Israeli volunteers have opened a makeshift school in Port-au-Prince, providing education and counseling for 800 of the city’s traumatized children.
As the earthquake-ravaged city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti struggles to cope with the devastation in the wake of the mass loss of life and destruction, efforts to return a semblance of normalcy to the area is being aided by an Israeli delegation of volunteers.
Members of the Natan Israeli Coalition for International Humanitarian Aid, have been in Haiti for three weeks, and with aid from the local government and from the neighboring Dominican Republic, have managed to open a makeshift school that for the last week has begun teaching some 800 pupils.
“Basically what we did was to identify professionals within the community and established a group of teacher volunteers,” said the leader of the six-member Israeli delegation, Dr. Moshe Farhi, a trauma and stress expert at Tel Hai Academic College in Kiryat Shmona.
“We’ve set up two giant tents to house the school and organized the supplies for the students, like notebooks and pens and text books. We currently have two shifts for the school – morning and afternoon, and we have around 40 teachers working with the students,” he told ISRAEL21c from Port-au-Prince.
Searching the rubble to find school books
According to Farhi, when the pupils heard that the school was opening, they began searching through the rubble of their homes for their books and supplies, an indication that they were eager to return to their pre-quake routine.
Farhi, who has been instrumental in developing programs in Israel to train people to help residents of Israel’s north cope with the trauma of katyusha attacks from Lebanon, said that he has been involved with similar efforts in Haiti.
“It’s important to understand that there can be extreme reactions right after a traumatic event. The first emotional reactions can be hysteria or even catatonia. So some of what I’ve been doing has been working with victims like that,” he said, adding that he has been pleasantly surprised by the spirit of the local population to adversity as reflected by the enthusiasm over the school.
“We found that the resilience of the population is much stronger than we expected. Within a week after the quake, they had started dealing with carrying on with their lives. Parents started sending their children to school – and to not be in control of your child after something like that happens is a big deal,” he explained.
Like in Kiryat Shmona, Farhi has been organizing groups in Port-Au-Prince and training people to become trauma counselors.
Training teachers in trauma response
“We’ve established a small group and picked those teachers we feel are capable of training others to deal with trauma and help the victims cope and go back to the routine they had before,” said Farhi.
Farhi’s delegation was due to leave the day after he spoke with ISRAEL21c, to be replaced by five other members of the Natan coalition, which was named for Israeli peace activist and humanitarian Abie Natan. However, he said that he would be returning before long.
“We intend to have a presence here and work with the local population for the next half year,” he said, adding that he first became involved with the organization when he led an Israeli team to Sri Lanka in the wake of 2004’s tsunami.
“It was in Sri Lanka that I met Dr. Mike Naftali, who’s the co-chairman of Natan, and we started working together,” he said.
Naftali is a Fellow Researcher at the Tel Aviv University Interdisciplinary Center for Children and Youth Studies, and also serves as chairperson of Topaz – for the Well Being of Children and Youth, and of Brit Olam – the International Israeli – Jewish Volunteer Movement.
More delegations on their way
Three days after the quake, Natan sent its first humanitarian aid delegation to the area, which helped set up and man the Israeli military hospital. Farhi’s delegation left Israel on January 22, and included doctors, paramedics, mental health therapists, community workers and trauma support staff. According to the organization, another 12 delegations will be sent to Haiti this year to assist with the multidisciplinary rehabilitation needed in Haiti.
In another Israeli relief effort in Haiti, IsraAID this week opened a child education center in the Petionville Refugee Camp – the largest refugee camp in Port-au-Prince.
Working closely with other agencies, such as Operation Blessing, JP-HRO and ProDev, the center will function in tents donated by the IDF which were used for their field hospital. The tents will now become a child friendly space where activities for 250 children at time will take place.
The educational programs which were prepared in partnership with all three agencies as well as the local teachers include pedagogical content, music, sports, and training for readiness in case of another earthquake.