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.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Goodbye José

José Muñoz, volunteer for America Solidaria assigned to SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti, passed away on Thursday 19 May at the age of 28. Thank you José, for dedicating five precious weeks of your short lifetime to us and to Haiti’s children.

A truly gentle man with a truly gentle smile we will all miss: José. The picture was taken at his induction to the organisation „America Solidara“.
 José laughed a lot. I remember him laughing joyfully. He used to sit down to eat with us and say something that made us all laugh. But he was never laughed about the failures or shortcomings of others, his laugh had nothing cynical or hysterical. He just made the world a little happier. José was able to listen, he was able to see and he was very aware of problems and social injustices in our world, but he still had the energy - and desire - to laugh.

José came to the SOS Children’s Village in Santo on 11 April of this year as a social worker, together with his colleague Belén, a doctor. Both were from Chile, both were sent by “America Solidaria“, both volunteering in Haiti. Just five weeks after their arrival José passed away. The 28-year-old suffered a cardiac arrest on during the late morning of 19 May. Our co-workers, and especially his good friend Belén - the only doctor in the village - reacted quickly, gave him first aid and did everything in their power to get him to the hospital and save his life - but José didn’t stay.

All of us at SOS Children‘s Villages Haiti want to extend our deepest condolences to José‘s family, whom he loved very much. To his mother and his sisters, with whom he grew up and who played a big part in the development of José‘s compassionate and gentle character. To his father, who proudly told everyone he knew about his son’s decision to work in Haiti - which José, in turn, told us brimming with pride. To all his relatives and friends who said goodbye to José in March, fully expecting to see him again after his year of voluntary work in Haiti.

The dead live forever in Haiti, a woman once said to me. It seems José decided to immortalize himself and came to Haiti to die. We‘re grateful that he passed by here in Santo before passing away for good. He certainly left something immortal behind with us.

We see him laughing.

José (bottom row, second from right) participated joyfully in all kinds of events and gatherings. On Monday, 16 May, he played in an international soccer match at the SOS Children‘s Village.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Rain and the President

A new season is starting in Haiti - and with it, a new period of governance. Tèt kale, as Michel Martelly is nicknamed in his homeland, faces great expectations.

Children play football in front of the temporary shelters inside the SOS Children's Villages as the clouds grow darker - Photo: Hilary Atkins
 On our way to Delmas, Port-au-Prince, I see new tents in the camp we are passing. Is it so much easier to import and set up new tents than to help people rebuild houses? There are 680.000 people still living in tents in Haiti, a full fifteen months after the earthquake.

Lately it has been raining during the nights and right next to the new tents, I see a huge puddle. Two naked children are playing in the muddy brown water. They jump in spreadeagled, soak themselves in the ankle-deep water, then turn over, fill up a bottle and empty it over their heads before starting over again. “What happens when the rain comes?“ I ask the driver. “There will be a lot of problems“, he says, before adding “President ,tèt kale‘ will provide a solution.“

The destroyed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince is an apt symbol for the challenges facing the designated president Martelly - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Michel Martelly, who has been nicknamed “Tèt Kale” – a play on words meaning both “shaved head” and “all the way” - won the long and complicated process of the presidential elections that started end of November 2010. The former musician is following the second term of René Préval. The 50-year old has to live up to a lot of expectations, not only in the sector of housing and construction.

After the interim results had been announced, Martelly gave a speech promising a new era for his homeland. He said that his supporters, his country, had voted for change and this change would take place.

The rainy season is about to start, the puddles will grow, the camps will be flooded and 680.000 people living there are likely to react less cheerfully to the waters than those two children I saw in the camp today.

