Friday, 25 November 2011

Sad farewell in Santo

Death is part of life and the most certain one. Everyone leaves this life - or the body - at some point... nonetheless, it surprises us, it hurts us and shocks us when death comes and takes a beloved one away. You knew this moment would come, but somehow you just wish it came later. Marevie was only two years and nine months old when she passed away last Saturday afternoon. Yet she touched the hearts of many - people near her, and people who learned about her in the media. From all over the world we received letters during the last days, of her friends expressing sympathy and condolence. With high appreciation we receive and share this tender form of support that shows us how deep the impact of Marevie's nature was even in those who never got to know her personally.

Months have gone by since I last wrote about „our little star“. It was her birthday in February, when things still seemed to be improving. But Marevie hardly gained any weight, even losing weight during health crises. Various doctors were consulted and during the last months she was in and out of hospital. A very rare congenital heart- and lung-defect was diagnosed, the needed specialists and conditions for treatment were not available in Haiti. Experts and supporters in foreign countries were involved and desperately searching for a medical solution that would enable her to live longer and better.

After difficult weeks, we finally reached a moment of hope at the end of last week. Marevie was seemingly stable and we had an offer from a hospital in Mexico that was able to conduct the necessary treatment. We were waiting for her to get back from the Dominican Republic, where she had just finished some exams... but she took another decision. Marevie left this life.

"One angel more up there", said a colleague expressing his sympathy. And indeed, Marevie is an angel, she was one on this side and she will be one on the other side. She used to keep her eyes wide open, observing the world around her. Sometimes this world made her laugh, sometimes it made her cry. And often, she just seemed to be above it all. With a slight smile, or a critical expression on the face she just watched situations - without any comment. Another colleague said: "I'm sure she would have become a great philosopher." Marevie's special appearance was noted by almost everyone who got to know her.

But neither her silent observations nor her unstable state of health hindered her from being a joyful child. She loved to dance, and did, wherever she found space and whenever she was in the mood. She also loved to play with her SOS brothers and sisters, especially one same-aged girl who became her best friend and sister in the SOS Children's Village.

Once, I was waiting at the doctor's office with her and the nurse from the SOS Children's Village. Hours passed by and we had to wait all day long. Like every little child, Marevie wanted to be entertained. She browsed magazines, played with a small toy, observed other patients, ate some snacks, went to the toilet, proved her drawing skills in my note book and cried when she found out that there was nothing left to do. I knew she liked seeing her own image and took her picture on my digital camera to show it to her. Looking at the camera display she whispered in her soft voice: "That's me. I'm beautiful."

Yes, you are, Marevie! Inside and out. All over the world people have been touched by this beauty of yours, and have been reminded of how precious life is.

Friday, 4 November 2011

A smile on a rainy day

Portrait of Elie, a student in Tellier, where SOS Children’s Villages is renewing the public school

Elie (in background) on his way home from school - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Walking home from school, Elie sings and hums to the music coming out of his walkman. “It‘s a radio, it plays a lot of different music“, he says in response to being asked what kind of music he has on it. Elie’s way home is a small path leading over rocks and hills, through lush vegetation and, on rainy days, puddles. He says he can make the way in 30 minutes if he runs or walks really fast, walking at a normal pace takes him approximately one hour.

Elie walks for about one hour to school - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 The 14 year-old goes to the fifth grade of the public school of the community Tellier in the south of Haiti. He is one of almost 200 students standing in the rain as we arrive at the school on a Friday around noon. Hurricane Tomas destroyed the already run down building even more in 2010; big holes in the walls and the roof now make it impossible to continue with the classes when it’s raining. Elie stands there laughing and joking with his friends - everyone seems quite used to the situation.

The already run-down building was further damaged by Hurricane Tomas in 2010 - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Elie lives with his mother and his six siblings. His father died last year and his mother became sick soon after. Now, he is in charge of the family’s income, selling goods at the market in Cavallion. It takes him over two hours to carry papayas, bananas, coconuts, corn or yucca down to the market that takes place twice a week. On those days when he sells everything, the family can buy food – once, Elie even made enough to buy his radio and headphones that accompany him on his way to school.

For most students at this school, future career options are quite limited - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 The pressure of feeding his family does not give Elie a lot of room to dream about career options. Still, he has some dreams for the future: “I have never been to Port-au-Prince“, he says with a gleam in his eyes. “I wonder what it’s like. Probably I could go there and find out about different jobs one could do. I would really like to learn something that would make it easier for me to live better.“

Monday, 17 October 2011

Loud and new: SOS Schools open their doors again

The sun is burning down. Hundreds of exited kids in new school uniforms sit and walk and run in the school yard and the director opens the new school year with ceremonious words. SOS Hermann Gmeiner Schools in Santo and Cap Haitien opened their doors again and teachers now start putting into practice, what they learned during summer.

