Letting kids be kids: Protecting what’s precious in Haiti

December 12, 2019
Written by Kieran McConville

It’s hard to think that any parent would choose to raise their child in a polluted, overcrowded urban slum in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But for the mothers and fathers of Cité Soleil that’s a choice they just don’t have.

Stolen childhoods

As many as 250,000 people are crammed into a low-lying section of land between the main runway of Haiti’s international airport and the waters of Port au Prince Bay. This is Cité Soleil. The majority of those who live here are children and young adults, and their situation can be perfectly summed up in just one word: vulnerable.

Vulnerable: In need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.

A flooded garbage-strewn neighborhood in Port au Prince

A street scene in Cité Soleil

“These kids are at risk in all sorts of ways, every day,” according to Concern Worldwide’s Eléonore Dupré. “Economic deprivation, violence, abuse, underage domestic labor, absence of state services, family separation — the odds are stacked against young people here. They are effectively having their childhood stolen from them.”

Play and Parliament

On a bright and hot late summer afternoon, about forty teenage boys and girls are gathered under the shade of a tree, watching a heated argument unfold. But it’s not what you might think. This is a part of the “Children’s Parliament”, an effort to engage these kids in some positive thinking and debate — and to help them believe that life holds real opportunities and potential for them.

Haitian children at a summer camp run by Concern Worldwide

A summer camp session of the Children’s Parliament

The theory is that if children understand their rights and responsibilities, they are better equipped and have the self confidence to speak out.

“We’re using lots of different methods to get the children interested.”

Partnering with UNICEF, Concern has targeted 500 of the most vulnerable families in the community. “We’re using lots of different methods to get the children interested — sport and games, storytelling, and even theater,” Eléonore explains. “It’s about finding engaging ways to discuss serious topics and give them useful information.”

The activities have been taking place in a number of schools in Cité Soleil and also during a series of summer camps, which targeted younger children with games-based learning. Kids play dodge-ball and compete against others in a version of the 3-legged race, each activity accompanied with an underlying message. It’s a model developed by PLAY International, which has proven successful across the world, and overseen here by two hugely energetic facilitators from the Haitian organization, Jeunesse en Développement.

Haitian children learning through games

Games are designed to emphasize trust and cooperation

Safety net

But it’s not just the children that are getting support. Parenting in poverty is challenging too, and the grown-ups have been taking part in all sorts of training sessions, from household budgeting to family planning to child development skills. Each family receives financial support to keep kids in school or get them back to class if they’ve already dropped out. And parents can access a one-off grant to help them start or develop a business, which will help them provide more opportunity for their kids.

Others who hold power and responsibility in young peoples’ lives — teachers and community leaders are also essential to the success of the program.

Adolescents and young adults in Cité Soleil are in serious danger of defaulting to inappropriate income-generating activities. One of the most effective ways to tackle this issue is to provide them with in-demand skills they can use to forge a professional career.

Young haitian girl models a dress she made in tailoring classes.

16 year old Émanise models her creations at the family home

“I would love to create jumpsuits.”

Among the ramshackle and rusting alleyways of the Belekou neighborhood, Émanise is proudly showing off her new creation to friends and neighbors. The classic pleated lime green dress she’s wearing is a result of nights and weekends attending a Concern tailoring course. “I was always interested in sewing and tailoring,” she says, adding that she wants to take that interest further when she completes school. “I would love to create jumpsuits.” Émanise and her fellow trainees will receive a sewing machine at the end of the course. Others have taken part in motorcycle maintenance classes and will receive a toolkit.

A facilitator and a yound man at a summer camp in Haiti

Concern’s Marie Stanise Mendes with Ricardo Joseph from Cité Soleil, who took part in a summer camp run by Concern.

“Childhood should be a time to develop and grow and learn,” says Eléonore Dupré. “That’s not how it has been for so many children here, and we see an opportunity to change that. This is the next generation of Haiti, and they must be given a chance to succeed.”

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