Impressive. That’s the word I’d use to best describe what’s happening at the shelter for Barbudan evacuees I visited. At the National Technical Training Centre in Antigua, I saw that, despite the trauma of Hurricane Irma, people were trying to get back to some kind of normal routine. There were a couple of seven year olds happily playing dominoes together, while families chatted and went about their business. I was also really moved when I met a small girl who was clutching a teddy bear that had been donated. She’s one of 29 children there: the oldest is 16 and the youngest just two months old.
I have been overwhelmed to see the spirit of volunteerism on display. People have been bringing bags of clothes, toys, and even coconuts to share with the evacuees. They heard what had happened and have been coming here every day to help, to try to make a difference. I was so struck by that generosity, that willingness to do something. Many of the people of Antigua have also opened their homes to Barbudans in their time of need and this is really great to see.
UNICEF is working to make a difference as well. It’s a desperate situation and we have to respond quickly. We’re helping affected children to make sure they have what they need, that they are well cared for, and safe. The reality is that they’ve moved to a different place, their lives have changed dramatically and they need protection. It’s also important that our commitment is long-term, that the assistance we offer is sustained and consistent, and that we do not forget.
One of the main programmes for affected children is psychosocial support. This is critical as people look alright on the surface but deep down, they are still trying to process this hugely traumatic and frightening event which has left them without homes. An entire island has been devastated and these are ordinary people, just like you and me, whose lives have been turned upside down. And there’s a terrible vulnerability that comes with that. Immediate care is vital. So on Thursday, UNICEF will be starting a psychosocial support programme, working with the children, the shelter manager, the Ministry of Education and the local community.
Schools reopened in Antigua today and it was lovely to see all the children heading off in their uniforms. The Education Ministry is working hard to integrate the Barbudan children into schools as quickly as possible and this is where we can help, ensuring that there are learning materials and equipment for the additional children.
To support children in getting back to school, we’re providing ‘School in a Box’ kits and complementary teaching and learning supplies. There are also hygiene kits with essential household items such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels and more that we’ve distributed to affected families.
Working in coordination with our development partners and other UN agencies is essential. In fact, UN Women staff joined us on our visit to the shelter, to ensure that both gender and child-specific issues were addressed. This coordination is imperative as Antigua is a hub for facilitating humanitarian action to other countries affected by Irma, such as Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.
I hope that the young people of Barbuda and the other islands devastated by Irma will recover and UNICEF will do what we have to do to support them on the path to recovery.
Once we’ve helped them get back on the path to recovery and return to the communities they love, they can rebuild their lives.
Muriel Mafico, Deputy Representative, UNICEF Office for the Eastern Caribbean Area, is in Antigua where she reflects on how UNICEF’s response is helping children and families get back to their normal lives.