Haitian school head’s pain felt by relatives here


‘Hungry for knowledge’

Hector and her husband moved to Haiti in 1996, after their children entered college and Hector retired as a nurse. She and Jean-Claude knew they wanted to help their native country, but they weren’t sure how.

“I didn’t have a school in mind,” Hector said. The children “were the ones who made me open a school,” she said.

“The children started coming around asking for money — they were hungry,” Hector continued. “I told them, ‘Come back tomorrow, I’ll cook for you.’  When they came, I told them to wash their hands. They used the water in the street. I showed them how to use clean water.”

Hector asked the children to read to her and learned that they didn’t know how. She asked if they could write and saw that they didn’t know how to grip a pencil.

Hector told the children to come back early the next morning to learn to read and write. The first day, 23 children showed up. The second day there were 56, and the third day there were more than 100 — the school opened itself.

Hector and her husband started building the school in 1998, and as of last month it had slightly more than 300 students ages 3 to 14. The kindergarten swelled to 60 students this school year, and Hector moved the class to the courtyard in front of her house.

The school looked frozen in time on Feb. 1. The blackboards in the first- and second-grade classrooms had the alphabet and numbers scrawled in chalk. The date on one of the boards read: “Mardi 12 Janvier 2010.” The dust in the air settled over the empty rooms and corridors, coating everything in a fine gray layer.

Although the damage to the school appears relatively minor, an inspector from the Ministry of Education will return in March to do a full evaluation, and the school cannot reopen until then, Hector said. In 2008, nearly 100 people, mostly children, were killed when a poorly constructed school collapsed in Pétionville, a town near Port-au-Prince, so the government is likely to be cautious. But Hector is optimistic that she will be able to reopen.

The Children’s Harvest school sits on an unpaved street not far from the Seardote market, usually crammed with women who sell grapefruit, oranges, garlic and spices, turkey legs, fish, beans and grains, along with clothing and other general supplies. The women at the market last week complained about the lack of aid, which has had trouble reaching smaller enclaves of Port-au-Prince. A makeshift shelter filled half the street, for those whose homes collapsed.

Two destroyed homes where Children’s Harvest students were killed in the earthquake, right. At left, some of the school’s first students.

School has kept growing

As The Children’s Harvest school grew during the past 12 years, Hector hired about a dozen teachers, all of whom graduated from college. She herself taught the sixth grade, including French, math, grammar, history, biology and hygiene. The classes are in French with a little Creole, based on a mixture of American and Haitian education and what Hector learned when she got a French certificate studying at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris. Hector also attended Washington Irving High School in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood before going to nursing school.

The motto at The Children’s Harvest is “An orchard in every apple, A nation in every child.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Jean-Claude, Hector’s husband. “We love what we’re doing. We’re learning with them. They’re hungry for knowledge.”

The students at Children’s Harvest wear crisp uniforms: dark-blue vests and pants for the boys and pinafores for the girls. Their light-blue shirts were hand-tailored by a man who was killed in the quake, Hector said. Fils-Aimé said many of the children walk to school barefoot, carrying their shoes to keep them clean.

The tuition is about $100 a year, but most of the students can’t afford it, so Hector waives the fees. She funds the school with her husband’s pension, donations from her son and daughter, who live in Atlanta, and help from the Fils-Aimés in Tribeca. Hector used to provide a hot meal for her students every day, but last year the food got too expensive.

Hector has adopted five of her young students, left by parents who couldn’t manage when the children were between the ages of 5 and 8. Now Florence is 11, Martine is 12, Esther is 18, Manuska is 20, and Fridler (who she confesses is her favorite) is 22 and about to finish high school. Many of the school’s students have gone on to college.

Tribeca tears

“This is Haiti,” Jacqueline Fils-Aimé said as she opened the door to her Independence Plaza apartment on Monday afternoon Feb. 1. “This is the closest you can get to Haiti.”

Fils-Aimé has filled the apartment she shares with her husband with bright Haitian paintings, depicting festive scenes in a lush landscape — a Haiti that is now almost unrecognizable. She used to run a Haitian art gallery on Franklin St. and said many longtime Tribeca residents own a piece of Haitian artwork because of her.

Eyes filling with tears, Fils-Aimé described hearing of the quake and waiting to learn the fate of dozens of relatives. She and her husband know of six family members who were killed and there are more they haven’t heard from yet.

“There are no words to describe what we’re going through,” she said.

Although New York has a close-knit Haitian community, Jean-Paul Fils-Aimé said everyone is focused on searching for their own family members right now.

“After a while, it will subside,” he said in the soft French accent he shares with his wife. “But right now everyone is preoccupied, in their own world.”

Fils-Aimé and her husband each came to the United States with their families over 40 years ago. They moved to Tribeca before P.S. 234 was built on Chambers St. and sent their two daughters to P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village. Their youngest child, Nicholas, is 13 and in eighth grade at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn. He was planning on traveling to Haiti this summer with some friends to help out at The Children’s Harvest school.

Now Nicholas and his parents are turning their attention toward helping the school from a distance. Jacqueline is tapping connections she has in the art, fashion and film industry, hoping someone can get supplies to her sister. She also wants to hold a fundraiser soon, once the school’s needs become clearer.

Power to persevere

The nights on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince have been dark during the past few weeks, with no electricity or candles. The moon looks closer and lighter than anyone can remember, perhaps in contrast to the darkness. Every night, people march through the neighborhoods dancing to the beat of drums, to comfort their neighbors and themselves.

“You’d think they don’t care, but it’s not true,” Jacqueline said. “People in Haiti don’t believe in sleeping pills, or medicine for depression. Instead, people sing and dance with drums.”

Haitians see death as a continuation of life, added her husband Jean-Paul.

Hector told her sister that the best thing for the surviving children is a return to normality as soon as possible. She said some of the children recently played a pickup game of soccer using a chunk of concrete from a collapsed house.

Once the school reopens, Hector wants to plant a Garden of Hope, with a tree for each family.

In the meantime, Jacqueline Fils-Aimé rises each morning and looks out her Lower Manhattan window at the sun, imagining the same sun shining on Haiti and sending energy to all those who are suffering there.

“You do get some strength,” she said, smiling for a moment. “You are connecting to them.”

Tequila Minsky reported from Haiti for this article, and Julie Shapiro reported from Downtown Manhattan.