Interview with Haitian activist Rea Dol

Rea Dol is grassroots community organiser and founder of SOPUDEP school in Port-au-Prince. Shortly after the earthquake they had to abandon the school which was being used as a shelter due to the stench of dead bodies and sturtural damage which made the building unsafe.

For the school to continue it will have to relocate. A group of students and teachers are trying to design temporary classrooms on a new site which the school bought through donations last year.
Design for the new school
SOPUDEP_09-update_img_4

Here Rea speaks to Kathlene McGuinness of Ryerson University Toronto, about the aftermath of the earthquake and her hopes for the school in the future.

Interview

1. Could you take us through a normal day at SOPUDEP before the earthquake?

Rea: A normal day, all the children come to study at school, as usual, the children go to their classrooms, and when means allow, they receive a hot meal at school. The first group finishes at 1:00pm, and then in the afternoon we help street children to work hard to learn a trade skill. We work, following the pedagogical program of the National Education Ministry that they supply us with–that’s the one we use.

2. What is your vision for the new school? What would you like to see happen?

Rea: As we work with groups abroad, such as in California, with Seth (Donnelly) and the union members, we have been working to try to secure a (new) site (for the school), and we will communicate with Ryan (Sawatzky) as well. The former building, I had a 10-year contract, which is ending in 2012, and I have received many threats, so we were looking at the new school for SOPUDEP. Therefore, we were looking at the possibilities to have a new land and site for the school.

3. What materials are available to you on the ground right now?
Anything you can think of – not just normal building materials – pop
cans, cardboard boxes, etc.

Rea: We do not have available (heavy construction) materials…we can’t recuperate them. Some of the structures have been destroyed. The space where we worked with the small children was condemned after the earthquake, because it structurally cracked, and was damaged; therefore, neither children nor adults would be secure inside. The other building had some things break inside. There isn’t (heavy) material available at this point.

As for cardboard boxes, for manual work with the children, we use them, as well as for plastic arts. We can, in any case, find them.

4. What tools are available?

Rea: We would like a clarification on this question. Are you referring to pick-axes, hoes, machetes; or hammers, saws, pliers, wrenches, screw-drivers, or other tools? If it is for them, we can find some, although we say that we always welcome these kinds of contributions.

5. What are the children’s favorite games and stories? Do they need
special equipment for any games?

Swings, play-houses/slides, soccer balls and basketballs, baskets (backboards, rims, nets, etc…)

6. How do you like to set up a classroom?

Rea: At this moment, the area (Monn Laza, where the school is) is completely destroyed, and many of the people have lost their homes completely. The school is the only place which receives their remaining possessions, that have been recovered from under the ruins. What remains a problem–how we can work in this framework, everyone is sleeping in the public parks and squares, in the street, under the stars. This remains a problem–almost a wound, for people to witness the destruction of everything, creating fear. I ask myself: can we really open the school in that area again? I’m thinking often about that–can the school be opened after a while there, or at all?

Part of the classrooms are empty right now…

7. Are people going to be eating and sleeping in the temporary space?
On the site?

Rea: I have a problem: now, children don’t remain inside houses under a concrete slab roof, especially to sleep. Then, we need to rebuild our site, to begin once again to work with the children, temporarily, while waiting for the new school to be done and built.

The teachers need many things: some have no clothes, materials, etc…Many teachers don’t even have houses (anymore), and are sleeping in small cars, or on the square/park, they have nothing, we give them supplies where we can find them, on the street or elsewhere. They need clothes, working materials, other forms of support, as responsible parties, because we are concerned with what is happening. We give support however we can, it is us who supports the teachers. There are those who don’t have charcoal to cook their food, when we bring the food to them, so it is necessary for them to find a little money to buy charcoal or gas. That’s a problem.

8. What do you personally need more than anything at the school? What
do the teachers need?

Rea: I have a problem: now, children don’t remain inside houses under a concrete slab roof, especially to sleep. Then, we need to rebuild our site, to begin once again to work with the children, temporarily, while waiting for the new school to be done and built.

