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For Haiti's children, school is also a place to heal Add to ...

"Who still dreams about the earthquake?"

Asking this question is like pushing an invisible "play" button inside the minds of all 60 primary girls packed into the green-painted benches lining the tented, temporary classroom at École Marie Reine Immaculée. Post-recess, the students were already struggling to concentrate on their French lesson; the question washes over the class like a cruel wave, stifling giggles, pulling smiles off faces and creasing foreheads as the girls flash back to scenes from Jan. 12.





One little girl with navy ribbons tied in her hair musters enough bravery to float up her hand - the first official confirmation that the dreams endure. Soon, nearly 60 more honest young index fingers are pointed to the sky. A forced chat begins over why the nightmares plague the girls, each one rising from her desk to deliver her answer.

"The earthquake turned the country upside down," one says in a tiny voice, eyes cast to the ground.

"I feel bad because a lot of people died," another says. And then: "My mother died on the 12th. We were all scared."

Since schools in and around Jacmel began reopening in mid-March (city officials pushed to open classrooms a month ahead of most schools in Haiti), several hundred teachers and education officials have been carefully schooled on the importance of quizzing students about how they are feeling - and paying attention to the answers they give.

Plan International, a development agency heavily focused on helping to repair the education system in Haiti, has sponsored unique psychosocial training sessions for several hundred teachers in hopes that educating them about the science of earthquakes and post-traumatic stress disorder will smooth what continues to be a bumpy transition back to the classroom for all.

By some metrics, the lessons are helping, especially in schools that have been flooded with children of families that fled Port-au-Prince.

"The training has taught us how to react, how to talk to those types of children, how to be more tolerant of them. When they come to school … we let them express their feelings," said Pastor Nicolas Derenssaint, head of the kindergarten to Grade 12 Collège Adventiste in Cayes Jacmel, a small town just east of Jacmel.

"They're traumatized - their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters are traumatized. But we can't leave them at home," he said. "If they stay at home, they'll be more affected."

For most students, returning to school has been a salve - a welcome return to normalcy.

"We thought it would be impossible for students to study and remember their lessons. That's not the case," said Sister Mary Christine, director of École Marie Reine Immaculée. "A lot of them say they prefer coming to the school than staying under the tents. They feel better here: they have their friends, teachers and they feel safe."

For administrators though, keeping schools open for kids is proving to be complicated and mentally taxing.

A post-earthquake government assessment lists close to 300 schools - one third of the institutions registered in the Department of the South East - in various states of destruction. Of those, 75 are listed in critical need of help, but only half have been slated to receive development assistance from non-government organizations. Without enough aid to go around, many schools have been struggling with how to obey the government edict to reopen and remain so, said Helena Murseli, the UNICEF-employed co-ordinator of all education-related NGO work in Jacmel.

"At first, we didn't have classrooms. We had to use tents, covered by tarps," says Sister Annouse Piquion, director of the rural, semi-private École St. Joseph in Côte-de-Fer, during a break from a recent psychological training session. "When it rains, we can't keep the children because of flooding. We have to send the kids back home," she says.

In the back of her mind is the worry that if she doesn't soon receive outside financial help, she'll have to send them home permanently.

"We don't have enough to pay the teachers for the month of April," she said. "We had to buy tarps, we had to buy wood. We need to keep demolishing old classrooms. We don't know how we're going to manage these expenses," she said, adding that her entire operating budget for the year has been eaten up by post-quake repairs.

Inside the city, it's the issue of land that's causing administrators headaches. Nearly every school that suffered damage is hunting for an empty plot suitable for temporary classroom construction or long-term rebuilds. Demolition of condemned schools has yet to begin, and by government edict, even those that can be repaired are not to be used as classrooms this year for fear another earthquake will hit.

Most urban schools do not have the yard space to set up temporary classrooms on their existing site; those that do face safety concerns over the proximity of temporary classes to damaged buildings. But in their hunt for new space, they are competing against huge swaths of Jacmel's population that are also in need of land for residential and commercial relocation.

Sister Mary Christine, who secured the land her school is currently set up on as a donation, was told she'd have to come up with $400,000 (U.S.) - a near impossibility - to remain on the one-acre plot after August.

"The owner has other offers - more interesting offers for the land," she explained. "We plan on buying another property … but in Jacmel, it's difficult to find land," she said.

And it appears support from the Ministry of Education, which lost its departmental office in the quake, will remain scant.

"The state cannot buy land for people. We don't have money for that in this department," said Charles Marc Elder, the departmental director of education, adding: "It's not only the schools that have problems. We have problems also."

 

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