Haiti earthquake shatters student dreams, some forced to look for education elsewhere

By Paisley Dodds, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

Student dreams shattered in Haiti’s earthquake

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Many schools in Haiti’s outlying provinces reopened Monday for the first time since an earthquake devastated the nation, though it may take a month or more to open classrooms in the quake-crushed capital.

Many schools were actually fuller than before because some 300,000 people, including many schoolchildren, fled Port-au-Prince after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

“There’s a little more activity than usual,” said Anne Rose Bouget, a primary school teacher in the southwestern city of Les Cayes.

But it could be a month or longer before students in the quake zone resume their studies, said Marie-Laurence Jocelin Lassegue, minister of culture and communications.

Most schools are damaged or destroyed. Many teachers are dead. And the students in starched uniforms and blue hair ribbons who were visions of hope and innocence in Haiti’s capital now often live in squalid camps, their dreams and city shattered.

“With everything that has already happened in the past few years — the floods, hurricanes, unrest — these children cannot afford to lose more time outside school,” said Berdadel Perkington, 40, a teacher giving an impromptu math lesson to a group of children outside the collapsed National Palace.

About 200 of the capital’s schools were pulverized in the Jan. 12 earthquake. Some colleges and technical schools may never reopen. A large number of the estimated 200,000 who died in the earthquake were students and teachers.

“The children are in shock and they are traumatized,” said Lassegue. “Some of them have lost their friends, their parents. It’s like the end of the world for some of them.”

Kent Page, a spokesman for UNICEF, said it is critical for children to get back to class so they have a sense of normalcy.

“None of us like being out of school,” said Ludmia Exiloud, 14, who was walking with a group of her friends at dawn on Monday, when they usually are headed to class. “We miss our studies. There’s nothing to do.”

But schools — reopening them, re-staffing them, restocking them, relocating them — are just one of many urgent priorities here. The Ministry of Education — its own building destroyed — and its partners, including UNICEF, are still assessing damage.

UNICEF estimates that 75 percent of the capital’s schools were destroyed or damaged. It said Haiti has some 16,000 schools overall — 6,000 of them in affected areas — and an estimated 600,000 students.

In other developments:

— The U.N. World Food Program and its partners, including World Vision, borrowed an approach to food delivery that has worked in other disaster zones. The agencies distributed coupons in Haiti’s capital to be redeemed for bags of rice at 16 sites. The coupons were given mainly to women, the elderly and the disabled. Men could redeem coupons for women who were busy taking care of children or who otherwise could not make it.

— The White House said it was resuming the military airlift of critically injured earthquake victims, having received assurances that additional medical capacity exists in U.S. hospitals. The flights had stopped four days earlier, worrying doctors in Haiti who said hundreds would die without specialized care.

— Ten U.S. Baptists were being detained in the capital while officials decide whether to charge them with child trafficking. They were caught trying to bus 33 children to the Dominican Republic, but said they were just trying to rescue orphaned victims of the quake.

In the long term, UNICEF hopes to boost overall school enrollment. Child welfare groups say just over half of all school-age children in Haiti don’t attend school, though even the poorest of Haitian families try to send at least one child to class — hoping they will someday earn enough to support extended family.

For some, though, the quake robbed them of any hope.

“They’ve cut off my leg,” said Billie Flon, 9, a quake amputee who stoically explained that he now needs to beg for money in Petionville, a hilly suburb of Port-au-Prince, to help his family because its house was destroyed. He said he can’t think about returning to school now.

Another young boy who had his leg amputated after the earthquake begged on an adjacent corner.

In the camps for earthquake victims, some children try in vain to keep up with their studies.

“I’m reading when I can, but the conditions are very bad so sometimes I read cartoons instead of my school books,” said Erika Desire, a 13-year-old whose school was destroyed and who lives in a camp with her mother and sisters. “I want to be a medical technician, but now it’s going to take me more time.”

During her short life, she estimates she’s lost about a year’s worth of school — four months in 2004 when rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, another month in 2005 because of sickness, two months in 2006 because of tropical storms and three months in floods last year.

The earthquake will force her to lose at least two months more.

High school senior Graham Fleuran, meanwhile, said he is eager to take Senegal up on its offer to relocate.

Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, offered free land to Haitians wishing to return to their African origins. Many of the slaves brought to Haiti came from West Africa. Practical details of how the plan would work have yet to be released.

“My mother died in the earthquake and my father is still missing,” said Fleuran, who spoke in precise English and carried a backpack of school books — his only possessions.

“Leaving Haiti may give me the best opportunity to get back to my studies. I dream of becoming a lawyer.”

Associated Press Writer Ben Fox contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

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