The teachers need many things: some have no clothes, materials, etc…Many teachers don’t even have houses (anymore), and are sleeping in small cars, or on the square/park, they have nothing, we give them supplies where we can find them, on the street or elsewhere. They need clothes, working materials, other forms of support, as responsible parties, because we are concerned with what is happening. We give support however we can, it is us who supports the teachers. There are those who don’t have charcoal to cook their food, when we bring the food to them, so it is necessary for them to find a little money to buy charcoal or gas. That’s a problem.

9. Is there anything you hate, or anything you really like, about the
school as it is now?

Rea: We would be very happy if the school could open. The children are in a bad situation, but the means are not available for the children to recommence school, because most schools in the capital have been destroyed, and they ask for school to be re-opened under tents, but that represents a danger: there is not enough space in the courtyard, so the children would be victimized once again if a second disaster strikes. Only if there were open spaces, for our minds to be at rest, but you just don’t find enough of that.

What do I like? The school is still alive, but I don’t like how the area of Monn Laza has become unliveable in this moment, where everyone has deserted. How will we create a zone and climate of peace, for children in that area, because everyone has deserted? Elsewhere, houses have been destroyed, but maybe, after you see 10 houses destroyed, maybe 4 or 5 of them are still standing, but Monn Laza, everything has been destroyed, and the state hasn’t removed anyone from under the rubble. It is the youth who put on masks on their faces, and remove the rubble. Bodies have to be burned, funerals cannot be conducted, it is the youth of the neighborhood, but they don’t have enough material to do that. The tractors, the loaders, they don’t have those materials.

A reporter from the NY Times visited the area with me, and asked questions about why the area is disdained, as they have done in other places, despite the fact that the state has been victimized (in the recent earthquake). The area, because it has been fully destroyed, the way the area is, they have given other areas priority over this one, so it is the youth who must make an effort, alone, to remove the dead from under the rubble. One of our best staff members and collaborators, named Nadia, left the school at 4:30 pm (on January 12, 2010), and died at 4:50pm, she couldn’t even be buried, they had to burn her body, on the ground. That made me sad.

10. Do you have any questions or concerns for me, or anything you
would like to tell me that you think is important.

Rea: The questions I have. The first thing I’m asking you: how can we receive a psychologist for the children? This would be the greatest blessing. The teachers are sick, both the leaders and the students as well. Even if I’m standing, morally, I’m also sick, but must assume my responsibilities. The catastrophe, people died, the children are there, you can’t respond, morally, physically, everyone has been affected by this. So the first thing would be a psychologist for the teachers and the students.

This is the ONLY school who did the work that myself and my staff-members are doing, to go look for the children, in all the corners, how many have survived, how many have died, and those who cannot leave for the provinces, we give them a small stipend — to my knowledge, SOPUDEP is the ONLY (academic institution) who takes these steps, for the students. Many people have the time: this is the best school to put one’s children in, I focus on the children, I see their future, because it is they who will replace me tomorrow. So it’s about giving the children another training (and upbringing). The students began to work, that evening, on January 12th, I responded to the question (from the parents): “Mrs. Rea, here is where the children are.” That made me very happy, that we knew, morally, psychologically, we’re in trouble, but we need to keep people alive. We know what situation they are living, during these moments.

The situation is not yet stable, so what I need, while we are helping to stabilize the situation, is that everyone in Haiti has this problem, so EVERYONE needs (that service). If there are psychologists who are available to do that work, then there are people, as well, that we could help them benefit from that service. The psychologists that are available, we would be very happy to receive them, but psychologists which understand the mentality and the customs of the country, will always be more useful, in the context of what we have lived through and are living through.

We have already censuses more than 135 families, all of them with up to 4-5 children, sometimes 6 children. We have censuses them, and all of those families, that we are trying to help support, in the ways possible to us, in terms of nutrition / food, traveling to connect with their families in the provinces (more than 15 families), through the means of transport, we give them food, tarps (for shelter…we have spent USD$525 in all), crutches, we have helped organize mobile clinics in different shelters, like the areas of Bobin, Bristou, Jacquet, Monn Laza, Penye. Tomorrow, we’ll do the area of Djobel, Nan Sitron We are supporting the victims in any way possible, both the family members of SUPUDEP, as well as the other residents of Monn Laza, who asked for our support, regarding that issue. We took steps, while waiting to see what the state will do, that we haven’t seen yet, but we are continuing with our steps, as we can.

SOPUDEP School