In the car with Sandrine and Magdala, two of our talented trainers in Comfort for Kids, our program designed to teach adults ways to help address the post-earthquake psychosocial needs of children. We’re on our way to the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. I haven’t been to this part of the city yet. It’s a kind of commercial area near the airport, with lots of businesses along the road. As we get further in the neighborhood, the earthquake damage is staggering. Buildings with floors stacked on stop of each other like pancakes. Massive piles of rubble.
We pull up in front of the school, College Alexandre Claubert. Sandrine and Magdala have never been here before.
I go outside into the street to take pictures while they wait for the teachers to arrive. I can’t believe how hard this neighborhood was hit. Outside I see kids goofing around in their uniforms, some boys pegging each other with little pieces of rubble which leave poofs of white dust on their blue uniforms where they hit. They are scrambling around, laughing.
When I get back to the classroom, there are now 20 teachers who have arrived. They are all teachers at this school, mainly men. I won’t be able to understand the training because it’s in Creole so Sandrine puts me at the front of the class on a chair so she can whisper to me what’s happening. I take notes, which follow…
Introductions. Many of the teachers are also students themselves, young between 20-30. Some study journalism, psychology, accounting. They stand up when introducing themselves.
The classroom: Cement block walls with open windows and grates over them. Linoleum floor, desks wooden with benches. Some are stamped “Unicef.” Son of the director is sitting quietly in the next classroom over, he’s 3 or 4 and so well behaved. Most of the teacher wear polos and sneakers. Dress shoes and slacks. No lightbulb in the ceiling.
Sandrine starts off talking about what an earthquake is. If they had information about it before. How it changed their life.
She asks, How did it change your life? How did it feel?
One man says it made him very sad and very angry. He’s wearing a white pressed shirt and tie, very tall and thin, and when he talked I sensed real bravery in what he was saying.
Another, who was the one who said he studied psychology, said he tried to use what he knew to help others in his neighborhood cope with their feelings after the earthquake.
Magdala reviews the four pillars of security: environment, home, culture, routine. How important they are for everyone, as well as children to have. How with the earthquake they have lost a lot of them and how kids are vulnerable and how we can help them.
Class is seminar style, like a college class. With Sandrine and Magdala lecturing, with breaks in discussion, trading ideas, laughing, coming back to curriculum. Everyone is contributing a lot to the discussion. Sandrine says it’s common, because the information is so new to them.
They are learning how to help others deal with their feelings even when the earthquake is equally as fresh for them.
My own feelings — sadness, empathy. And grateful for the dignity of these trainings, which allow people to talk about their feelings in a supportive environment. Not sure if they have the opportunity elsewhere. I am so glad Mercy Corps is providing these trainings — I see how important they are.
They discuss how the earthquake affected their own lives, how to react in future earthquakes. How to take care of their own children in an earthquake. How to protect them. Then they discuss each age group’s special needs. 0-3, 4-7, 8-12, 13-18. And there are differences between boys and girls.
Then each person is given a slip of paper that has a real comment from a child on it (Mercy Corps collected these) and using what they just learned, they will share with the class what each would say or do with each child. They discuss it in their rows of three.
Some didn’t talk as much as others during the class but when it comes time to present they all speak clearly and confidently with emphasis and pauses.
I think about my own feelings during 9/11. There was that time when I had to catch a flight and there was an anthrax scare in our building and we weren’t allowed to leave. I had to go but I was afraid to set out on my own among so many strangers. It can be frightening to be in a huge city in an emergency.
Sandrine says that one of the sample questions from children was whether the earthquake was a punishment from God. She says that about half of the teachers said they would say, “Yes.” She advised them that it was better to say to younger children that it was from natural causes, because they may have different religious beliefs than the teacher — there are many different religions in Haiti. But if a child is older, then the teacher could ask what they thought, and discuss their beliefs together.
Afterward, a chat with Wilson, an English teacher. He teaches 12-16 year olds. He says: “The information was very helpful. I learned ways that I can respond to the children now. Since the earthquake they have had strange behavior. When you speak to them, they get very nervous, shy. Now I will give them more time to speak or to get quiet when I ask them to.”
On the way back to the office, we slow in the traffic in Delmas. Sandrine looks past me out the window. She’s looking at a tall wall rising up next to the road where men are propping up mattresses to sell. She says, “Behind there was one of the biggest grocery stores in Port-au-Prince. It completely collapsed in the earthquake. Only four were saved. From cars in the parking lot they estimated 300 people were inside.”
Everywhere there are reminders like these.