By Tania McBride
Port-au-Prince, Haiti – 10 December 2010 – 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 post-card view of the ocean.
Turn 180 degrees, and the picture is somewhat different. Blue and white tarpaulins still cling to the hillside 12 months after the January 2010 earthquake that shattered countless lives of children and families in Haiti.
Further along, away from the chaotic traffic, blue and whitewashed walls mark the entrance to the Vision Nouvelle School for Boys and Girls where older pupils 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, eight new semi-permanent structures recently constructed by UNICEF and partners.
Just 12 months earlier, close to 5,000 schools were affected by the earthquake, which also destroyed the Ministry of Education building and halted the education of over 2.5 million children. Although the total number of children who died in the earthquake may never be known, it’s estimated that as many as 38,000 school children lost their lives.
“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 – school.”
In response, UNICEF launched a rebuilding and re-equipment programme that to date has positively impacted 720,000 children and 15,000 teachers in 2,000 schools, with efforts also coordinated with the World Food Programme’s school feeding initiative.
UNICEF school activities include reconstruction contracts for 126 sites, of which 57 schools are completed or nearing completion. As well, 22 school construction contracts are approved or under consideration to be started early in the New Year.
“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 Malick Fall, Coordinator of the Education Cluster, which helped set standards for school construction, and psycho-social support for children.
Many children and parents will require long-term and ongoing support, “much of which UNICEF is helping provide through psycho-social support in schools in all affected areas,” Hamoudi adds.
Marie Ginette Mathurin is a structural engineer with UNICEF. A Haitian woman with a doctorate in psychics and mathematics, Mathurin has been pivotal in guiding UNICEF’s team in the construction of semi-permanent classrooms in Port-au-Prince.
“Haitians don’t have much money, but they do believe in education for their children,” says Mathurin, who has been quality assessing the classrooms and school construction at Port-au-Prince’s Vision Nouvelle School.
Sebastian Jean Baptiste is one of many children at Vision Nouvelle 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. “We had to share carefully food and water at home and I didn’t go to school for three months. I was bored but now I feel safe and I enjoy coming to school.”
By providing an opportune platform from which tomorrow’s leaders can emerge, education is the key to building a new Haiti. UNICEF’s Education Chief cautions, however, that the process will not happen overnight.
“The practicalities of building back better in such a devastated environment require time, resources, political will,” says Hamoudi. “But most of all it requires ongoing and unbroken commitment.”