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Violence traumatizes Haitian children. Now the country is breaking a taboo on mental health care

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Students often vomit or wet themselves when gunfire erupts outside their school in northern Port-au-Prince.

When they do, school principal Roseline Ceragui Louis discovers that there is only one way to calm the children and keep them safe: to have them lie on the classroom floor while she sings softly.

“You can’t work in that kind of environment,” she said. “It’s catastrophic. They are traumatized.”

Haiti’s capital is under attack by powerful gangs that control 80% of the city.

On February 29, gangs launched coordinated attacks on key infrastructure. More than 2,500 people were killed or injured in the attacks in the first three months of the year. In an effort to help save Haiti’s youngest generation, the country is now undergoing a broader push to break a long-standing taboo on seeking therapy and talking about mental health.

Get some help

During a recent training session in a relatively safe area of ​​Port-au-Prince, parents learned games to put a smile on their children’s faces. The parents are often so distraught and discouraged that they have no energy to care for the children, says Yasmine Déroche, who trains adults to help children overcome the trauma caused by ongoing gang violence.

Gunmen have set fire to police stations, stormed Haiti’s two largest prisons to release more than 4,000 prisoners and shot at the country’s main international airport, which was closed on March 4 and has not reopened. The violence has also paralyzed Haiti’s largest seaport.

About 900 schools have now been closed, affecting about 200,000 children.

“We must fight this social inequality so that all children, all young people, can have the same opportunities to go to school, to work and to earn a living,” said Chrislie Luca, president of the nonprofit Hearts for Change for Deprived. Children of Haiti. “These are all issues that have brought us to where we are today, with the country on the brink of collapse.”

Edge of the abyss

UNICEF’s Haiti representative said the violence has displaced more than 360,000 people, the majority of them women and children. Moreover, at least a third of the 10,000 victims of sexual violence last year were children, according to Bruno Maes.

“Children are left to fend for themselves, without help and without adequate protection,” he said.

More than 80 children were killed or injured from January to March, a 55% increase from the last quarter of 2023 and “the most violent period for children in the country on record,” according to Save the Children, a US non-profit organization .

Luca said among the injured were two boys hit in the head while walking to school, and an 8-year-old girl who was playing in her house when she was hit by a bullet that tore through her intestines, requiring emergency surgery used to be.

“We are witnessing a lot of mental health problems,” says Maes. “This violence is traumatizing.”

Louis said her 10-year-old son cried daily, “You’re dying!” while she was going to school, and the violence left the boy unable to eat, sleep or play.

Louis remained determined, knowing she had to be strong for him and her students.

“My heart is broken, but my students see my smile every day,” she said.

Yet many fell asleep during class, unable to concentrate after sleepless nights punctuated by gunfire.

Others had more important things on their minds.

“It’s hard to concentrate on school or play a game when the rest of your body is worrying about whether your mom and dad will still be alive when you get home from school,” says Steve Gross, founder of the American non-profit organization Life. is the Good Playmaker project.

Some students become increasingly involved in gangs, carrying heavy weapons while directing drivers for safe passage through gang territory.

“The young children are traumatized and agitated,” said Nixon Elmeus, a teacher whose school closed in January. He recalled how his best student stopped talking after an encounter with gangs. Other students become violent: “Since the start of the war, the children have behaved as if they were part of a gang.”

Learn to deal with

Gèrye Jwa Playmakers, a Haitian partner nonprofit focused on helping children, held a training session for teachers that Louis attended after gang violence forced her school to close in March. She learned which games were best to distract students from the violence outside the school gates.

“How can I recapture these children?” she asked.

With hundreds of schools closed, online courses are for those who can afford WiFi and a generator. Most Haitians often live in the dark due to chronic power outages.

Without school, extreme poverty and trauma, such as having to avoid mutilated bodies on the streets, children have become easy prey. Between 30% and 50% of members of armed groups are now children, Maes noted.

“That is a very sad reality,” he said.

A 24-year-old man who gave only his surname, Nornile, for security reasons, said he had been in a gang for five years.

He said he joined because the gang gave him the money he needed and provided more food than his mother, a salesman, and his father, a bricklayer, could provide for him and his seven siblings.

At night he worked as a guard for the gang leader. During the day he went shopping and bought food, clothes, sandals and other goods. Nornile said he was proud that the gang trusted him, but considered quitting when one of his three brothers was killed by gangs on June 16, 2022.

“Ghetto men do not fight for education or a hospital. They are fighting for territory,” he said. “They only care about themselves.”

Nornile left the gang two years after his brother died and began working for Luca’s non-profit organization.

“The reality of the gang is that the person can carry a gun, but in his mind that’s not what he really wants,” Nornile said.

Play again

Jean Guerson Sanon, co-founder and executive director of Gèrye Jwa Playmakers, emphasized the importance of parents interacting with children on a daily basis to improve their mental health.

“Sometimes that’s all we have,” he said, noting that conversations about mental health remain largely taboo.

“If you go to a psychologist it’s because you’re ‘crazy,’ and ‘crazy’ people are really discriminated against in Haiti,” he said.

During training last Sunday, parents learned games for their children. One mirrored the other; another pretended an inflatable ball was a piece of cheese that the child, pretending to be a mouse, had to steal.

By the end of the practice, the parents were giggling as they stood in a large circle, coming up with different dance moves in yet another way to play with their children.

When asked to draw what a safe space meant to them, some of them drew houses; some drew flowers; and one, Guirlaine Reveil, drew a man with a gun as she approached a police station – a real-life scenario that took place a few years ago.

One parent, Celestin Roosvelt, said he told his children, ages 2 and 3, that gunfire is not a bad thing, a lie he called necessary.

“You have to find a way to live in your own country,” he said with an apologetic shrug.

At the end of the training, parents received a copy of the presentation, crayons and an inflatable ball.

Déroche, who leads the program, noted how parents feel so overwhelmed that they become disconnected from their children’s needs.

“I know that the crisis we are going through now will have consequences that will last for I don’t know how many years,” she said.