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Haiti’s flood-damaged schools struggle to reopen

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-0741/LeMoyne
A girl uses a bucket to clear mud and water from her house, dumping it into the street in the older part of the flood-damaged city of Gonaïves, Haiti.

GONAIVES, Haiti, 3 October 2008 – Venette and her sister arrived at their school around mid-morning. They were handed a shovel. Then they joined a crew of mud-splattered men and waded into what used to be their cafeteria.

Venette, 21, is in her final year of secondary school – or would be, normally. But things are far from normal in this city, where four successive storms inundated the low-lying areas and covered its homes, streets and population in mud.

The devastation was so thorough and widespread that the start of school was delayed by a month throughout the country. And yet, education can act as a stabilizing force for communities both during and after a crisis, and helps to rebuild countries after emergencies.

Now, with a new national deadline of 6 October fast approaching, it is still unclear how many students in Gonaïves will be returning to school.

“We have about 200 schools to clean, about 100 to rehabilitate and over 20 to rebuild entirely,” said Arnold Christian, Departmental Director at the Ministry of Education. “We are starting all over again.”

‘When can school start?’

There are schools that were spared the mudflow, but they are now full of displaced people. An estimated 65,000 people are still using public buildings as shelter. City authorities are working on alternatives to relocate the displaced, but after three weeks of human habitation in close quarters with minimal facilities, these schoolrooms need more than a move-out date to be fit for incoming students.

“I look at all this dirt and trash and I wonder when can school start?” said Sanon Verlaine, 18, as he gazed at his transformed schoolyard, now littered with debris and trash.

Each of the classrooms in Sanon’s school housed about 60 people, and the outdoor walkways were covered in drying laundry, cook pots, and clambering children. Four women have given birth in the school in the past three weeks. An elderly woman climbed up on the desks to demonstrate how she had been sleeping since her house was destroyed.

© UNICEF video
Students take part in cleaning mud out of the first floor of the Ferdinand Hibbert Secondary school in Gonaïves, ahead of a national back-to-school date of 6 October.

Dilemma of priorities

UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education to determine which schools can be reopened soon and which will have to be opened in temporary settings.

“While many of the schools in the capital and in unaffected rural districts are well positioned to start next week, the situation in Gonaïves is complicated due to the fact that some schools are still used as shelters for the displaced populations,” said UNICEF Haiti Education Officer Beatrice Malebranche. She added that that school-cleaning activities and rehabilitation in Gonaïves will take several weeks to be completed.

“Parents who have lost all their belongings and resources are faced with serious challenges to send their children back to school,” said Ms. Malebranche.

Education in emergencies

Education in Haiti is always a trying issue, even when not complicated by a natural disaster. In a country hobbled by poverty and lack of infrastructure, schooling has not been a government priority.

Only about 50 per cent of school-aged Haitians attend primary school, and most of them do not reach the fifth grade. Most schools in the country are private. Although the fees can be as low as $50 a year per child, even this can be a burden on people living on less than $2 a day.

UNICEF Haiti is helping to make education more attainable for more children by providing school supplies and working with the most destitute families to help raise school fees. Still, for families struggling to afford school for their children, the past year has been particularly difficult. Food scarcity and a spike in world food prices are squeezing most families in Haiti. In Gonaïves today, school fees seem a fantasy for many.

“I work as a shopkeeper to afford school for my kids,” said Lala Pierre, a mother of five who is currently living in Sanon’s school. “Now I lost my job and am still trying to find out how I will be able to pay this year,” she added.

Schools help secure society

This year’s catastrophic hurricane season has set Haiti back in many ways and relegated even more children to the most vulnerable tiers of society. Rehabilitating the schools and taking the opportunity to build back better is imperative to the task of stabilizing these stricken communities.

“I’m tired, yes, but we all need to get back to school so we can graduate,” Venette said as she took a break from digging in the mud. 

When children’s lives have been interrupted by an emergency, getting them into school helps to jumpstart their recovery, and that of the entire country.

“The whole population realizes that without functioning schools this isn’t a functioning city,” said Mr. Christian of the Ministry of Education. “Business can’t resume. Even as we speak, people are leaving the city to go to the countryside or to other cities.”

For further information
Louis Vigneault, lvigneault@unicef.org, UNICEF Haiti


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.





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24 September 2008: UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the challenges facing the schools of flood-ravaged Gonaïves, Haiti.
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