Sat, Jun 05, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Going to school in Haiti after the quake

Traumatized by the destruction of their homes and lives, Haiti’s children are finding some refuge in schools resurrected from the rubble

By Afua Hirsch  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

If there is a drier, dustier, more desolate place in the Caribbean I’d be amazed to see it. A few weeks ago, this vast space in Haiti now known as Corail Cesselesse was a vast scraggly grassland about 20km outside the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Now, after the magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, it is home to several thousands of the 1.5 million who have been displaced. Many are children — in a country where half the population is under 18 — and for those who have moved to giant camps, they have also been uprooted from their homes, their families and their schools.

Corail is an official camp — the product of interagency cooperation and government consent — and there is plenty of evidence of the foreign money pouring into the country in the aftermath of the earthquake. It is guarded by armed UN guards, and there are well-organized latrines and water tanks.

Plan International, a children’s non-governmental organization (NGO), has provided a school at Corail, while Save the Children is working with the district health office to provide healthcare and treat malnutrition. World Vision is providing food, which is being distributed by the World Food Programme. Like many of Haiti’s large camps, education at Corail is a work in progress. A large empty tent at the back of the camp has just started receiving three to five-year-old children for kindergarten classes and is expecting more than 200 in separate morning and evening shifts.

Access to kindergarten is limited in Haiti and for many children in the camp, this is their first experience of learning.

“Some of them cried a little bit today, as it was the first day,” said Jeanette, who is in charge of early learning at Corail. “We rocked them, played with them, had some balloons. After that they were comfortable — they stayed until the end. Some didn’t want to leave.”

It’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic kindergarten teacher than Jeanette, who bounces around, despite the oppressive dust and heat, showing off the finger puppets and toys she uses to entertain the children.

However, there are still no tables or chairs for the classroom, and furniture ordered by Plan to equip the school has yet to arrive. The difficulty in getting urgently needed materials into the country is one of the greatest post-disaster challenges in Haiti and has had a massive impact on schools.

“Getting materials to equip the schools has been one of the biggest logistical issues,” said Damien Queally, emergency manager at Plan Haiti. “At the moment, we have only been able to meet 10 percent of the overall need at the schools we are supporting.”

Part of the problem is clearing imported goods through customs, which takes weeks, and the massive logistical challenges of transporting heavy goods through Haiti’s already limited and now damaged infrastructure, with little capacity to unload trucks and containers.

At the Fleur de Chou primary school in the Croix-des-Bouquets area just outside Port-au-Prince, classes are taking place in a tight space around the collapsed school buildings.

Unlike some schools which lost everything, here some furniture was salvaged from the old school, but the tents being used to house temporary classrooms have plastic roofs, which allow in direct sunlight that is affecting children’s eyes. No one is sure what will happen when the rains begin — as the rainy season starts any day now.

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