Rebuilding ‘normal’ after Dorian devastation
Six months since Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, schools are providing children a safe space to learn and a sense of normalcy.
FREEPORT, Bahamas – Jayden will tell you his name and his age. But ask him about his life almost six months since Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas, and the conversation quickly dries up.
“I’m in sixth grade,” Jayden says. “I lost my house in the hurricane. That’s my whole story.”
Eleven-year-old Jayden is still struggling to find words to express what he and his family went through when Dorian hit the islands in September 2019. The hurricane, which had maximum sustained windspeeds of 300 kilometres per hour, was the strongest on record to have impacted the Bahamas. It left behind a trail of devastation on the island of Abaco and parts of Grand Bahama, destroying almost half the homes across the islands.
Today, Jayden is in class in Freeport, Grand Bahama. He doesn’t join in with games or conversation, instead sitting quietly at the back of the classroom. He rarely smiles. But his teachers – and family – know they have to be patient.
“He wants to be strong, but he has been affected by what happened,” his mother, Kimberly, says. “Jayden doesn’t want to talk to us about what happened and he suffers when he hears about our daily struggles.”
Jayden’s family home was destroyed after it was submerged by salty floodwaters that smashed windows, destroyed interior walls and wrecked all their appliances. Thousands of people were left displaced by the hurricane, and ongoing water and electricity shortages continue for residents returning to try to rebuild their lives.
Every day in cities and towns like Freeport and Marsh Harbour, children are confronted with vivid reminders of how their worlds were turned upside down: cars, boats and other vehicles mangled and discarded by ferocious winds and devastating flood waters still litter shattered communities. Under the circumstances, the islands’ schools are among the best places for children to be.
“Education brings a sense of normalcy,” says Dominik Koeppl, UNICEF’s education coordinator in the Bahamas. “At school [children] feel safe, protected and receive psychosocial support.”
With that in mind, UNICEF has prioritized helping children get back to school. In the aftermath of the storm, UNICEF supported the process of registering displaced children into the education system and procured hundreds of first aid kits, school-in-a-box kits, and math and science kits to assist thousands of school-aged children.
In addition, UNICEF and partners have trained and supported teachers and counsellors to boost the psychosocial support available to many of the thousands of children exposed to scenes of destruction, suffering and loss.
In this together
Tal Shami, a programme manager with UNICEF partner IsraAID, says teachers are playing an integral role in helping students rebuild their lives after the disaster.
“We’ve been developing workshops with teachers from the affected islands,” Shami says. “That means listening to stories of loss and destruction every day. However, [teachers] are now able to express their thoughts [about] the storm.”
Ultimately, schools need to be both places where children can learn and where internal wounds can be allowed to heal. That applies for teachers as well as students.
“One of my teachers lost a member of her family. Another one lost his house and was injured,” says Lily Strachan Moxey, principal at Hugh W. Campbell Primary School in Freeport. “Children and teachers have been telling us how afraid they still are when it starts to rain or when they hear the wind blowing.”
Around 450 children are back attending classes at the school since it reopened in late 2019. And while the ongoing rebuilding efforts in the community are yet another reminder of the devastation wrought by Dorian, students have gradually been returning from neighbouring islands – and sometimes from even further afield.
“Faith keeps us together as a community,” Moxey says. “We knew this could happen and we are ready to overcome the disaster.”