UNICEF rebuilds education in Haiti from the ruins
7 January 2011: Marie Ginette Mathurin, a Haitian structural engineer, talks about how she came to work with UNICEF, helping to build semi-permanent school buildings after the earthquake.
By Tania McBride
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 7 January 2011 – From a hill in the densely populated Delmas area of Port-au-Prince – where vendors hawk household goods, charcoal, vegetables and multi-coloured paintings – there is a stunning postcard view of the ocean.
Turn 180 degrees, however, and the picture is different. Blue and white tarpaulins still cling to the hillside 12 months after the January 2010 earthquake that shattered the lives of children and families across Haiti.
Further along, away from the chaotic traffic, older pupils at the Vision Nouvelle School for Boys and Girls study Haitian history and mathematics under tents, while younger ones run about during a recess break. A bell rings and the children return hurriedly to their classrooms in eight new semi-permanent structures recently constructed by UNICEF and its partners.
Marie Ginette Mathurin is a structural engineer working with UNICEF. A Haitian woman with a doctorate in physics and mathematics, she has been pivotal in guiding UNICEF’s team in school construction, including the construction at Vision Nouvelle.
“Haitians don’t have much money, but they do believe in education for their children,” says Ms. Mathurin.
Sebastian Jean Baptiste is one of many children at the school who is benefitting from the new classrooms. “I had a friend who died in the earthquake and others who lost their houses. It was hard to see them at first,” he confides. “I didn’t go to school for three months. I was bored, but now I feel safe and I enjoy coming to school.”
‘A familiar place’
Close to 5,000 schools were affected by the earthquake, which also destroyed the Ministry of Education building.
“Many of the children have been exposed to horrendous, terrifying images. Many lost friends and family,” says UNICEF Haiti Education Chief Nathalie-Fiona Hamoudi. “School, with time, can help heal some of this distress with a return to a safe and secure environment, a familiar place.”
To ease children’s distress and help them resume their education, UNICEF’s school rebuilding and re-equipment programme has assisted 720,000 students and 15,000 teachers in 2,000 schools to date. The program has been coordinated with the World Food Programme’s school feeding initiative.
Key to a new Haiti
So far, 57 semi-permanent school buildings have been completed, using hurricane and earthquake-resistant designs and incorporating water and sanitation facilities. Another 60 schools that will benefit more than 24,400 children are under construction, and more contracts are being awarded.
“Providing safe and secure buildings where children can resume their learning is a crucial part of the healing process. But we have to be realistic – nothing will be solved overnight,” says Mohamed Malik Fall, coordinator of the inter-agency Education Cluster in Haiti, which helps set standards for school construction and children’s psycho-social support.
By providing a platform from which tomorrow’s leaders can emerge, education is the key to building a new Haiti.
“The practicalities of building back better in such a devastated environment require time, resources, political will,” says Ms. Hamoudi, the UNICEF Education Chief. “But most of all, it requires ongoing and unbroken commitment.”