On the afternoon of 12th January 2010, Jean Lavaud, General Secretary of the Confédération Nationale des Educateurs d’Haïti, was visiting his union colleague Magalie Georges at her Port-au-Prince school, utterly unaware that in a matter of moments their city and their lives would be changed forever.
Catastrophe struck at 4:53 p.m. Fortunately, most of the students were gone for the day when the school began to collapse around them, but Georges suffered severe head injuries when a wall came crashing down upon her. Lavaud dug her out of the rubble and took her first to one hospital and then another, frantically trying to get the care she needed. Three students died at Georges’ school, one of thousands of schools destroyed by the immense power of the earthquake, which was centred only 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. At magnitude seven, it was the most powerful earthquake to hit Haiti in more than 200 years. It killed an estimated 200,000 people, and injured 300,000 more. About 250,000 homes were destroyed, leaving a million people homeless, including Lavaud and the other leaders of the CNEH. Aid was slow reaching those most seriously affected, and soon heavy rains made the already appalling situation even worse for tens of thousands of people without any kind of shelter. Having lost everything, the teacher unionists were sleeping in the open, living in the streets, going for days without food, desperately trying to find colleagues and loved ones. Meanwhile, the emails and phone calls began flying back and forth between Education International’s head office, its Caribbean office and affiliates with experience working in Haiti, everyone doing their utmost to make contact with CNEH, to rally support, begin collecting donations, and get a solidarity plan in place for both immediate relief and longer-term assistance. There was ongoing concern for Magalie Georges, whose injuries were too serious to be treated in Haiti. With help from the NEA, she was able to travel to Washington, D.C. for testing and treatment at Providence Hospital. Like all international donors, EI faced early difficulties in transferring solidarity funds because so much damage was done to Haiti’s banking system. However, working with affiliates and other NGO partners, EI soon managed to send emergency funds to teachers in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Jacmel, Petit-Goave, Grand Goave, Laogane and Nippes. Violent aftershocks continued in the days after the first crisis, prolonging the fear and driving thousands of Port-au-Prince residents to flee the city and even the country. EI’s affiliate in neighbouring Dominican Republic offered support to those in the refugee camps that quickly sprang up in the border region. Lavaud and other CNEH leaders met with Haitian President René Préval and Education Minister Joel Jean-Pierre, where they heard the damage assessment of their already-fragile education system. The news was devastating. Half of Haiti's 15,000 primary schools and 1,500 secondary schools, as well as its three main universities were destroyed or badly damaged in the earthquake. The Ministry of Education building itself collapsed, killing staff and officials The CNEH estimates that more than 1,100 teachers died. Up to 300 students studying to become teachers also died when the Collège du Canapé-Vert came crashing down. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova described the destruction of education institutions and the human loss of teachers and students as “a catastrophic set-back for a country already hit by other disasters.” She pledged UNESCO’s support for rebuilding, and urged academia to show solidarity, saying that universities in the region and beyond should make every effort to take in Haitian students. "What we have seen is the total collapse of the Haitian education system," Joel Jean-Pierre told Reuters news agency. But the education minister emphasised that classes must resume as soon as possible, even if they are in tents. “For the mental health of the population, the children and students need to go back to normal life. They will have hot meals and psychological treatment at schools.” Children under 18 years old make up almost half of Haiti's population of 9 million, with a literacy rate of just 53 percent. Even before the earthquake only about half of school-aged children were enrolled in classes, and poor families had to struggle to pay for uniforms, books and supplies. Now, thousands more youngsters will be out of school and compelled into child labour, especially those who have been orphaned. The longer they are out of school, the more vulnerable they become to exploitation or abuse, experts say. EI and CNEH will develop trauma counselling programmes to assist children and parents as well as colleagues, and have already launched a programme of direct financial assistance to help teachers and their families recover from the disaster. To date, more than 250,000 US dollars have been contributed to the EI Solidarity Fund for Haiti. Lavaud and CNEH Deputy General Secretary René Jolibois received an emotional welcome from colleagues at the North American/Caribbean regional conference held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on 25-26 February. The Haitian leaders said they felt overwhelmed by the tremendous solidarity shown by EI member organisations around the world. The union is determined to play a central role in the reconstruction of Haiti's school system, Lavaud said. The challenges are many and the task ahead is immense, but the spirit of the people is strong and the support committed by the international community should enable Haiti to develop a public school system that can provide quality public education for all of the country’s young people. In a statement from UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson echoed Lavaud’s words. She said that in Haiti the international humanitarian community was confronted with a situation as complex as any emergency of recent years anywhere in the world. “Haiti is a unique challenge – not just because of a huge natural disaster but because of its pre-existing problems of internal conflict and institutional fragility,” Johnson said. “At the same time, we have a unique opportunity to make a new start – a transformation indeed – to create a Haiti fit for children.” By Nancy Knickerbocker.