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Back to School

Pakistan, April 7, 2006

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    Mercy Corps resupplied Kotlipaeen's primary school with tents and materials lost in last October's earthquake. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

Kotlipaeen, North West Frontier Province — A cool morning rain can't dampen the enthusiasm of school children revved up for a special celebration. Neither can grim reminders of the devastating earthquake last fall that all but flattened this 4,000-person village.

Smoke rises from smoldering campfires used by residents to cook meals and boil water. Broken rocks and crumbled bricks mark the path through the old village, built on a plateau overlooking a fertile valley. A rainbow-colored array of tents now populate the ruins.

Two large tents have replaced the damaged primary school. While the accommodations are modest, parents in the community are grateful that their kids can finally restart their classes.

So today, in a show of that gratitude, the school's 130 students take turns reading aloud from lesson books, singing jubilant songs and dancing choreographed routines. Some deliver elaborate speeches thanking Mercy Corps for its assistance. In addition to the tents that shelter everyone from this morning's persistent drizzle, the agency provided the pens, pencils, backpacks, cricket sets, blankets and other supplies that made the classrooms complete.

Kotlipaeen's primary school is one of 16 throughout the quake zone that Mercy Corps has helped restart by erecting tents and supplying items such as bookbags, textbooks, crayons, blankets and psychosocial materials designed to aid the students' emotional recovery. As a result of these efforts, about 1,300 students in the impacted region have resumed their schooling.

Jill Jones, head of Mercy Corps’ education efforts in the North West Frontier Province, says restarting schools go a long way towards helping a community heal. “Adults have jobs,” Jones says, “and kids have jobs too. Their job is to play, to learn, to laugh — that’s how they will cope.”

Afterward the celebration winds down, the school official who emceed the event, an eloquent 22-year-old man named Sharyarkhan, gestures outside toward colorful flower bouquets and an empty stage. He regrets not being able to honor Mercy Corps with the outdoor gala the school had planned. “No other group has done work here. Mercy Corps came to the village and asked us what we needed,” he says. “Tents, desks and chairs. Schoolbooks. Everything.”

He leads his guests on a tour through the debris-filled ruins of the old school building, a short walk from the tents. Before the quake, 180 students attended school here. But Sharyarkhan predicts that enrollment in the tented facility will soon reach 200 as word spreads to nearby communities.

Part of his confidence stems from another project that Mercy Corps helped this community tackle: rebuilding the concrete bridge that links Kotlipaeen to its neighbors.

Schoolkids take turns traversing back and forth across its arch, as if the feel of new construction beneath their feet brings a certain joy. Sharyakhan and other adults, meanwhile, are eager to show off the progress they have made installing the first of two handrails on the bridge. The second will be completed tomorrow.

Then, as the honored guests depart, the kids zig-zag back toward the school for an afternoon of classes and games. By now it had stopped raining. The sky was still gray, but Kotlipaeen's future looked bright.