Meanwhile, the temporary shelters inside the SOS Children’s Village have been made reinforced to provide protection from the rain. The prefabricated houses were not sufficiently solid, and during the first months, water entered the houses. Prior to the rainy season they were equipped with additional sealing on the ground and on the roof.
The shelters inside the SOS Children's Village have been reinforced - Photo: Sophie Preisch

“Even though it was raining almost all night, the interior did not get wet, narrates an SOS auntie. “We are fine, everyone was sleeping well“, she says with evident joy.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Old school/New school

The SOS Herman Gmeiner School in Santo is barely recognisable: instead of classrooms consisting of tents on a dirt floor, brand new hangars now provide ample space for eight classrooms in addition to the existing school building. This significant change for the better was made possible by donations from the German Red Cross and the German embassy.

A fresh start in a brand-new classroom - a first for many of the students. Photo: Sophie Preisch
This past Monday was a big day for many students who attend the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo: It was their first proper day of school. Not that they didn't have lessons before, it's just that now those lessons are being held in brand new classrooms. On Friday 18 February a new building was inaugurated right next to the existing school, and the tent classrooms could finally be taken down.

The hangars make up eight additional classrooms where 355 students will receive lessons. The building is positioned behind the existing school, which fortunately did not suffer any damage from the earthquake and is still fully operational.

The original school building was not damaged by the earthquake, but the increased number of students made additional space necessary. - Photo: Sophie Preisch 
 Most schools in Haiti are private and often cost more than an average family is able to afford. Especially after the earthquake, when many people lost their homes, the need for free education grew. More than 300 additional children were matriculated in the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo in order to provide a free education to those who need it. This dramatic increase in the number of pupils of course caused a lack of space where classes could be held. From April 2010, when classes started again after the earthquake, lessons were taught in two shifts, i.e. morning- and afternoon classes and some of them were held in tents.

In Haiti, education is often more costly than average families can afford - free education is practically unheard of. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 The ground was dusty and classrooms were difficult to keep in order, which made life hard both for childrend and teachers. Now, the space in front of the old school building is cemented and the bright blue hangars at the back side provide a proper space for the classrooms.

The tent classrooms were a good interim solution - but they were dirty, stuffy and hard to keep calm in. - Photo: Sophie Preisch

"The inauguration of this new building is the first step towards a more individual and child-oriented education with fewer students per class", says Max Lamesch, Public Funding Coordinator of SOS Children‘s Villages in Haiti. He also coordinated a cooperation with the German embassy in Haiti, who donated the cost of purchasing individual desk-chairs.

The first few days after the inauguration show a clear difference in the quality of classes. "The classrooms are cooler and the air circulates much better than it did in the tents. Furthermore, the children have more individual space with the new chairs", says a fifth grade teacher.

Donations from the German Red Cross and the German embassy made these improvements possible. - Photo: Sophie Preisch

It is this difference that made the opening of the hangars on Friday such a joyful event. After the inauguration by a priest, the ribbon was cut and the event went on in the community hall of the children's village. SOS Children's Villages also awarded certificates to organizations who had offered their valuable support in order to provide better conditions to SOS students.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Happy Birthday Little Star!

Today is a special day for the SOS family in House #8. The table is laden with delicious food and the living room is bursting with guests. Loud music is coming from the speakers as the star of the afternoon makes her appearance: It's Princess Marevie's second birthday.

Marevie is celebrating two birthdays - two years since she was born and one since she was born again. Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Two years might not seem long, but Marevie has a long story. The girl was found a year ago in severe malnutrition. She was cared for by her fathers girlfriend - or rather: was supposed to be cared for by her. The woman, herself a mother, used Marevie to gain access to more food and medicine, but she did not feed her. When SOS co-workers took her to the hospital the day he found her, she hardly had enough strength to keep her eyes open. It took months of treatment to recover, to be able to walk and play.

This SOS co-worker was moved to tears when she saw how healthy Marevie looks compared to one year ago. - Photo: Sophie Preisch 
 Today, that all seems far away, as we watch her dancing in her bright white princess' dress. "She loves to dance", says her SOS mother, "she dances all the time."

Marevie was taken into the SOS Children‘s Village in Santo on 10 February 2010. She has been given an SOS family: a mother, aunties and brothers and sisters who look after her and care for her. They give her love and care and space to develop. During this past year, Marevie has also turned famous, since her story touched many hearts, and still does.

