 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on the reopening of schools in Port-au-Prince’s rundown suburb of Bel Air.

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