Children gather at L'Institution Sacre Cœur for the start of lessons, as schools in Port-au-Prince begin to reopen three months after the earthquake that shattered much of Haiti.
By Edward Carwardine
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 8 April 2010 – From the hillsides around Port-au-Prince one can just see the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, tranquil in the bright sunlight. The ascending streets are bustling, energized by the frenetic traffic, the shouts of street vendors, and the masses of people going somewhere or coming from somewhere. It could be a normal day in this city of some 2 million.
When one turns away from the coastline towards the ranks of buildings that hug the hillside, a different scene awaits. Lumps of concrete hang perilously from the skeletons of buildings, attached only by iron cords that sway in the breeze. Fragments of furniture litter the courtyards and gardens, mixed with rock and rubble.
In places, the remnants of a car can be seen, half-buried under cement slabs. Perched between these mounds of destruction, or on the pavements outside, are small plastic shelters.
A sense of loss on every corner Three months after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti, the physical and human loss is still apparent. I have worked in the aftermath of earthquakes in a number of countries – but what I see today in this quarter of Port-au-Prince is incomparable, shocking, humbling.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, fearful of returning to their houses even if they are still standing.
The rows of tents and shelters filling the few open spaces available underline the scale of displacement. Children have lost their schools, their teachers, their friends, their possessions and their pets. The quake did not discriminate between the affluent and the poor, the literate and the uneducated.
UNICEF faces mammoth tasks: supporting the provision of safe water and adequate sanitation, safeguarding the health and nutrition of affected children, and protecting those who have lost parents or are at increased risk of harm. Against this backdrop, one important step is being taken – a step that may give some degree of hope to more than a million children touched by this disaster. This week, many schools around Port-au-Prince are beginning to reopen their doors.
Rebuilding education About 50 per cent of school-age Haitian children did not attend school prior to the earthquake. But many children here – even those who had not attended school before – are saying that they want nothing more than to receive an education so that they can help to fix their country.
Indeed, for the generation of children who will mark time by this natural disaster, it is important that they remember the post-quake era as one not just of recovery, but of development.
Children walk from a UNICEF-supplied school tent at L'Institution Sacre Cœur in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
Beginning the process of returning children to schools has required weeks of effort, involving the Haitian Ministry of Education, UNICEF, non-governmental organizations such as Save the Children, and local school directors, teachers and parents.
In the face of huge logistical challenges, nearly 3,000 school tents have been made available to provide interim classrooms. At the same time, school supplies have been delivered to learning spaces in camps and former schools ready to begin classes again. Teachers have received rapid orientation on a new curriculum to help children back into the learning process. Teams of unemployed Haitians have been recruited to clear rubble for tents to be erected.
Haitians helping Haitians At the Institution Sacre Cœur, one of the schools destroyed up here on the hillside, an estimated 1,500 students are coming back to classes along with 300 children from other schools in the area that cannot be brought back into use.
Sacre Cœur is normally a fee-paying school. For these new students, however, fees will be waived. Parents have contributed towards the costs of wooden classrooms, which will supplement the tents provided by UNICEF. Water and sanitation facilities are being established, in a partnership between UNICEF and the non-governmental Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development.
The school, its building razed during the earthquake, stands today as a symbol of Haitians helping Haitians, and the international community collaborating with the Haitian people, for the betterment of the nation’s children.
A symbol of hope Above all, the opening of the school is a symbol of hope – a reassurance to those children who have lost so much that efforts are being made to restart the path to some normality, some degree of confidence and security, despite all that has passed.
At Sacre Cœur, 12-year-old Gaille is clear about why coming back to school is important to her. “I can play, talk to my friends and tell them about my little problems,” she says. And she has a message for others affected by the disaster: “To all the other children, especially the ones whose parents died in the earthquake, I'd like to say 'Don't worry too much about the future.' Try to play a little and to feel at ease."
UNICEF Acting Representative in Haiti Françoise Gruloos shows students some of the UNICEF-provided school materials L'Institution Sacre Cœur, which reopened for lessons on 6 April in Port-au-Prince.
Two streets away, L’Ecole Saint François d’Assise is hoping to open its smashed doors again in a few days. Here, the head teacher is working out how to get the sanitation truck into the courtyard that will now house school tents without losing a tall, graceful tree, covered in spring blossoms, that stands in the yard amidst smashed rubble and twisted metal.
UNICEF’s water engineer puts her at ease. Removing part of an already damaged wall will provide the space for the truck to enter, and empty the portable toilets now on site. The tree will survive.
‘Let us not lose any more’ The head teacher smiles a little. “Well, we lost everything else,” she says. “Let us not lose any more.”
Across the street, a former secondary school now stands in ruins. Half the building has fallen into the play area; bricks, desks, chairs are strewn across the ground in a pile several metres high, serving as a reminder of what was once a place of learning. Nobody has come yet to look under the rubble. One can only imagine what they may find buried below.
But for the children at Sacre Cœur, and at Saint François d’Assise, those painful memories will slowly diminish as they come back to school, back to play, back to learn, back to their friends – and, together, look forward once more. It is a first step, but perhaps one of the most important that Port au Prince has seen in months.