"I virtually hear the uproar when I see this picture", our colleague said this week via skype. She worked here for SOS Children's Villages Haiti during last school year, when the number of students had increased to 921 due to the after-earthquake emergency situation. This year the number increased again - the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo alone is attended by 1,190 children.

This second increase can be explained by the fact, that the SOS Family Strengthening Programme also accepted more children after the earthquake - children who also need to have the chance to go to school. Charles Myrtil, director of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo, together with the national office, found a way to manage the big number of students. Classes take place in two shifts, 19 classrooms are in use (in February the school was extended by hangars of eight classes) and provide space for 34 classes with 35 students each. This way the school was still able to use one classroom as library and at the same time level out the number of students per class in order to enhance quality.

Quality - this lately has been an often discussed topic at the SOS Schools in Haiti. During August, a total of 87 teachers and trainers from Santo and Cap Haitien participated in the second phase of teachers' training with the University Quisqueya. The main question was: How can we enhance the quality of the education we are providing?

But there was also another reason behind this get-together, one that had immediate impact on the students: The teachers rehearsed a song together and presented it at the first school day on 3 October.

By the way, first day of school was scheduled in Haiti for 5 September, but President Michel Martelly decided to delay the start of the school year for four weeks. He nourished his popularity during the long presidential campaign (elections lasted for almost half a year) with the promise of free education in Haiti - a target which is still in an evident distance from reality, despite the delay of the school openings.

Anyhow, also SOS Children's Villages perceives that enhancing access to free and good education as necessary first step in Haiti. Therefore various measures have already been taken; others are in process of being taken. One of those: the construction of the new school Santo 2. Right beside the SOS Children's Village in Santo, a second school is being built. As soon as the 14 classrooms are finished, parts of the students from first and second cycle (first to sixth grade) will visit classes there. And until then... we all hear the uproar when we pass the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School Santo 1.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Eating and going to school: A young woman’s dreams

Elene lives with her husband and her daughter in Port-au-Prince. The nineteen-year-old talks about her education, her misery and her dreams.
“I had heard of the centre, that it receives children whose parents don’t have the possibilities to provide everything for their children”, says Elene, a friendly and soft-spoken person. „My husband and I both live in misery because we don’t have jobs. It helps us a lot that our daughter Jessica can come here”. The nineteen-year-old is talking about the social centre of the SOS Family Strengthening Programme in Santo. Jessica and the other children go to the centre every day at eight in the morning and stay until two o‘clock in the afternoon. The children receive three meals, which is a big financial relief for the family.

The two-year-old Jessica attends the SOS social centre for free, but for her parents, even the bus fare to get her there is often too high. Photo: Sophie Preisch
But that would not be the only benefit for the family. As Elene points out, the linguistic and mental growth of two-year old Jessica is also at stake. The girl first started attending the social centre about four months ago. But her parents can’t bring her here every day. “Getting here and back in the morning and again in the afternoon costs at least 50 Haitian Gourds (equals 1,2 USD) for transport and diapers. Sometimes that’s more than we can afford”, she says. “My husband Luis would work do anything, take any job to give us food... there simply isn’t any work.”
Elene grew up with her father and her step-mother, later she lived with her mother until she got pregnant at the age of sixteen. “My mother got angry, and threw me out. But my husband did everything to care for me“, she says. “I love my mother very much. And now I know that she was right. It is so important to finish school! Now, that I understand, we get along well.“ Most support she receives from her husband; “we have a very strong relation“, she says.

Education has always been a central point in Elene’s life. She recounts her childhood by narrating who was paying for her schooling. First she and her siblings lived with their parents, but then they got divorced and her father took the children to live with him. He paid for school until he could no longer afford it. Elene was sent to her stepmother‘s aunt and she paid for school until she died. After her death the girl lived with her own mother, but she was not able to pay for school either. A man offered to pay for school and her mother agreed. It was 12 December that year, on Elene’s birthday, that this man made her drunk and raped her. He still wanted to pay for her schooling, but she refused. Later, Elene got to know her husband, who payed for school until she got pregnant. Fifth grade was the last class Elene finished. Today she dreams of continuing her education.

Many adults in Haiti have never completed any kind of education. In its social centres, SOS Children's Villages offers a variety of courses in professional skills and vocational training. Photo. Sophie Preisch

But this is a dream, she says, far away from reality. When she got pregnant, her husband earned money by buying and selling scrap iron. “He can’t do that anymore“, she says, “he doesn’t have the money to buy the iron in the first place”.

