By Mathilde Magnier
Seated on a little bench in the shade of the large tarpaulins that are used as class rooms on her former school playground, Kethia Phélizaire is straightening the creases on her skirt and brushing of dust from her sandals with great care.
“I need to take good care of my school uniform, it is new. If I want to go to school, I need to look after it,” says the 14-year-old. Her hands are resting on her textbook.
Kethia is a student at Soleil Quatre, a school run by Salesian priests in the heart of Cité Soleil. Most children cannot go back to school yet in Haiti’s Cité Soleil, the largest slum in Latin America, but she is lucky, her school reopened at the beginning of April.
Kethia said she “really wanted to come back all this time”. A few days ago, she finally got to meet up with her classmates in the school’s playground that was transformed into a class room. “I did not have any shoes, but fortunately, the school helped me,” she says.
Today, Kethia would not give away her place at school to anybody. “Not everybody can go to school at Cité Soleil”, where more than 350,000 people live, she says. It is estimated that only one out of two children here can attend school.
In Kethia’s neighbourhood Little Haïti, one of the most violent and disadvantaged areas around here, even less children can go to school. Most children in Kethia’s environment have not gone back to class.
In her family, things are not easy either. Her older brothers “could not continue going to school” and the younger ones stay with their mother. “There is a lot of work to do around the house”, she adds without further explanations.
With her serious look, Kethia seems out of place in midst of the overexcited atmosphere of the school. Surprisingly quiet in the hubbub of the playground, Kethia says she wants to “focus, although it is not always easy”.
Like a lot of her classmates, she has “forgotten a lot of things” since the school closed after the earthquake. “These children have fallen behind in the last three months,” explains Noël Clotaire, the school’s head.
“For them to be able to follow in class, the teachers have to stay way behind in the curriculum. And then, the students have become more difficult than before, very distracted. There is a lot of chaos in their lives and that is showing in their behaviour,” says the teacher.
It is not hard to believe when you see the herd of laughing and overexcited children around him. They are very agitated, even a bit aggressive. Whether it is real or just for fun, it is hard to say.
It is very difficult to keep students quiet. More than 1,400 students bump into each other here every day. The younger ones study in makeshift wooden classrooms, the older students learn under tarpaulins at the entrance of the school.
Despite the burning heat, Kethia does not complain. “I wouldn’t want to go inside the school building, I am too afraid,” she says. Most of her friends share her fear.
“Some classrooms are perfectly fit to use, but it is too early, even for the teachers,” says the school’s head. Four months after the earthquake, the terrible memories are still there.
“More than 250 children never came back,” says Noël Clotaire. All over the country, 38,000 school children and university students as well as 1,300 teachers and school employees are estimated to have died. “Conditions are not perfect, but the most important thing now is to move forward”, he says.
The Salesians, supported by Caritas, had to work hard to get the school running again. They had to rebuild the surrounding walls for security, set up temporary classrooms, buy school supplies and material to replace what had been stolen after the earthquake, prepare hot meals for the youngest ones and so on.
Parents could not be asked to contribute. Soleil Quatre is a private school like 95% of schools in Haiti.
“We usually ask parents to pay a small tuition, but that is not possible anymore since the earthquake. In that case, the children would not come back,” says Noël Clotaire. In Haiti, a lot of schools have not reopened because parents are not able to pay.
Kethia knows how fortunate she is. She is determined to study hard. Her wish is “to become somebody and to learn how to live”. And also to change things. Her objective is to become a leader, she says. “Not any kind of leader of course. More like a police officer, to put an end to all this chaos.”
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