April 7 2010

SOS School reopens in Haiti

06/04/2010 - Before the earthquake, the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince had 550 pupils. But with the many abandoned and orphaned children which are temporarily cared for at the SOS Children's Village, that number is expected to increase with approximately 300 more students. Until last week, the school facilities were used as storehouse for emergency supplies and as base camp for the emergency staff. This week the first classes could be re-started.

Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen
School principal Myrtil Jean welcomes the pupils at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo - Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen

All emergency supplies have been moved, the floors swept clean and school benches reinstated - time to return to the SOS School in Santo. The lines of girls and boys with rucksacks were getting longer as the clock neared 8am. Then the bell rang and the chatter turned into attentive quietness. After observing a minute of silence in commemoration of those who perished during the earthquake, school principal Myrtil Jean welcomed all returning and new pupils.

"Education is an obligation and a chance you get - so take it and work hard," he said. "Class 9 is in this room, class 6 in that one - off you go." And off the 61 pupils went.

It is only a few days since most classrooms contained boxes with food donations and medical supplies. Following the earthquake emergency and the massive destruction of education facilities, classes were suspended on a national level and the SOS School was used as storage facility and as the office for the staff of the emergency relief programme. The school is not operating full swing yet. Only students in grades 6 and 9 returned to school on 5 April. Both have external exams later in the year and it is crucial to start lessons as soon as possible. All other classes will start on 19 April.

Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen
The Haitian flag was hoisted - Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen

"I am happy I got to go to school today. I have had too much time in the house and really want to work on my exams now," says Guerrier who is 16 years old and has lived in the SOS Children's Village most of his life. He has been helping out at home but also watched a lot of television in the last three months - too much by his own standards. Now he is ready to prepare for 9th grade exams but realises that there will be a lot of catching up and that it will not be easy.

For 11-year old Jerome in grade 6 it was nice to speak with the teacher and with his class mates again. "It is boring without my friends," he told and explained that today he was making drawings and talking about the earthquake.

Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen
Back to school again twelve weeks after the earthquake - Photo: Line Wolf Nielsen
Regular lessons are not on the agenda just yet. Lucien Guy Ghènere is the vice principle and in charge of school discipline. He explains that the first days will be a "period of motivation". "Today we have had psychologists visiting and all students have shared their experiences from the quake and talked about their current fears and how they cope". Also, the students have been given information material on earthquake security measures. "Many still don't feel safe and are reluctant to enter concrete buildings. Many parents expressed doubts about the safety of sending their children to a concrete school building, but all have been informed about the building inspections of the school premises and that they are deemed completely safe and without cracks," Lucien Guy Ghènere tells.

As the person in charge of school discipline he has had to forego on normal school uniform requirements. A large number of families have lost all belongings and currently live in tents and would be unable to send their children to school should they still require neatly pressed uniforms.
"For the time being there it is no longer required with a uniform, but we will return to it at a later stage," says Lucien Guy Ghènere who has worked with SOS Children's Villages for 14 years.

For him it was a somber, important moment, when he greeted the students this morning. "I have not seen many of those students who come from outside the children’s village, some went to the provinces after the earthquake, and it felt good to see them again," he says.

Both he and the school principal volunteered to help manage the storage for the emergency programme. Before the tremor the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo had 550 pupils, but with the many additional abandoned and orphaned children in the SOS Children's Village, that number is expected to increase with approximately 300 more students.

Additional teachers are being hired and some classes will take place in the afternoon, others will have to be accommodated in large tents. Preparations and adjustments are still going on, but that does not change that for the first time in almost three months the flag of Haiti is again flying high from the flagpole atop the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo.

The education ministry, backed by the United Nations Children's Agency UNICEF, had called for classes to resume twelve weeks after the quake which destroyed or damaged more than 4,000 schools. The education ministry itself was also destroyed.