Even though she has become something of a mascot for the whole SOS Children's Village, Marevie seems unaware of all the attention and prefers to play with her SOS sister. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
She herself, seems unaware of all the excitement about her. She surveys her surroundings with a critical expression and prefers playing with her best friend and SOS sister to being the centre of attention. As SOS co-workers are sitting around, eating birthday cake and reflecting how the past year changed this this little girl, Marevie dances away to play with the other kids.

On a bus that never arrived at school

One year ago 33 children were brought to the SOS Children's Village in Santo after a long and sad trip. A group of self-proclaimed missionaries wanted to bring them to the Dominican Republic and were later charged with child trafficking. In March 2010 the children were reunited with their families - we visited two girls and their mother at home to follow up on their story.

In spite of - or because of - her love for her girls, Leila's and Soraja's mother didn't want to pass up an opportunity to offer them a better life abroad. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Education is a big issue in Haiti. An estimated 55 percent of Haitians are illiterate, schools are mainly in private hands, and the monthly cost still does not guarantee high-quality education. It was the hope of making a good education available to their children that made 22 parents give away their children one year ago. "Everyone hopes for a good future for their children. They told us they would go to school and we could visit them", says the mother of Leila and Soraja.

On 12 January 2010 their home collapsed and the family - like many others in Haiti - lived in shock and fear. They lost their house and had to sleep outside. It was just two weeks after the earthquake when they were introduced to a group of foreigners who promised a better future for their children. Most of the children, taken from their parents by the ten missionaries came from Calebasse, an area in the mountains outside of Port au Prince. Infrastructure is indeed lacking up here, the dirt roads are full of potholes and there is only one school. Nevertheless, families here live in relatively good conditions, there is a lot of agriculture and the community seems strong.

This is a summary of what happened a year ago: 33 children were brought to the border of the Dominican Republic. There the bus of US-American Missionaries was stopped by Haitian police. The children did not have valid documents - nor an idea of where they were being taken. After a night of debate (and without food for the children) they were finally brought to the SOS Children's Village in Santo, where they were cared for until mid-March. Haitian authorities then decided to reunite all those children - who, contrary to the missionaries' statements, are not orphans - with their families.

"How are the girls?" asks the SOS mother, in whose SOS family house Leila and Soraja lived. "They still call me once in a while. They say: Mama Joseline, we don't have much credit on the phone, but we wanted to say hallo!" Joseline is proud that she was able to ease their difficult time a bit by giving the two of them a temporary home.

Today, the girls are glad to be back home, but still go visit the woman who took them into her family - and call her Mama Joseline. -Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Now, Leila and Soraja are visibly happy to be back at home. They are playing with their cousins, giggling and happily jumping around their mother while she talks to us. "For the next year we hope things will get better. All the things that happened to Haiti, we hope that they do not happen again", she says. The family was able to rebuild their home, they earn some money by offering internet on their computer to neighbours. "Thank god we are fine now. And also for the problem of the school we will find a solution."

Friday, 21 January 2011

A serious man giggles joyfully

Something unexpected happened yesterday: I saw a child become a different child.

Two small boys were sitting outside a house in the SOS Children's Village Santo, eating rice and chatting. As I walked by, the two started waving at me. One of them even got up and ran towards me. Then, all of a sudden, it hit me: that's Sonson!

Sonson and his SOS auntie - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Running faster than his little legs would allow, the three-year-old fell but immediately got up again and kept running. The other boy came up as well and both of them started talking to me exitedly, but in their own language, which I still don't understand enough to be able to know what they were saying to me. Instead, I tied Sonson's shoelaces as the two of them kept happily giggling and looking at me with their bright eyes. Then they ran back to their plates of rice and sat down again to go on eating as they waved their goodbyes.

This little encounter made my whole day!

