Skip to content

Post-earthquake: Somber Outlook for Haiti’s Youth

January 28, 2010

Originally in Provoices, of

The cities of Leogane and Petit Goave, about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, lie in rubble. They are the two towns closest

The new annex at the Henry Desgranges Elementary School was destroyed in the earthquake

to the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck the country on January 12th. Amidst the debris, between roads that have been split wide open, surviving children play just outside their collapsed homes. They have half-smiles on their faces and are terrified of going back indoors. In the quake, a number of them lost family members, friends, limbs, and all material possessions.

Haiti’s youth, like the rest of the population, is now in a state of dire emergency. But for the country’s children, hit by the tragedy in their formative years, this is only the beginning. With a large section of the country turned to dust, and a reconstruction effort that will take months to begin, and years, if not decades, to be completed, a difficult path strewn with lack of opportunities lies ahead for Haiti’s children. The physical and psychological trauma they suffered on January 12th will take a long time to heal, if ever. Inadequate infrastructure and teachers, a problem to begin with here, was made much worse by the earthquake. Considering Haiti’s incredibly young population, this generation might be lost without the prospects that an education brings.

Two Haitian kids sit outside their makeshift camp doing nothing

“It’s a very somber prospective for this generation,” said Jean Fils Sainton, General Secretary of Education for Haiti’s Methodist schools. “Those children who survived are deeply traumatized. They need psychological assistance, but nobody is thinking about it because people are simply trying to stay alive. Plus, we don’t have many psychologists in this country,” said Sainton, who prefers to sleep in a tent outside his one-story home in the devastated downtown of Petit Goave, despite the fact that the house is still standing, because he is also terrified of the continuing aftershocks.

Of the six Methodist schools in the greater Petit Goave area that Sainton supervises, and which used to serve 7500 underprivileged students from age four to 18, five were leveled by the earthquake and will need to be completely rebuilt. “The sixth one is still standing, but before classes can start again, structural engineers will have to determine whether or not the heavily cracked building is safe to return to,” said Sainton. He doesn’t know when that might happen.

The Haiti earthquake poses troubling questions about the future of the country

According to Sainton, 95% of schools in Haiti’s West Department, the region around Port-au-Prince and the one worst hit by thequake, have been impacted. But as hundreds of thousands people have been left

homeless in what is the country’s most densely populated region, and now live in overcrowded makeshift camps lacking sanitation, the focus of the Haitian government and of the international community remains on emergency relief. Two weeks after the earthquake struck, with even a precise death toll still a guessing game, nobody has a sense of exactly how desperate the state of Haiti’s schools is, or an idea of when they might be able to open again.

“At first I thought schools could open again in two months,” said Hugues Desgranges, who formally works as a senior advisor to the Director General of Haiti’s Port Authority, and who also runs a local NGO, “but as I started driving around and seeing how many school buildings were flattened, I realized that it’ll be at least a year.”

Desgranges can call himself lucky. In 1999, his NGO, the Henry Desgranges Foundation, built a school just outside Petit Goave, where children from disadvantaged families could attend classes from kindergarten to seventh grade. Today, the Desgranges Foundation’s main building, a small one-story complex that hosts two of the school’s classrooms alongside a health care center, though damaged, is still standing. The two-classroom annex he recently built just adjacent to the main building, however, has collapsed. “Here in the countryside, we

A team of German doctors help 6-year-old France Jean Charles, who was hurt in the earthquake

could start teaching again under tents,” Desgranges said pointing to the large courtyard that surrounds the school, “but in Port-au-Prince there is not enough space for that.”

According to Desgranges, even if schools promptly re-opened, many children wouldn’t be able to go back. Poor families that have lost all the little they had in the quake, can no longer afford school fees, not even the mere five Haitian Dollars a month (less than $1 US) that Desgranges charges in normal circumstances. And, said Desgranges, there will be plenty more dropouts, considering the number of children the quake made orphans or permanently handicapped.

In any case, for the time being, Desgranges Foundation’s main building is functioning as a staging location for a number of foreign medical first responder teams that come and go. And the courtyard has been turned into a small makeshift camp for the area’s families that lost their homes in the earthquake. It will be several weeks before the focus will begin switching to education again, even here where not everything was flattened.

“I’m scared for myself because without a home I have no place to live,” said 33 years-old Samson Saint Jean, an agricultural worker from the poor neighborhood of Chabanne, near Petit Goave, who lost his house in the earthquake, “and I’m scared for my children because without education they won’t be able to go anywhere in life.” Saint Jean’s older child Miglove, a 10 years-old boy who likes going to school and always brings back good

Homeless kids wait to be treated by a team of German doctors outside Desgranges Elementary School

grades, attends Desgranges’ elementary school. Now, with the school closed, he sits alone at the makeshift camp or follows his parents out in the fields.

For the area’s poor families, the lack of a functioning school means not only a glum future for their kids, but also one more mouth to feed, since, normally, the school would provide for at least some of their meals. “Right now, I’m happy everybody is alive,” said Louines Jean Charles, who works as a lotto organizer and whose home was also destroyed by the earthquake, “but I hope the school can open soon again, otherwise it will be a big problem.” Out in the courtyard, Jean Charles’ six-year-old son France, also a pupil at Desgranges’ school, had just been treated by a team of German doctors. During the January 12th earthquake, a block of cement fell on him. Two weeks later he had a badly infected wound on his left thigh.

Hughes Desgranges poses in front of a collapsed building that used to be his elementary school

As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, issues of extreme poverty and lack of access to education have plagued Haiti for a long time. Already before the earthquake, there were too few schools in the country to be able to serve a burgeoning population comprising mostly young people (according to the CIA World Factbook, 38.1% of Haiti’s population is under the age of 14). It also lacked teachers both in terms of numbers and adequate training. The earthquake that struck two weeks ago was literally the nail in the coffin of Haiti’s school system, having killed an undetermined number of teachers and destroyed countless school buildings.

Long-term consequences to the devastation brought by the earthquake to Haiti’s school system are difficult to gauge, but the outlook seems grim. “This will badly affect our fledgling industry,” said Desgranges, “for it to develop you

A blackboard in one the classrooms still standing reads Dieu est grand, God is Great

need qualified technicians, and good schools are the only ones that can train people, but now they are destroyed.”

Take, for example, Saint Girard Technical School, Port-au-Prince’s best, which was flattened in the quake. Or the Seminaire College Saint Martial, managed by the Jesuits and also considered to be among the top schools in Haiti. It was also destroyed. Or the Lycee in Leogane, the city’s biggest high school, now just a pile of rubble. Or any other number of schools which collapsed onto themselves and are, like a number of the teachers and students that inhabited them, now no more.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: