The struggle for education in Haiti

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A photo in SOPUDEP's school office of a kindergarten student who died in the earthquake.  Affectionately known as "Préval" because of a family connection to the country's president, she was one of 28 students who died. All photos: Darren Ell

Following the Jan. 12 earthquake, 1,263 out of 4,716 schools in western Haiti were destroyed and another 2,541 were damaged; 376,000 students were out of school and an unknown number of teachers and students were dead or wounded. 

The earthquake exposed in gruesome detail the legacy of centuries of colonial practices which created a weak Haitian State unable to properly house or educate its population. The debt of independence, a corrupt local elite, and their friends abroad ensured that successive Haitian governments responded to the needs of a privileged minority. In 2000, the American, French, and Canadian governments cut aid to poor Haitians when the latter voted for the most progressive government in their history. In 2004, these same governments overthrew the Aristide regime, ushering in two years of terror during which social spending was slashed.

Prior to the earthquake, Haiti's government funded a mere 10 per cent of Haiti's elementary and secondary schools. The rest are funded privately with foreign assistance. Parents earning two dollars a day cannot afford fees, materials and uniforms, and must choose which of their children attends school. Half a million children don't attend school in Haiti. Many stop and start throughout the year and only four per cent finish high school.

To understand the impact of the earthquake on Haiti's struggling schools, I traveled to Haiti with Ryan Sawatzky, President of the Orillia, Ontario-based Sawatzky Family Foundation (SFF). The SFF funds SOPUDEP (Société de Providence Unie pour le Développement de Pétionville) one of Haiti's private schools, which is located in Morne Lazarre, a poor community in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville. SOPUDEP offers accessible education to the poor by waiving the mandatory fees charged by other schools.

The director, Rea Dol, began serving the poor in the 1990s.

"Before SOPUDEP became a school, it was a democratic space where community members voiced their needs and aspirations," she says.

Political ideals found fertile ground in 2000, when the Aristide regime announced literacy funding. She created SOPUDEP, opening adult literacy programs then a K-12 school. The SFF helped Dol double SOPUDEP's enrolment, feed the students daily, and open a program for street children.

A devastated community

SOPUDEP director Rea Dol

On Jan. 12th, this progress was brutally interrupted. Morne Lazarre was devastated. To access SOPUDEP during our visit, we walked across a 20-foot high pile of rubble half the size of a football field, now the eerie crypt to an unknown number of people. Surviving residents were scattered throughout the tent cities that sprang up in Port-au-Prince after the quake. The school survived, but staff and students are afraid to work in it. Classes are now offered under tarps adjacent to the school.

Dol showed me photographs on her computer of her kindergarten students. "She died... and she died... and him too. This one we haven't seen since the earthquake."

She opened a spreadsheet documenting the status of nearly 250 of her students in the aftermath of the earthquake. Beside each name was a Yes or No as to whether students survived. I counted 28 dead, but Dol was only able to account for half the school's students in the chaos that followed. There was another column on the spreadsheet listing whether or not each student's home was destroyed. The word YES scrolled by almost without interruption. Only five per cent of the homes survived the quake.

Displaced and traumatized students

In April, SOPUDEP reopened with half its students missing. I understood why, when we visited parents in the tent city of Tabarre Issa, located 10 kilometres north of the school. Meslouis Eralus and his brother George have three children enrolled at SOPUDEP. After the quake, they pitched tarps on open land near the school but they were transferred to safer ground at Tabarre Issa in April. Their aunt lives closer to SOPUDEP and offered her home to Meslouis' children during the school week, but she could not afford to help George's daughter. George, unemployed since the earthquake, cannot afford the transportation needed to get his daughter to SOPUDEP. She will not finish the school year. And so it goes throughout the dislocated population of Port-au-Prince.

Parents Meslouis Eralus (left) and his brother George

Students who returned were traumatized by the quake. Dol explained: "When we reopened, we didn't even attempt to teach the curriculum. We did cultural activities, sang songs and danced. In May we did an assessment and we saw how dramatically students had been affected. Some children's grade point average dropped from 80 per cent to 40 per cent. Their capacity to retain information was damaged, but they say school is like medicine for them. It helps them forget."

Sauvelyne Louis-Jean looks out over the crowded tent city where she now lives.

The biggest problem, according to Dol, are the conditions in the 1,300 tent cities where over 1.6 million people now reside. "It's hot, crowded and chaotic. Students aren't studying anymore."

I witnessed this dilemma in the tent city of Lindor where Evelyne Louis-Jean, one of SOPUDEP's top students, now lives. Her family's tent, located a few feet from the stench of camp latrines, is a 10-foot by 10-foot structure made of wooden poles, tin, tarp and bed sheets. The claustrophobic space was cut in half by a laundry line. The heat in the tent was stifling, augmented by the cooking fire near the entrance. We could hear neighbours talking. Behind one of the bed sheet walls, Evelyne's sister was washing herself in a small water basin. I couldn't imagine children doing homework sitting on dirt and damp woollen blankets amid pots, dishes, plastic buckets, water jugs, and bags hanging from poles.

Before the earthquake, colonial policies had left the public space of Haiti in ruins. Now, people's private space has been compromised. And it will last for years to fix: six months after the earthquake, less than three per cent of promised reconstruction money has been delivered.

Struggling teachers

Teachers were hit hard by the earthquake. "Some were sleeping in cars or public spaces and many needed tents," explained Dol. "When they started working, they asked for psychological help. They didn't feel stable."

Dol hired a specialist, who gave teachers a 10-hour seminar in coping with traumatic events. The gratitude and respect that teachers feel for Dol is palpable. With the help of the SFF and the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, she was able to offer them food, shelter, and financial assistance after the earthquake. The key role she played in securing shelter, food and medical aid to thousands more was documented in a video produced by the New York Times

James Jean-Noël, SOPUDEP's English and French literature teacher explained that the post-earthquake increase in cost of living was making life impossible. "I need help from Madame Rea for transportation money to get to school. When my child was born, I couldn't afford a hospital, but thankfully a midwife agreed to deliver the baby on credit. What's more, the feeding program at SOPUDEP is for us too! Many of us have had to take second jobs just to feed our families."

As a long-time supporter, Sawatzky was troubled by these revelations, despite having generated over $60,000 a year since 2008 to pay teachers and feed the children of SOPUDEP. I witnessed his conversation with Dol about the matter.

"You are not a government!" Dol reminded him. "This is the responsibility of the State! Without you, these people would not be working!"

She then opened an accounting ledger to explain a program she devised to help teachers in crisis. Each month, teachers contribute a small part of their salary to a pool of money which is made available to several teachers per month who have health care or other needs. Nonetheless, Sawatzky sat back and said, "I have so much work to do."

Members of SOPUDEP'S micro-credit program for women.

After the earthquake, Dol started a small business buying and reselling construction materials to help fund SOPUDEP. Sawatzky is focusing his energy on a project to get teachers' unions in Canada to contribute to teacher salaries. He hopes it will allow him to dedicate other funds to SOPUDEP's other programs: education for street children and a successful micro-credit program for women that Dol recently started. After returning to Canada, Sawatzky informed Ms. Dol that he had secured salaries for the teachers in SOPUDEP's other school project, Les Petits Amis de SOPUDEP, an elementary school in the poor neighbourhood of Boucan le Pluie.

Former PétionVille mayor Sully Guerrier (white shirt), talks with Ryan Sawatzky.

Free compulsory education accessible to all without discrimination is not in Haiti's immediate future. Among other things, it will require the populations of Canada, France and the U.S. -- the countries that supply Haiti with aid and overthrow its progressive governments -- to insist that Haiti be allowed to determine its own development. It is however the objective of SOPUDEP.

"I want to see a fully funded public education system in Haiti," said Dol, "but the Préval government has abdicated its responsibility to our people. I'm focusing on seeing that education reaches the poor."

Sawatzky put it this way: "The best we can do now is offer a public model where all students have equal access to education. That's why SOPUDEP doesn't charge the mandatory fees that are keeping kids in Haiti out of school. The SFF also has no overhead, so every dollar goes straight to SOPUDEP."

Useful links:

To learn more about SOPUDEP or to contact Ryan Sawatzky, go to the SOPUDEP website.

For news and analysis on Haiti: Canada Haiti Action Network.

To learn about health issues in Haiti: Partners in Health.

For human rights information: Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

To learn about women's issues in Haiti: Other Worlds are Possible.

To learn about grassroots organizing and education in Haiti: Aristide Foundation for Democracy.

Originally from Saskatchewan, Darren Ell is a teacher, photographer and freelance journalist residing in Montreal. Between 2006 and 2008, he documented the legacy of the 2004 coup d'état in online publication with the Citizenshift, The Dominion and Haiti Action. His photographic installation on this subject, Haiti Holdup, was exhibited at Concordia University in Montreal. Since the earthquake in Haiti, he has been assisting SOPUDEP with fundraising.

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