By Cifora Monier and Jill Van den Brule
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 21 May 2010 – Over 100 young voices rise in harmony to affirm a common sentiment. “Sa ki pa nan espas n’ap voye yo ale,” they sing in Haitian Creole. “Those that do not belong in this space should be out of this place.”
At Place St. Pierre, beneath the hills of Port-au-Prince, a large group of children are asserting their need for a safe and protective environment in the aftermath of the 12 January earthquake here.
To meet that need, UNICEF and one of its partners, the Haiti Out-of-School Youth Livelihood Initiative (known by its French acronym, IDEJEN), have created a haven for children next to the Police Commissioner’s Office in this devastated area of the Haitian capital.
‘Building back the bonds’
The child-friendly space serves about 120 children and young people, ranging from 5 to 24 years of age. Some 75 per cent of them were displaced by the earthquake.
“This is a means of building back the bonds of the community and ensuring that the internally displaced children are not further marginalized by the community at large,” says UNICEF’s Joanne Dessureault.
“These children suffer from phobias, fear of concrete houses, anxiety attacks and stress when they hear noises that remind them of the earthquake,” adds Jean Robert Desrosiers, the psychologist at the Place St. Pierre centre. “There are children who have nightmares every night. Thanks to various psycho-social activities realized at the centre, they gradually come to terms with the horrors they have witnessed.”
With proper care, and given the youthful resilience of the quake-affected children, the psychologist predicts that they “will fully heal with time.”
Food, water and comfort
Yglesias, 5, and his mother Yolette moved to the improvised displacement camp in Place St. Pierre on the evening of 12 January, after their home collapsed in the earthquake. Yolette, a single mother, had a small business selling rice in her old neighbourhood, but now she is without income and resources to raise her child.
“I cannot afford to buy him a uniform or the school supplies that he needs to attend a regular school,” she says. “It was by sheer chance that I met one of the administrators of IDEJEN while he was mobilizing parents in the camp to send their children to the child-friendly space, which is about 200 metres away.”
At the centre, Yglesias and the other children receive safe drinking water and one meal a day. The police provide the facility with water for its latrines.
“This centre is a godsend to me,” says Yolette. “My son is provided with a decent meal. He is taken care of by specialized monitors who help him deal with his continued nightmares about the quake. I just like to see him happy and somewhat normal when he is around the other children.”
Support for families and communities
This partnership between UNICEF and IDEJEN is an example of what can happen when civil society and local and international partners join forces to help children deal with the aftermath of an emergency.
Such partnerships can reinforce the ability of communities and families to protect their children.
At the child-friendly centre in Place St. Pierre, parents work with teams of professionals, including a social worker, a psychologist and two counsellors. They attend sessions on how to determine when their children are at-risk, and they learn skills to prepare them for possible future disasters.
Meanwhile, peer educators work with youth on issues such as prevention of sexual abuse and violence, and offer support to women and girls who have been abused. The programme keeps children off the streets and promotes family-based care.
Mending the social fabric
The police, too, are playing an active role in the well-being of the children by teaching them about civic responsibility and good citizenship.
“The police have a role to serve and protect, and children play a large role in our mission,” says Police says Inspector-Principal Louis Jeune. “Even if we didn’t have much space, we made room [for the child-friendly centre]. Together, what we are encouraging in these children is to be useful members of society. Today they are our children, but tomorrow they will be society’s adults.”
There is a true sense of solidarity in this project, of a community coming together from its constituent parts and valuing children.
Through such collaboration, everybody wins. The children have developed a trusting relationship with the police, who have become role models to many of them. This dynamic fosters a safer, more cohesive community for all – a vital step in mending the social fabric of Haiti.