In August 2007 I visited Haiti. My host was Rea Dol and her family, all members of the Lavalas Movement. As well as being a grassroots community organizer, Rea is co-founder of SOPUDEP school. Created in 2001, SOPUDEP is a private non-profit school that exists through the sheer determination of Rea and her colleagues. It serves the poorest and most vulnerable children of the community of Petion-Ville, those who would never have the chance of an education save for this wonderful project. Most of them also receive their only hot meal every school day through the school's Hot Lunch Program. Last month's earthquake devastated the school. Rea talked to Kathlene McGuinness of Ryerson University, Toronto in the aftermath. This is what she said:
'Before the earthquake, the children used to come to study at school and when means allowed, they received a hot meal. The first group would finish at 1 pm, and then in the afternoon we helped street children to work hard to learn a trade skill. Our work follows the pedagogical programme of the National Education Ministry.
'Now, for the school to continue it will have to relocate. A group of students and teachers are trying to design temporary classrooms on a new site which the school bought through donations last year.
‘We are working with groups abroad to try to secure a new site for the school. The building where we used to work with small children was condemned after the earthquake, because of structural damage. The other building had some internal damage. At this point we don't have any (heavy construction) material available.
‘We can generally get hold of hammers, saws, pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools, although we say that we always welcome these kinds of contributions. And we will need equipment for the children: swings, play-houses, slides soccer balls, footballs and so on.
‘At the moment, this district (Monn Laza, where the school is) is completely destroyed, and many people have lost their homes completely. People are giving the school their remaining possessions, which have been recovered from under the ruins. But the problem remains: how can we work in this situation, with everyone sleeping in the public parks and squares, in the street, under the stars? People have witnessed the destruction of everything, which creates fear. I ask myself: can we really open the school in that area again? I think about that often: can the school be opened there after a while, or at all?
‘But we need to rebuild our old site, to begin working once again with the children while waiting for the new school to be built.
‘The teachers need many things: some don't even have clothes. Many teachers don't have houses anymore, and are sleeping in small cars, or on the square. They have nothing. We give them supplies where we can find them, but they need clothes, working materials, other forms of support. There are those who don't have charcoal to cook even if we are able to bring them food, so it is necessary for them to find a little money to buy charcoal or gas. That's a problem.
We would be very happy if the school could re-open. The children are in a bad situation, but the means are not available for the children to recommence school. Most schools in the capital have been destroyed, and they are asking for schools to be re-opened in tents, but we don't have enough space here for that and if a second disaster were to strike, the children would be in danger.
‘How can we create a zone and climate of peace for our children in a place that everyone has deserted? In other regions, houses have been destroyed, but if you see 10 houses destroyed, you'll see another four or five still standing. Here in Monn Laza, everything has been destroyed, and the State hasn't removed anyone from under the rubble. It is the youth who put masks on their faces, and remove the rubble. Bodies need to be burned and funerals held, but the youth of the neighbourhood can't do that. The tractors, the loaders... they don't have those materials.
‘A reporter from the New York Times visited the area and asked questions about why the area has been ignored. But because the area has been completely destroyed, they have given other areas priority over this one. One of our best staff members and collaborators, Nadia, left school at 4:30 pm (on the day of the earthquake), and died 20 minutes later. She couldn't even be buried, they had to burn her body on the ground. That made me sad.
‘The first thing I'm asking you: how can we receive a psychologist for the children? This would be the greatest blessing. The teachers are ill, both the leaders and the students as well. Even if I'm still standing, I'm also ill, but must assume my responsibilities. Psychologically, physically, everyone has been affected by the earthquake. So the first thing would be a psychologist for the teachers and the students.
‘We were the only school which went out to look for the children, to see how many had survived, how many had died. To my knowledge, we are the only academic institution to have given a small stipend to those students who cannot leave for the provinces. I focus on the children; I see their future, because it is they who will replace me tomorrow.
‘The situation is not yet stable. If there were psychologists available, then many people could benefit from their service. And psychologists who understand the mentality and the customs of the country would be even more useful, in the context of what we have lived through and are living through.
‘We already have more than 135 families, all of them with up to 4 or 5 children, that we are trying to help support, in terms of food, enabling them to travel to connect with their families in the provinces, tarps (for shelter), crutches... We have helped organize mobile clinics in different shelters, like the areas of Bobin, Bristou, Jacquet, Monn Laza, Penye. We are supporting the victims in any way possible, both the family members of SUPUDEP, and other residents of Monn Laza, who asked for our support. We are taking steps, while waiting to see what the State will do. We are continuing with our steps, as best we can.'