Ra province, Viti Levu, Fiji. 26 February 2016.
A bearded man with a gentle smile looks up from hammering a tent stake into the ground and says “Bula” as we pull up to the school building.
Master Shahin Hussein straightens up and surveys his efforts, as well as the remains of his school, Dobuilevu Muslim Primary in Fiji’s Ra Province. The white tents stand tall amidst the debris of the school grounds.
The school caters to 108 students from six surrounding villages; all but one of its classrooms was destroyed when Category 5 Cyclone Winston ripped through Fiji in late February.
When asked about his experience of the cyclone he chuckles with a shrug as if it was nothing and says.
“Me and all my family members were inside the school. When the building flew away we were all under the table. Under the small table stuck there and we were watching, we saw with our eyes how the beam flew away”
People from the surrounding villages had started to flock to the school before the height of Cyclone Winston, sheltering in the classrooms where they thought they would be safe.
“We were occupying three rooms. When things started flying away and the louvres started busting inside and the wind started pushing the rain inside we had to run to the next room”.
As children play next to the tent Master Shahin tells us that the road to recovery is a long one but he knows it’s already happening in small steps.
“To get water again we need a small generator that can pump water from the borehole to the tank. At least the tank survived the storm”.
“For the community this will take time, most of their things are scattered, you see them trying to locate and repair the corrugated iron sheets to rebuild their homes. Even if classes begin, they will still be here, they have nowhere to go” he says, pointing to the classroom where families are preparing their evening meal.
It’s clear that Master Shahin also understands the importance of both providing shelter to the community and providing stability for children through temporary learning spaces. His own daughter is staying very close to him as we talk.
“The children will love this tent, it’s going to be an adventure for them, the hard part now is for the parents getting the children to come to school and sheltering those in need”.
As we get in the car to head to our next destination Master Shahin calls out, saying, “I need to say this on behalf of the community, I would like to thank UNICEF cause it’s a great effort towards our children” he pauses, gulps, and looks away, fighting strong emotions close to the surface. I do the same.
“And I would say to resume education in Fiji, this is one of the greatest things we have received because education is the key and we all know that if our children are educated they are able to excel well and I want to thank the government and Ministry of Education for providing these things”.
Master Shahin shakes my hand firmly and bids us “Kaulougata tiko” (Godspeed). It’s not long before another school with UNICEF’s gleaming white tents comes into view — more evidence of one of the first steps on the long road to recovery.
By Neisau Tuidraki