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Haiti’s children need help to deal with trauma of Hurricane Matthew

Children's welfare after natural disasters, Education in emergencies

A girl lays her school notebooks to dry in a classroom that she is staying in with her family, in Les Cayes. The school is being used as a shelter.

 

“Right now, the biggest effort is trying to help teachers and people who run youth programmes to better understand the issues that they are going to be facing,” said Dr Kathryn Adams, speaking from the city of Gonaïves in Haiti.

She 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 last week and killed more than 1000 people.

An emergency appeal for $119 million was launched this week to help local humanitarian groups and United Nations agencies deal with the aftermath.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF said it needed at least $5 million to meet the immediate needs of 500,000 affected children.

More than 300 schools have been damaged and others are being used as temporary shelters – leaving over 100,000 children with no education. But some schools in the south of Haiti are expected to begin reopening from October 18.

The hurricane was the strongest to hit the region in a decade and survivors are mourning the victims as fears of an increase in cases of cholera grow.

Haiti has been experiencing a cholera outbreak since 2010 when the waterborne disease reached the island via Nepalese UN troops.

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 and prevent the spread of disease is vital.

She added: “Our work has had to shift because of the hurricane. We’re already planning to train teachers in how to address trauma in the southwest. We may be partnering with a couple of larger international NGOs.

“We have had to shift the content of our programmes in order to address the trauma that we are seeing with the girls and their families. The need is to prepare them for disease prevention.”

Lidè – the word means both “leader” and “idea” in Haitian Creole – has 12 programmes and 48 staff who support around 500 children in remote rural areas.

The organisation offers education to disadvantaged girls and children with disabilities while training Haitian teachers and working with grassroots groups.

Lidè uses the arts and teaches photography, creative writing, drama and literacy.

Many young girls in Haiti have few life chances and end up as domestic servants which is why Lide tries to help them.

Dr Adams said: “Our decision to work with girls was because they were so marginalised. They don’t have the same rights as boys in this country but our programmes for children with disabilities are open to both boys and girls.”

Lide’s executive director Kathryn Adams in Haiti

 

As a result of the hurricane Lidè has had to postpone programmes in two locations because they are now inaccessible due to the damage caused by the huge storm.

Dr Adams also needs to raise funds to rebuild a structure that was completely destroyed and to prepare local communities for outbreaks of disease.

Helping traumatised children cope with the current crisis is a priority.

Dr Adams said: “The whole concept of education in emergencies begins around this idea that any place for gathering for youth – schools, programmes – is a place of stability. It is a way for them (children) to feel like their life can continue, after loss, or during a time of chaos.

“When the world around them is chaotic they need a safe place to go. But the way that is addressed has to change – it’s not business as usual because a child’s mind is affected by this chaos.”

During a crisis it becomes harder for children to concentrate Dr Adams explained, adding that neurological studies show that the brain does not respond as it does normally.

She said: “Once fight or flight is triggered, the logical reasoning parts of the brain – especially the frontal lobe – shut down. It takes activating them, it takes consciously targeted methods of activating that and bringing a child back to a place where they can concentrate.

“It also means educating teachers to explain that this child isn’t just spacing out and being bad – this child is struggling with the chaos around them and this is a normal response to that.”

Haitian girls at a workshop with Lide founder Holiday Reinhorn Picture: J/P HRO

 

At an international level Dr Adams would like to see teachers prepared in advance for teaching children after they’ve had a traumatic experience or during a crisis or conflict.

“That information needs to be taught in a systematic form internationally,” Dr Adams said who previously helped create a video training series on the effects of trauma on learning within conflict zones.

Save The Children is also trying to help terrified Haitian children affected by the hurricane and said that at least 2000 have been separated from their parents or were living in orphanages.

Over the past few days Save the Children’s emergency response team was in the hardest hit areas of Sud and Grand’ Anse and reported seeing numerous children lacking basic necessities and without adult supervision.

“It is critical that we support families during this time,” said Kevin Novotny, Save the Children’s Country Director in Haiti.

He added: “Children are at risk of gender based violence and placement into orphanages or long term domestic servitude if their parents are unable to provide them with food and meet other basic needs. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Save the Children was also assessing damage done to schools and deployed an emergency health unit to help with cholera prevention and basic health services.

“We are in a race against time to avert a mass cholera outbreak,” said Dr Unni Krishnan, Director of the Emergency Health Unit.

He added: “Recent emergencies such as Ebola and the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 have highlighted the urgent need for clearer, more streamlined health responses. Our emergency health unit meets that need. It responded to yellow fever in DRC and will make an important contribution in Haiti.”

The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in Haiti, Mourad Wahba, said: “We are not far from having one million people who are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.”

We interviewed Life founder Holiday Reinhorn in 2014 about its programme in Haiti. Read our story here.


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