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At a glance: Haiti

Field Diary: Camp's children excited about return to learning in Haiti

© UNICEF/2010/Ingram
Children attend informal classes supported by UNICEF at Dadadou camp for families displaced by the 12 January earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

UNICEF is among the many agencies delivering assistance to hundreds of spontaneous camps that have sprung up in parks and other public places in Haiti since the 12 January earthquake there. UNICEF's Simon Ingram visited one camp in Port-au-Prince and sent this report.

By Simon Ingram

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 31 March, 2010 – You only have to mention the word 'school' and a sparkle comes into Taïma Celestin's dark brown eyes. It's not hard to understand why. The scheduled reopening of Haiti's schools on 5 April will be the first real opportunity for this confident 10-year-old to leave what is today her home – a tiny lean-to covered with a blue tarpaulin in a former sports ground in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince.

In the days after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January, killing some 220,000 people, Taïma, her grandparents and more than 7,000 other terrified people sought refuge here. Nearly three months on, few have managed to return home, and the artificial soccer pitch surrounded by an asphalt running track has become a tent community known by the name Dadadou.

Part of the healing process

During the day, Taïma joins several hundred other children for informal classes run by volunteer teachers inside two large white tents that were provided by UNICEF along with 'School-in-a-box' kits full of learning materials, and a recreation kit.

© UNICEF/2010/Ingram
Dadadou camp coordinator Julie Bertrand answers a question during an informal learning session for children displaced by the earthquake.

The classes are noisy but good-natured. They pause briefly to allow members of a local non-governmental organization to distribute fruit juice and snacks to the children.

"The classes help me forget what happened, if only for a little while," says Taïma.

It may be part of the healing process that has led children in the camp to invent their own name for the earthquake. "When we talk about it among ourselves, we call it 'Monsieur Gudoo-Gudoo'," Taïma says, shaking her arms in rhythm to the words, "because that was the noise it made."

The former Dadadou camp coordinator, Dr. Junie Bertrand of the Haitian NGO Kore Timoun (Supporting Children), says the informal classes have helped children come to terms with what happened.

"I used to find children having panic attacks at night," says Dr. Bertrand. "But since the classes started, I haven't seen kids nearly so distressed."

Keeping the camp healthy and safe

The classes serve other purposes, too. For example, the younger children have been taught a song that teaches them the importance of hand-washing and personal hygiene – very important in preventing diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases.

© UNICEF/2010/Ingram
Taïma Celestin, 10, stands outside the makeshift shelter in Dadadou camp, where she and her grandparents have lived since the earthquake in Haiti.

So far, Dr. Bertrand says, most camp residents have avoided serious illness. Even so, with the rainy season expected soon, she has real worries for the future.

Dadadou camp, its population increasing lately with the arrival of new homeless families, is short of proper shelter materials and adequate food and water supplies. Conditions in the camp are similar to those in many of the hundreds of spontaneous camps for displaced people in Port-au-Prince and other earthquake-affected areas.

Today, Dadadou has a generally orderly feel. The tents and tarpaulins are pitched close together, a neat row of toilets fills one side of the perimeter and a 3,000-gallon water tank stands next to grounds that are kept free of litter. Patrols by local police and camp volunteers have kept security fears at bay.

'It'll be a great day for me'

For Taïma, as for many children, the prospect of going back to school is exciting. "It'll be a great day for me, especially the math and French classes," she says, referring to her favourite subjects.

© UNICEF/2010/Ingram
Taïma Celestin and her grandparents.

Her one surviving school uniform – retrieved from the family's damaged apartment – has been carefully set aside in the tiny tent in readiness for the big day. But like so many other children in Haiti, Taïma knows her excitement about beginning school anew will be tempered by the tragic realities of the earthquake.

"When I get to school," she says, "I will also find out which of my friends are alive, and which ones are dead."



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