by Fr. Shay Cullen

In the middle of the rubble and dirt of the aftermath of the most devastating typhoon to hit the Philippines last November 8, 2013, we found children still able to smile, standing as they did with ragged torn T-shirts and dirty faces and legs in the mud. They were covered in the filth and dirt of the typhoon debris where they were poking about looking for something to salvage and sell. That’s the resilience and courage of the Filipino child when all has been taken away.DSCN6316

Everywhere I went assessing the terrible damage, I saw hundreds of families lifting themselves up and overcoming the shock and trauma with almost nothing besides relief food and tents.

I saw the flattened homes and broken coconut trees as far as the eye could see and I wondered how long it would take for these smashed communities to bury their thousands of dead and start life over again. Six regions in the central Philippines were declared disaster zones after the super-typhoon lashed the land with winds up to 230 kilometers an hour.

Today, not much progress has been made by government agencies in helping the poor get a low cost home, jobs or a new start. There are millions of dollars and pounds in foreign aid in the bank accounts, at lease I hope it is still there. With top Senators and lawmakers in jail for massive graft and corruption, I wonder if the aid money has been stolen too.

If it is still intact, it has yet to be poured into meaningful recovery projects. They have sustaining food programmes and temporary shelters but eight months later, not much rebuilding or decent low cost housing has been provided. The relief and humanitarian aid phase is now over, says the social welfare Secretary Corazon Dinky Soliman and the recovery and development stage is starting.

It has taken eight months for this phase to begin. There are more than 3000 people still in tents and thousands more in small, one-roomed plywood bunk houses. The overcrowding there is a humanitarian crises in itself as child abuse is rampant in such conditions with adults of all ages sleeping on the floors with children.

When I went there on several occasions, I met many survivors struggling in the harsh, deprived living conditions of a squatter community crowded into hovels, shacks and shanties made with the debris of wrecked houses. They are getting a good supply of relief food, thanks to the DSWD regional office under social welfare secretary “Dinky” Soliman. But what the people need most after food was relief from their trauma and to be listened to and their tragic stories be heard. They felt alone and abandoned.

Besides, there were numerous reports of children being snatched, lured away by people offering food, clothes for the small, abandoned children and promises of a job for teenagers, mostly targeting the girls. Such disaster zones are the hunting grounds for the sex bar recruiters and youngsters disappear in the chaos. The trafficking of the children happens all too frequently in areas of such devastation.DSCN6324

That’s when I decided to send the the Preda psycho-social and anti-trafficking education and rescue team to Tacloban and Palo. The team set up base in the SOS children’s center, and launched workshops and seminars among the people in the evacuation centers. Later, they moved from school to school and district barangay centers making presentation with the children and parents joining in and telling their stories

It is a great, effective service that is still on-going. As many as twelve thousand people, parents, teachers and children have been reached, inspired and uplifted. They are helped to be aware of their dignity, rights and self-worth and that of their children. The message and experience gives encouragement to them to overcome and not give in to despair but to struggle on in the hope that more help is coming.

The dramatic action songs, group dynamics and puppet shows delight the children and parents alike and gives a strong message of how to prevent child abuse and trafficking and how to report any incident. A yellow card with a hotline number is distributed where they can contact the team for help anytime.

Then we recruited local, unemployed female teachers. All of them had suffered loss of house and relatives in the great ocean wave that rose twenty feet high and engulfed the entire foreshore sweeping away homes, houses and entire families. They survived and are helping other survivors.

Since the schools had been leveled, there was no new jobs for teacher graduates, so we employed and trained them to make the psycho-social presentations. Soon they were skilled in presenting the dynamic workshops with great flare and skill and do so until this day. Six of them have taken over the work and carried it on with the supervision of a senior Preda staff.

It is estimated that hundreds of children were saved from the traffickers. Dozens of children were intercepted by ordinary civilians who were now child protectors. They reportedly intervened when they saw children being led away by suspicious adults. Six children already loaded on to a mini-bus were saved in this way.

The orphans were also very vulnerable, other charities were active in saving them and giving them a good home but many more half-orphans who had lost one parent were in dire need. That’s where the Preda team was able to intervene and today, 88 of these half-orphaned children have been located, visited and given aid and continuous educational assistance. They previously had nothing to wear or bring to school. So with new uniforms, shoes, school bags, notebooks, pens and pencils and daily pocket money, they happily attend school proudly and courageously.DSCN6289

This is just a small contribution but made possible by the generosity of the supporters of the Preda relief projects. The work still goes on. We have now planned and begun the construction of a new four-roomed school building in San Joaquin High School, Palo, Leyte. The place was hit hard and the school roof was snatched away and the walls crumbled. Now this new school house will give hundreds of children a real chance of an education, the great tool to overcome dire poverty and enable them to make a better life for themselves. [shaycullen@preda.org, http://www.preda.org]

(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times, in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

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