For the long term, the family strengthening programme can also help Elene and her family to get back on their feet economically. “In the centre they offer classes for cosmetics, tailoring and handicraft, for instance... when the next classes start, I would like to participate“, she says. Furthermore, the programme is planning to initiate a microcredit-programme which can help mothers and families to start a small business.

Elene, Jessica and her daddy are struggling to make it through as a family. But they're clearly making progress. Photo: Sophie Preisch
When asked for her wishes and goals she laughs out shyly. “Oh, I have a lot of dreams“, she says with a sparkle in her eyes, “but things are very difficult. Especially now that we don‘t have work. I know how to braid hair, but I would need some tools to do so. I can get along a few days without eating, I grew up in poverty and got used to it... but I would like Jessica to have food every day.“

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Teachers’ training enters second phase

SOS Children’s Villages Haiti contracted the faculty of education studies of local Quisqueya University to give teachers further training and renew the curriculum. The teachers’ training enters phase II as 66 Haitian teachers receive classes in August 2011.

Most Haitian newspapers are written in French. An estimated 95 percent of the Haitian population are not proficient in French. An estimated 51 percent are not able to read at all.

The Haitian educational system has added to existing social inequalities over the past decades. As part of the emergency work after the earthquake in 2010, SOS Children‘s Villages decided to focus on the field of education in order to be able to provide sustainable contributions to the process of change.

A typical lesson in Haiti is a one-way street: the children simply echo what the teacher says. In order to learn about the student’s needs and teach them to have their own ideas, to think themselves and decide independently, this system must change. Of course, this has to be done step by step and starts with the training of teachers.

On Monday 1 August, the second phase of the teachers’ training started in Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince. Forty-two professors of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner school participated in the intense summer programme provided by the faculty of education studies of the well-established university. Two weeks later, on 15 August, the course started for 44 teachers in Cap Haitien. The teachers receive a total of 60 hours of free training and a certificate of participation.

Francis Faroutine, national coordinator for education with SOS Children’s Villages Haiti, on the first impact of the classes: “The presentations are good and the facilitators from Quisiqueya University do a good job. Even though this phase of the training is quite intense for our teachers, they are motivated and participate actively”.

At the official inauguration of the teachers’ training phase II, co-workers from different working areas of SOS Children‘s Villages in Haiti were present. Ilu Valenzuela, from the international support team of SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti, says: “We want a school with quality: human quality, technical quality and professional quality”.She believes that education will enable the children to become independent and self-confident and that it is important to pay attention to the needs and rights of the children. A remarkable detail is that she gave her inauguration speech in Haitian Creole, which by now is spoken - at least on a basic level - by every member of the international team.

1620 students visited classes in the SOS Hermann Gmeiner Schools in Santo and Cap Haitien past school year, and there may be up to 2119 in coming year. This increase is related to current construction works: a second school is being built in Santo, which is scheduled to open its doors to new students at beginning of 2012.

In fact, the actual contract with Quisqueya University over the intensive course for teachers as well as a renewal of the curriculum, is already the second phase of the teachers’ training programme in Haiti. It is based on the previous work of Bettina Reiter, a voluntary from Austria. A team of international and national co-workers of SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti had analysed the current situation and teaching methodologies in the SOS Hermann Gmeiner school in Santo and Bettina Reiter developed a plan for teacher training. Following this plan, she provided classes and work sessions from March to June 2011. Before the end of her stay in Haiti, she took part in the negotiations with Quisqueya University, during which a follow-up plan for the training was set up.

The third phase, which is to start in 2012, will be a permanent training centre for teachers in Santo. In an interview in January 2011, Heinrich Mueller, deputy secretary general and continental director for Latin America and the Caribbean, points out the importance of a more individual form of education: “Each child has a certain level of development and the teachers should find out at which level they are. Based on that, they should provide individual support to each student, according to his or her education and development”.

Haiti has a long way to go until every child attends a school and the majority of the population is able to read the newspaper. SOS Children’s Villages was searching for ways to create a more permanent impact than just building new schools. The teachers’ training is meant to open up new aspects and perspectives; first to teachers and through them to the students. After all, as Henry Brooks Adams once put it: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Coming back to Haiti, coming back to life

After a long intermission we declare this Blog „alive“ again. The first impressions after coming back to Haiti...

