Traumatised schoolchildren and teachers in Haiti struggle to overcome the destruction of Hurricane Matthew

Children's welfare after natural disasters

Safe spaces are urgently needed for Haitian children affected by the disaster to get back into education and recover psychologically, says the executive director of the Lidè foundation.

Schools in the devastated south of Haiti are struggling to return to normality following Hurricane Matthew – with pupils and teachers still traumatised by the destruction.

Speaking from Port-Salut in Haiti, Dr Kathryn Adams said much work needs to be done to ensure all children get education while the many schools destroyed by the huge storm are rebuilt.

Dr Adams is executive director of Lidè, a foundation she set up with American writer Holiday Reinhorn and actor Rainn Wilson, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed up to 200,000 people.

Six years on from that catastrophe the Caribbean nation is dealing with the aftermath of another natural disaster following Hurricane Matthew, which devastated Haiti in October and killed more than 1000 people.

The hurricane was the strongest to hit the region in a decade with 90% of parts of the south of Haiti completely destroyed.

Some 1.4 million people lost their homes or livelihoods in the storm, which created the worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Dr Adams spoke to Theirworld a few days after Hurricane Matthew struck, from the city of Gonaïves in northwest Haiti where she was already working.

More than 300 schools were damaged and Dr Adams has been in Port-Salut since November 20 to offer support to children, teachers and local communities.

She said: “People are trying to get back normal life but whole areas were completely swept away. There are just the remains of homes with blue tarpaulin on top as roofs were blown off.

“I had a meeting in the town of Côteaux on November 25 and of the 21 schools destroyed only three were back in session.”

Dr Adams is a specialist in the psychology of teaching and learning in crisis zones. 

She said that educating people how to help traumatised children is vital but added that many teachers in Haiti are traumatised too.

“The teachers and directors of the schools are really shaken after surviving the hurricane so I’ve been working with them,” Dr Adams said.

She added: “The first few weeks have been about trying to survive – survival of the fittest – and people sometimes can’t focus beyond that.

“I see three main needs at the moment. Firstly, structures and buildings have been devastated and although organisations have given tents to families they have not given them to schools. 

“Secondly, we need to take care of teachers and administration staff so they can back to teaching – it’s a hard thing to stand back up. Thirdly, we need to address teaching and take care of the needs of the children.”

Kids are showing signs of trauma. Boys are agitated and can’t concentrate while girls often retreat into isolation. Dr Kathryn Adams, Executive Director of Lidè

Lidè is focusing on setting up safe places for children, especially girls, while refocusing the minds of boys who are still shaken by events.

“Kids are showing signs of trauma. Boys are agitated and can’t concentrate while girls often retreat into isolation,” Dr Adams explained.

She added that girls and young women have borne the brunt of the impact of the storm.

“What we have seen is that the normal work that girls do down here, which to begin with was disproportional and took up any free time in their days, has increased.”

She added that as parents struggle to reconstruct poorly-built shelters and stand in lines for food distributions, or try to replant a crop that was wiped out overnight, the girls take over the work of the household.  

“Girls as young as 10 and 11 are going to fetch the water each morning, mopping up rain that has come through tarp roofs, gathering wood and charcoal for cooking, making the meal for their parent(s) and siblings, washing dishes, washing clothes,” she said.

“If a school is back in session, the oldest girl (no matter how ‘young’ she truly is) is the one getting her siblings ready and walking them to school. 

“And while girls do all of this, we see boys, flying kites made of discarded plastic bags and sticks or playing football (soccer) in a field or on a beach.”

Dr Adams said this is why she decided to start programmes that offer young girls a place to be creative, to feel safe, and to take some time to study and learn with caring guidance. 

“And for the boys, we will provide some special workshops that help them refocus and concentrate,” she said. 

“I know that the urge to play is part of that coping strategy for boys. I don’t blame them for following that impulse. I guess the blame goes to a society where it is assumed that girls work and boys play. That needs to change.”

The charity Save The Children said: “In Haiti, an estimated 25% of the country has been affected by Hurricane Matthew. Some 29,000 homes, schools and other structures were damaged or destroyed. 

“The health, education and protection needs are massive, with an estimated 750,000 people requiring urgent assistance. 

“We are especially concerned for vulnerable children, including some 2000 little ones separated from their families, children at risk of deadly cholera and up to 130,000 children out of school.”

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