By Mark Jafar – Vice President of Corporate Communications at MTV Networks – for Concern Worldwide
Walk around the edges of the sunken tent settlement at Place de la Paix in Port-au-Prince, and it’s nearly impossible to tell that this was a soccer stadium just four months ago.
The grass is gone entirely, replaced by bare earth and debris. There are no goal nets or benches, just shelters made of tarp, cardboard, and rusted scraps of sheet metal.
And where kids and adults once gathered to watch soccer matches or to kick a ball across the field, an estimated 8,000 displaced people are now living in shocking, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, often with nothing but a few pieces of plastic sheeting to shelter them from the rains, which are heavy this time of year.
Over 1.5 million people were made homeless by the earthquake—and they have sought shelter in literally any open space available in Port-au-Prince—many are living on the street. Another 8,000 people are crowded into what was a public square adjacent to the soccer field, making Place de la Paix (“place of peace”), one of Port-au-Prince’s largest and most densely populated makeshift settlements.
The conditions in which these many thousands of people are living are squalid and shocking.
But on the edge of the camp is an unexpected bright spot: a children’s slide, a tiny merry-go-round, a colorful mural—and children gathered together, singing and playing.
This is part of Concern Worldwide’s emergency response program in Port-au-Prince: in the midst of some of the largest makeshift camps, Concern has set up education interventions for earthquake-affected children in “Child-Friendly Spaces.”
These are, essentially, transitional classrooms, many in large tents or existing structures, that offer a refuge and a safe learning space for children made homeless by the earthquake. The Child Friendly Spaces are reaching close to 2,000 earthquake-affected children—giving them instruction in basic reading and writing, as well as arts, crafts and music.
The Concern program also provides psychosocial support to these vulnerable children whose lives have been disrupted by trauma and shock. The Child Friendly Spaces offers a vital sense of safety and stability, and connect the children with a reliable routine that brings a sense of normalcy back into their lives
“The idea is to create a space where kids can be kids, and continue to receive education as the schools reopen,” says Dominic MacSorley, Operations Director for Concern Worldwide US and Emergency Coordinator for Concern Worldwide.
The Child-Friendly Spaces are staffed by animateurs, local educators with training in music, drama, and art hired by Concern to create a transitional curriculum that provides basic learning until the children can be placed in formal education programs and schools.
At Place de la Paix, the team of twelve animateurs is supervised by Jasmin Asline, a member of Concern’s Education team. “When they arrive, they’re quiet, reserved. But slowly they get more comfortable and social,” says Jasmin. “We’re patient, we play with them, we teach them love and unity.”
Annette Ambroisa, 41, has seen changes in her daughters, Farline, (6), and Fedeline, (2), since they’ve started coming to the Concern program:
“They’re happier, they’re learning something new every day, and they’re able to stay clean,” she says, which is difficult but critical in Place de la Paix.
“I like the way they work with the kids,” she says of Concern’s staff. “And (the kids) like coming.”
Concern’s Child-Friendly Space in Place de la Paix camp serves 200 children in the mornings and another 200 in the afternoons, all of whom come dressed in the best clothing they have left.
Education is highly valued in Haiti. Programs like this provide more than education; they are also a means of preserving families’ dignity.
At Place de la Paix, the voices of children fill the Concern tent with call-and-response songs, and the room is alive as kids bounce up and down underneath hearts and guitars cut from construction paper that hang from the ceiling.
The tunes are familiar – “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” for instance, and a few old Haitian gospel songs.
The lyrics, however, are brand new, written by the animateurs to help the children work through the stress and uncertainty that accompanies everyday life here. “Thank You, Concern. Thank You, UNICEF” is among the most popular refrains.
But their favorite song, according to Jasmin?
“Space for the Little Children.”