I have been out of Haiti for more than five weeks and it felt good to arrive at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince again. Upper-class Haitians in exclusive outfits, international helpers in functional wear and missionaries in mission-shirts searching for their bags in a lively, loud and chaotic atmosphere. I have seen the procedure before, and was not as surprised as in November 2010 when I arrived here for the first time.

An incredibly resistant layer of dust seemed to find it‘s way directly from my room into my lungs.

Three hours later, in estimated 40 degrees Celsius (I was coming from Austria, where I woke up with 13 degrees the day before), trying to clean my room from an incredibly resistant layer of dust, the joy of being back felt somehow lessened.

Only a few days later we heard that tropical storm Emily was moving straight towards Port-au-Prince. Necessary measures were taken, children who lived in the temporary shelters moved to the school for two nights. Strong winds cooled the air down and all bureaucratic procedures were in pause, once again. In the end Emily changed direction and all the area of Port-au-Prince, where thousands still live in tents and temporary shelters, was much less affected than predicted.

SOS children currently living in the temporary shelters were moved to the school with their families, as Emily was predicted to affect the zone of Port-au-Prince.

Now, some days have passed by and I‘m getting back to routine. Some things have changed, other‘s did not. School is on holidays, for instance, and there are less children around than usually. But it‘s still hot, as I mentioned, and things are still more complicated than you‘d expect them to be.
Some things changed during the past weeks, others did not: Hermann Gmeiner school is on holidays, but the social centre is still open.
What I wanted to say to the readers: this blog may be presumed dead, but it will come back to life. In Haiti, the home of zombies, we are in the right place for resurrection, I suppose.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A whole new world of complications

The new temporary offices for the national office and international team of SOS Children's Villages Haiti - Photo: S. Preisch
I think it has already been mentioned several times on this blog that everything follows its own pace in Haiti. Everything is just a little more complicated than elsewhere. The international team working in Haiti has grown used to this. And yet, the following story surprised us and exceeded our expectations: we finally moved into the new offices. On Sunday, 15 May, five containers arrived in Santo - and three weeks later, on Monday, 6 June, they were set up well enough to start working in them.

Even though the old colonial building that housed the national office until the earthquake did not collapse, it was deemed dangerous to work in - Photo: H. Atkins
 The national office of SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti in the centre of Port-au-Prince had to be abandoned after the earthquake. Even though the building did not collapse, it was considered unsafe. For the emergency situation and the international staff, who needed to live on site, the whole team moved to work from Santo, where one SOS Children‘s Village and an SOS Hermann Gmeiner School have been since 1984. For a long period everyone was working from wherever he or she found a space to hook up their computer - or at least to sit down.

Building a new national office will take a while - of course, with all the other constructions necessary in Haiti, this is not the first priority. So the gradually growing team of the national office had to find a temporary solution. The containers seemed to be the best and easiest way to provide a working space for everyone in the team.

Discussing, relocating, taking measure: a lot of people on a little space during the first few days in the containers.
„When I started working here, I had neither a desk, nor a chair. All I had was my backpack with my stuff“, civil engineer Freinet Sanon says. He says that purchasing those containers was decided on in October of last year, and that the plan was to be working in them as of the end of 2010. But it soon became evident how demanding this project was going to be.

Time and again, delivery of the containers was delayed until people began to think they didn't exist. - Photo: S. Preisch
 „The first difficulty was to find a company that produced such containers in the Dominican Republic. Then, we had to make some designs and plans for all the offices - which was not an easy task in the 12 meters long and only meters broad containers. The production delayed again and again. And finally we were confronted with troubles at customs to getting the containers to Haiti. In the end, we announced that we would not need the containers anymore unless they were delivered within a week. And here they are“, Freinet says laughing.

I had first been told about those containers that would be arriving soon upon my arrival in Santo in mid-November 2010. Ever since then, this „soon“ was repeated over and over again until we all thought the containers were a myth. Some classrooms in the school had been turned into offices, as well as one building of the housing area for the international staff and basically every terrace and living room.

The new office spaces are cramped, but are a significant improvement on work conditions up to now. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 The 5,3 square-meters, that serve as office space for myself and two more colleagues, heats up during the morning to an estimated 40 degrees Celsius. On the way to the entrance door eight men are discussing how to position the desk in a way that still allows the door to open. Before electricity was cut, the air condition spread a smell of burnt plastic, which mixed up with the smell of the freshly painted walls. There is no printer and the internet goes on and off without warning.

We are used to complications, but we‘re just getting used to new dimensions of it. „I am contented. I mean: yes, it is a small space, yes, we still have problems with electricity and the network. But at least the containers are finally here and we were able to move our offices, after so much effort“, Freinet says.