PORT-AU-PRINCE --“When the bell rings, it’s like a traffic jam.” This is how Joseph Jean Silence describes the daily rush to the school cafeteria. Silence is the principal at Institution Mixte Jeunesse Réunie, a school located in La Saline, a section of the slum of Cite Soleil.
The school’s two stories empty quickly. The children make a few steps in a narrow alley, cross the street and line up under a tarpaulin, in front of several big pots filled with rice and bean sauce, a staple of Haitian cooking.
When he describes his neighbourhood, a place where he lives and has been in charge of this school since 1996, the conversation quickly veers towards his concerns, in fact everybody’s concerns: security and poverty.
“There are a lot of social and economic problems,” he explains. “Parents live a day-to-day existence.” He describes precarious living conditions where food will reach the table only if parents have managed to earn or borrow something that day.
“I come to school because I know I will have something to eat,” says Pascal Papou, a five-year old with a spark in his eyes and a big smile. He lives close to the school with his family and if he says that he eats good meals at home too, he concedes that “it doesn’t happen every day.”
When Silence started working at the school in 1996, no one was cooking for the kids. A problem he felt he had to solve because he was as convinced then as he is now that providing a daily meal in a school like his is essential. In his classrooms, he now sees healthier children who learn better and come to school everyday.
His team of cooks arrives at the school early every morning to ensure that the meal cooked with food provided by the World Food Programme is ready to be served at 10:30 am. Why so early? He figured if his students don’t eat breakfast at home, they won’t have to wait until noon to get food in their stomachs.
Jackendy François likes mathematics and says he wants to become a doctor. At ten years old, he is the oldest child of his family. His six-year old sister also attends classes at Jeunesse Reunie but his small sister is too young to go to school.
“At home, if money runs out, meals are affected,” he said. His mother works as a street merchant. “I sometimes bring a part of my school meal back home to share with my little sister,” he explains.
The 2010 earthquake badly affected this neighbourhood next to the Port-au-Prince port and many had found refuge in the tented camps spontaneously created after the earth shook.
“People are coming back, they are building new houses,” says Joseph Jean Silence.
His school is private, like most in Haiti’s education system. Since last year, Jeunesse Reunie receives grants from the Government of Haiti to cover the tuition of the first grade students. This year, the grant was extended to kids enrolled in second grade as well.
“This is a great improvement,” says the principal. Now, more children get an education, and a meal.
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