Alive and rising again

A teacher, whose life was upended by the Albania earthquake, helps her community’s children

By Anila Miria and Chulho Hyun
Ms Ervisa teaching language and composition to the children at the temporary learning classes.
UNICEF/Albania2019/Olsi Beci
13 December 2019

DURRES, Albania – 32 seconds. It took 32 seconds for her home, containing all her belongings, to come crumbling down.

For Ervisi Bodlli and hundreds of others like her, rebuilding after surviving the earthquake which struck Albania on 26 November, seeing how quickly the disastrous event shattered their lives is something they have in common as they look back at that morning. And as they remember their loved ones who did not make it.

We met Mrs. Bodlli, a 41-year-old teacher, in one of the relief centers in Durrës. She and her family had been sheltering there for the past two weeks.

“I saw my house collapse in a matter of seconds.  All the efforts of a lifetime, gone,” she said. “We ran outside in fear. It was still dark, and all of our neighbors had gotten out, too.  I could not believe that my husband and two children were alive.”

Mrs. Bodlli told us that she had taught in primary school for 18 years. Now, it was time to begin anew.

“I had a normal life, in a new house near my work, and our children having their own rooms. But none of this matters when it comes to natural disasters,” she said.  In the early hours of 26 November (the earthquake occurred at 4:00AM), the family stayed with her friend whose home had been spared fortunately.  Within the following two days, the municipality of Durrës relocated the family to the relief center.

 “My husband, our two sons, aged 13 and 17, and I live in a [16 sq. meters] room.  It is not easy, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that we made it out alive,” she said.

Ms Ervisa
UNICEF/Albania2019/Olsi Beci

Once the family was settled safely, Mrs. Bodlli’s professional instincts kicked in.  She thought about the children whose schooling was interrupted.

She responded to the Durrës Regional Education Directorate’s request to establish temporary classrooms in the relief centers, to benefit 150 children and their families.  UNICEF helped to provide teaching materials, school bags and furniture.  Mrs. Bodlli and her colleagues sensed that the students craved a return to normalcy.  “The children need their teachers, and since the teaching and learning have started again, I feel somewhat calmer.  I know that I will find the strength to move forward, not just for my own children, but for my pupils as well,” she added.

She said that with each passing day, she has been noticing the children becoming more relaxed and making new friends.  They attend classes in the morning and spend time afterwards in the child-friendly spaces supported by UNICEF, where they can also seek the support of counselors.

In a sign that things are not yet fully back to normal, though, she recounts those moments when somebody might inadvertently move a desk or chair in the temporary classroom, and the children would say, “Teacher, the ground is trembling again.”

While the children are in school, some of the parents return to their homes to look for salvageable belongings, and others fill out damage claim forms.  Everyone comes back to the relief centers at the end of the day.  People know that even if they are eager to return to their former neighborhoods, the current situation requires patience.  At the time of meeting Mrs. Bodlli, the teachers were organizing a “coffee time with parents.”  The parents also needed to be assured that their children’s schooling was going well.

There was a momentary twinkle of optimism in her eyes, as Mrs. Bodlli considered the prospect of returning to her original school in Durrës.  “I miss my school and I miss my students.  Some of them have written to ask me when I am coming back.”

The earthquake upended her life and the lives of many others in the community.  They are drawing strength and hope from being alive and being able to rise again.