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Children in Cité Soleil, one of the largest slum of Port-au-Prince where over 350 000 people are living. Like most children in Little Haïti, they attend the salesian schools supported by Caritas in Cité Soleil. Credits: CARITAS/ MathildeMagnier

Children in Cité Soleil, one of the largest slum of Port-au-Prince where over 350 000 people are living. Like most children in Little Haïti, they attend the salesian schools supported by Caritas in Cité Soleil.
Credits: CARITAS/ MathildeMagnier

By Mathilde Magnier in Haiti

“The children’s laughter just changes the atmosphere, it is the most therapeutic thing in the world ! Since we started with activities for the little ones, things have really changed around here,” says David Valeus. He has a ball in one hand and a paintbrush in the other one.

Life is coming back to the camps where 600,000 people have found shelter since the 12 January earthquake in Haiti. It has been as important for many survivors to recreate a normal social atmosphere in the camps as it has been to receive basic livelihoods and services.

This can be seen in the “Zamis Timouns” (the children’s friends) centres for children.

David Valeus has been in charge of the programmes for children in the Bureau des Mines camp since its opening in March. Now, he spends most of his time running after his daily young visitors. He looks a bit tired, but you can see on his face that he is very satisfied with what he does.

“With more than 450 kids every day, believe me, days go by fast,” says the young man. He has to speak up for us to hear him with all the hubbub around.

In Bureau des Mines, where over 5,000 people live, the Zamis Timouns centre functions like the market place in a village. Around the tents of the centre, tables have been set up with pitchers and water glasses for the children. Now adults come and go to have a chat and get together. The elderly enjoy observing the children and the younger ones are curious to see what is going on as well.

There are drawings, crafts, songs, educational games or sports. The project’s 20 counsellors have already been working for two months to bring some stability to the children’s life.

“These children have gone through unimaginable things. Through psycho-social activities, we try to give them as much relief as possible. And doing this work all together gives us a sense of cohesion and belonging that is really needed here,” says David.

Like most counsellors in the Zamis Timouns centre, David lives in the camp. He is also head of the inhabitants committee of Bureau des Mines. It is a position that he takes very seriously. There are a lot of requests from people in the camp, especially parents.

“Parents are getting more and more involved! Many children cannot go to school here, so their mums ask us to set up more academic educational programmes,” says Marleine Léger, in charge of coordination at the centre.

“Working with and for the benefit of the community, that is what matters. The project’s main strength is that the counsellors live here and know the families. When a child is absent, we immediately know why,” says the energetic young woman.

“The children have made a lot of progress since we started here. These activities do them real good !”

As we see the counsellors run and dance around, sing at the top of their voice and clap on their instruments, their smiling faces all sweaty, you start wondering who benefits more from these activities, whether it is the children or the adults.

Things are not always easy though. The camp counsellors’ daily life remains harsh.

“Finding the energy and the strength to lift up the children is hard work every day. For the children to do better, the counsellors would have to do better themselves. So all these weeks, we have to motivate each other, so that we can go on with the work,” says Marleine.

The results are starting to show.

“Children who were very shy, withdrawn and visibly traumatized are now more and more cheerful and extrovert !” says Jourjina, looking at the dozen of overexcited children in her class.

“Even those who seemed to have the most difficulties at the beginning are really doing better. Those who drew coffins and bent houses or people at the beginning now draw suns for us,” she says.

She picks up Nathalie. The small girl kept pulling on her skirt. “Look at her. She is already 6 years old but when she arrived here, she hardly ever spoke and was afraid of everything. Now, she is talking much more and likes to be with the others,” she said.

“The difference is striking. In a few months, everything has changed in the camps where centres for children were set up,” says Maurice McQuillan, Head of Emergencies for Trócaire (Caritas Ireland), on a recent visit.

Caritas supports the centres in the camps of Pétionville Club, Solino and Bureau des Mines. Almost 2,000 children benefit from these programs.

“The children we see today are nothing like the ones we saw in the aftermath of the earthquake,” he said. “Thanks to these centres, they finally get the space and attention they need to get back some normality in their lives, be children again despite the traumatizing events they experienced. And then, the whole camp community is developing around these centres and benefits from their positive energy. This is essential for the survivors.”