I first met Sonson in November as the boy who overcame severe malnutrition and who, to everyone‘s surprise, was getting stronger by the day and walking about just like the other kids. "When the boy was brought here in march 2010, I was sure he would never be able to walk", says a co-worker who saw Sonson when he arrived at the Village in Santo. "He wore a shirt that was way too big for him and his legs looked like strings coming out from under that shirt." The boy was estimated to be about two years old, and was found naked and alone by journalists. Under the care of his SOS mother he grew stronger and stronger. Still, he seemed quite absent-minded when I first visited him.

Saving his smile for other occasions - Sonson is a serious man! - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Today, Sonson lives with his ten SOS brothers and sisters in an SOS family house. Up until the end of 2010, he still had 17 SOS siblings living with him. Many children then moved to the temporary shelters. Sonson's SOS auntie tells me that she's still kept busy, though, because Sonson demands a lot of attention: "He wants to share everything with us. For instance, he calls me excitedly to tell me when he sees a beetle".

Sonson is watching us shyly when we visit to take some pictures. He is not as chatty as he was with his friend in the garden, but he still seems curious about his visitors. "It's hard to get a smile from him, he's a serious man", says the SOS auntie jokingly - but by now I know that this boy is nowhere near as serious when there are no cameras around.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

"We will never forget you"

On a white sheet children wrote their thoughts into three columns: one for 12 January 2010, one for 12 January 2011 and one for 12 january 2020. "Everyone was affected" reads the first column, or "We will never forget all those who died". One boy vented his anger about what happened with words that could be translated as "Doomsday for Haiti". One boy recalls, that he missed out on his date for the earthquake. The "today"-column is filled with aspiration and plans, it says things like: "We are working hard today, but we'll be working even harder tomorrow", "We have to unite our forces to make Haiti move on", "We need to get our people out of the tents".
This poster with the handprints of the children reads "Together we are strong!" - Photo: Sophie Preisch

A moment of remembrance
In the morning, schoolchildren from the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School get together to celebrate mass, remembering all those who lost their lives in the earthquake. Hundreds of children sit on wooden benches or plastic chairs in the schoolyard. They are singing, praying and listening. Many of them lost their homes a year ago, many even lost their parents, siblings or other loved ones. The earthquake and all its consequences has become Haiti's reality - but still it seems so far away.
Holy mass was celebrated in remembrance of those whose lives were taken by the earthquake - Photo: Sophie Preisch

After mass and a short performance by the choir of children and youngsters from the children's village, a letter from Helmut Kutin, the President of SOS Children‘s Villages, is read out loud by the interim national director Dionisio Pereira. To co-workers and especially mothers this is an important moment: he sends his appreciation for their commitment and the strength they showed over the past year. The earthquake - as one of the children also wrote on the poster - has affected everyone in Haiti. Those who survived and who were here right after the quake to help others have also had traumatic experiences and had to cope with it.

The SOS mothers had to adapt to an overwhelming situation in very little time - Photo: Sophie Preisch

Hope unites the people

Prior to the celebrations the children had written their wishes and sorrows on little pieces of paper, and a bonfire is lit to transform these messages and help them ascend to heaven to be heard by higher powers. A long line of students walks solemnly past the fire, throwing in their wishes one by one. Some children are clearly enjoying the special event, others seem more pensive and quiet.

While may children clearly enjoyed sending their hopes and fears skywards via bonfire...

In the afternoon, when the children have gone, the village grows quiet once more. Everyone is reflecting on what happened and how to go on. Sometimes it's hard to understand why people are still forced to live in tents and why there are still so many ruins. What is it that makes everything so slow here? What have we learned, what has Haiti learned? What will it take for this country to rediscover its own strength?

Others seemed a bit more quiet and lost in thought - Photos: Sophie Preisch

For many children this date might be an unpleasant memory, but it's probably even harder to really reflect on what happened. The event has brought them together, has given them a moment to remember. And - after all - it's hope that unifies Haiti. As though to illustrate just that point, the 2020-column of the poster says things like: "Children in the future will be born into a better Haiti", "We won't give up". The boy who missed his chance at a date with a special girl last year simply writes "In 2020, my dates will work out".