18 March 2014

A month in the Philippines

For Christmas and New Year, my brothers and I decided to fly to the Philippines, in the aftermath of November 8th, the day the strongest storm to ever make landfall in recorded history hit the Philippines with wind speeds of more than 300kph.

Have you ever held your hand out of a driving car at, let’s say, 100kph? Do it, and imagine a storm three times stronger.

Yolanda, as the typhoon is called in the Philippines, lasted for only a couple hours – enough to cause horrific damage to a nation that has to deal with a good quarter of its population (approximately 25 million) in poverty, anyways. Around 14 million people were directly affected by the storm, over four (4) million people were left homeless (just to give you an understanding for the proportions: in the entire European Union three million people are estimated to be homeless), more than six thousand people lost their lives and around a thousand people are still missing[1].

The Philippines are an archipelago of about 7000 islands, which makes things very complicated. For obvious reasons, the major catastrophe relief organizations such as Red Cross, Islamic Relief, Médecins Sans Frontières, and others have focused on bigger cities, for example Tacloban. The delivery of relief goods is less costly, their actions help more people at a time and the organization and planning becomes much easier when dealing only with one area. Yet, as many fishing boats were taken by Yolanda, help can’t easily get to the people. Up to this day, there are thousands of people on small islands in small communities, that received very less or no help at all from the national or international agencies.

The pictures shown in the news, the devastation and the brutal force of nature only became clear to me when my brothers and I traveled on buses, motorbikes and boats towards one of these secluded little communities towards our Christmas vacation: Silagon Island.

A plateau of coral rocks with only a thin layer of soil on top, Silagon is a very small island that measures around 1.5 kilometers in circumference. Only around 300 people permanently live on the island, while roughly half of them are kids under the age of 16.
The families make their living from fishing and seaweed farming, the luckier families get support from their children, who often take jobs in Cebu, the next major city, as house helpers. In order to go to school, kids have to make their way to the next island, Bantayan, which is not much of a problem as long as the tides are right and the boats can take them. Worst days are those when low tide forces the kids to walk in knee-deep waters, too shallow for boats, or to go out with the fishermen, pretty much in the middle of the night, just to wait for hours in front of the schools gates.

The island of Silagon is not connected to the power grid, thus, when night falls, the village disappears in darkness. People crawl back into their shelters, most of them built with pieces of tarpaulin and bamboo, a long day of hard and continuous work comes to an end - and the next one lays just ahead. With sunrise everyone is up, working. There is no such thing as a day off, there is no lazing around, one has to work for bare survival. Drinking and fresh water has to be imported from the main island, which is costly and inconvenient, thus rainwater is used for washing and cooking.

A usual meal consists of rice and fish. The thin layer of soil on corals makes it almost impossible to plant anything, the few chicken are only good for Christmas and weddings, too precious for a regular day, we were told. So are fruits, vegetables, alcohol – simply too expensive. The price for rice has risen dramatically after the typhoon, the community struggles to appease their hunger. One single apple, for example, is just as expensive as half a kilo of rice – obviously the kids rarely ever got to eat a whole apple. On the other hand, candies and sweets are super cheap. The color of the kids’ hair and eyes attests the serious lack of nutrition, their appearance reveals the high prices for food, and from their teeth you knew that they rarely brush their teeth, because they simply didn’t have any. But - and I tell you this is something I haven’t realized before - their smiles prove how happy life can be, even in the worst of all conditions.

I am HIP! I am “Helping Islets in the Philippines” is the project my brothers and I supported in the Philippines. The outstanding organization by its founder and soul – Kareen “Kakay” Oloroso – is what makes this project a real success. With more than fifteen years of experience in community work and volunteering, she definitely knows what she is doing and she does it really well.

In the first phase of the project, the mission was organize a collective Christmas party and to distribute school materials as well as relief goods to the families. From donations and funds raised through a sale of T-shirts, the project was able to give away rice, blankets, toothbrushes, soap and other sanitary products, cups and bags to every household, according to their individual needs. For the Christmas party, HIP funded foodstuffs, which were then prepared by the women in the community for a phenomenal feast, and the volunteers set up the program for the night, rehearsing songs with the kids. The night turned out to be a great success and the kids, as well as the elderly enjoyed themselves on this special night. This Christmas, according to the community, is the best Christmas that they ever had in spite of the situation that they are in.

The following days, one by one the volunteers leave the island; some went back to work, back to normal life, others went to Tacloban and other affected regions. Only a group of six volunteers (Yuji, Paul, Kakay, my brothers Maik and Alec, and me) stayed on the island to initiate phase two: the reconstruction of the daycare center.

The daycare is one of only very few buildings made of brick and, luckily located in a sheltered spot on the island, the walls didn’t tumble as it did in most of the other brick-made houses on the island. Yet, the entire roof, major parts of the fence surrounding the property, and an outside shelter were blown away, while loads of trash and fallen trees covered the area.

With HIP funds, we bought tools and working materials to start the reconstruction of the building.

Ever since the first day at work, we had the entire community of Silagon supporting us. Women helped to clear the area and brought us water and food, men helped us building, as well as with the planning on how to make the construction as stable and long-lasting as possible. For me, the way everyone supported us was something I never experienced before – families, that don’t have kids who attend the daycare, people who live in provisionary shelters and fathers of families who went fishing even before I woke up in the morning to make their living, volunteered to help us day in, day out.

Only their support made it possible to rebuild the daycare, and only with their expertise and willpower we managed to turn it into one of the most solid houses on the island, that can hopefully withstand the next typhoons (as they will come for sure).

All tools remained on the island as communal property, so that the families can, slowly but surely, rebuild their houses.

Ever since I left the Philippines, my thoughts remained with the people I’ve met there, with the kids and their parents, and the daily struggle to satisfy the most basic needs in life.

One of the kids told us one day, that after he lost his older brother during the storm, the thing he wished for most was a “new big brother” – asking us to stay.

I definitely plan to go back; there is so much that can be done, and so much joy and ease can be brought to their lives.

There are many ways to help, and I want to lay out a few ways how you can help to make life a little bit easier for the people in the Philippines. Obviously, not everything I described in this text is the immediate effect of the typhoon; yet, it is worth spending a thought or two on how to improve the standards in these poor regions.

Financial support is always a good way to help, since money rules the world after all. In my opinion, the following organizations are worth looking into for donations, but do your research and find the organization that suits you and your idea of disaster relief and development aid.
o   Support our efforts to fund chainsaws, in order to provide construction material!! (In cooperation with “Managers without Borders” and “HIP”)

Volunteer! Yes, many of the big Organizations such as Red Cross only accept disaster-relief trained people. Yet, there are many smaller organizations that are constantly looking for helping hands. Some provide support for flights and care for accommodation.

Do it yourself! Why not set up your own Project, raise funds from your family and friends, come up with a concept and get it done! I believe that whatever you have studied or learned there is something you can help with, whether its architecture, psychology, engineering or medicine. Just do it!

Spread the Word! Let’s make more people aware of the situation! Let’s make sure people know what is happening on this planet and try to convince as many people as possible to spend a thought on it. Share this report, tell your friends, post your comment. Let’s make it happen!
If you want to learn more, get in touch:

[1] Based on the 6 March 2014 report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council of the Philippines.  http://www.ndrrmc.gov.ph/attachments/article/1125/doc03398020140306095153.pdf

Written by Bennet Barth