Monday, July 23, 2007

The Face Behind the Fence

Written by CJ Tarroja, Communication Coordinator in Quezon City, Philippines

Working for a humanitarian organization is an exercise in conscientiousness and judgment. You must take the utmost in care to see things as they are, then push the limits of assistance, yet still recognize that moment when you can’t do anything anymore. I discovered this during a recent trip to the Bicol province to distribute material aid to families affected by Super Typhoon Durian, which buried villages from the once bountiful region after it lashed the province in late November.

We had just completed a distribution to over 8,000 sponsored families in Tabaco. The next day, we headed for a evacuation center located at an elementary school. This time, our beneficiaries were non-sponsored families; these are families whose children do not receive regular benefits from Children International.

The crowds anticipated the start of the distribution with a bit of confusion in their faces and hope in their eyes. In the hustle and the bustle of the preparations, a ghostly image of a thin boy with the saddest eyes caught my attention, his chin nestled against a wire fence.

The image would make for a moving photo, I initially thought, so I immediately asked him if I could take his photo. I thought I saw his eyes brighten just for one swift moment. He obliged by nodding his head shyly, but did not budge. Only his eyes flickered, following the lens of my camera as I took various shots.

After putting away my camera, I came forward and asked his name. “Cindy,” the child said softly. “Cindy?” I double-checked to make sure. By this time, other children were swarming around the child, curious about why I was taking pictures and asking questions. “Yes, her name is Cindy!” they answered in chorus. It was a bit funny, I thought, as I looked at the child closely and slowly discovered a trace of girlishness behind the short hair and straight boyish body.

I laughed and tactlessly apologized by saying she looked like a boy to me. “She’s a girl, and she’s my sister,” a voice from behind quipped. It turned out to be Cindy’s elder sister Sandra.

I was intrigued by this child. First, that she turned out to be a girl, and on a deeper level, by her very sad eyes. I wanted to get to know her and instead of just asking where she lives, I asked if she would accompany me to her home so I could see where she lived. Cindy eagerly led the way into a row of raised round tents.

Walking around, I saw larger ones serving as communal shelters for several families as well as pup tents intended for two persons but crammed with up to five family members inside. Intended to serve as transit homes to displaced families, these tents have been their home for over half a year now.

Arriving at Cindy’s tent, I met her parents and I discerned a similarity, the same sad eyes that evoke of desperation, loss, and uncertainty. Her mother, Digna, was holding a sick infant in her arms while her father, Salvador, was busy sorting piles of old clothes to throw in the wash bin.

The heat was tempered by drizzle that would drench the top of the tent from time to time. Even though it was midday, there was no sign of a meal being prepared. Clearly, there was none, as the pots and pans were still hanging conveniently in their places in a bamboo holder behind the tent.

“There is nothing to cook,” Digna confessed when I inquired what she planned to serve the children for lunch. The infant in her arms already had her fill of boiled rice beverage from a neighbor’s pot, and that is all that mattered that day. As for the couple and their six other children, bread sold in a nearby variety store for one Philippine peso per piece would have to sustain them until supper. And besides, everybody was excited about the donation and wouldn’t want to miss it for the pesky task of cooking.

I felt my stomach start to quiver. I had a full breakfast at the hotel before our team geared up for the distribution and yet, my body was reminding me that it would soon need the second meal of the day to get by. I looked at the family, their faces beaming with anticipation at the sight of opened donation boxes, yet their stomachs were empty.

Neatly arranged inside the tent were the family’s sparse belongings like a sleeping mat, sheets and pillows and personal belongings. Hospitable in any situation, the couple humbly requested that I get inside and have a seat. I wanted to know what the product distribution was like from inside the tent, and so I did. From the cramped “home” with hardly anything inside but old things and bland loneliness, the bulging donation boxes overflowing with colorful new clothing and footwear was definitely eye-candy.

Inside, Cindy showed me the space where she sleeps. “Do you like it here?” I asked her. She said yes, with all the honesty of a 9-year-old. Obviously, for Cindy and the hundreds of children that swarmed the camps day in and day out, life is just like playing house. But the gloom in their eyes reveals the inner turmoil and uncertainty about the chaos that surrounds them.

Cindy’s family belongs to about 1,000 families still occupying the elementary school in Daraga, one of the remaining 15 evacuation camps out of the 80 that the government designated for more than 20,000 families displaced by Typhoon Reming. Their house was among the 93,008 houses that were totally destroyed.

At the height of the typhoon, Cindy’s family found themselves among the initial hundreds of families that were sent to evacuation centers. Their camp at the school is actually one of the two most damaged schools in the community. Despite this, any available classroom meant shelter to hundreds of people, who are still grateful to find refuge, even if it does have a damaged roof, walls and windows. As most of the schools and public establishments were also damaged, the government supplied more than 1,300 tents from local and international sources and created tent cities near schools.

Six months after the tragedy, food and clothing distributions have been few and far between. Digna told me the last food rations they received was about a month ago, consisting of canned goods and three kilos of rice from a religious foundation. During the first few weeks following the devastation, the evacuees received food like sardines, noodles, milk, coffee and biscuits two to three times a week. These days, the families generally provide for themselves. The frail mother acknowledged that food rations, which has sustained them for the most of their stay in the evacuation center will soon have to stop completely.

The same is true about their tent house, and this reality brings out fear in Digna. “I don’t know where we will live. We do not have land or money to construct a new house. We have relatives but they are also poor,” she says, bursting into tears that are quickly wiped away, probably realizing that there is nothing she can do.

Everyday, Salvador tries his chance at freelance construction jobs, which are surging after the government released over 1 billion Philippine pesos to speed up rehabilitation of much needed infrastructures in the region. Some days, he is lucky. Still, so many men like him are also eager for work. On lean days, he has to be resourceful, scouring the lands nearby looking for grown vegetables and fruits. “It is never enough,” he said.

It doesn’t take much asking to identify what the remaining evacuees have to deal with everyday. The problems are right there, staring you in the face – water, electricity, sanitation, waste disposal. I had Cindy’s older sister, Sandra, show me where they bathed, and I was led to a communal latrine with one low toilet seat. There is no lighting and the cemented floor is constantly wet. They share this latrine with 50 or more families a day.

Other problems remain – food and clothing, no source of income and health risks. Although the evacuation camps have clinics, the congestion and flimsy shelter that the tents provide leave the evacuees vulnerable to many diseases. At the time, Digna and Salvador are suffering from chronic cough, while the children regularly have colds. I offered the only solace I could: that housing projects for evacuees are being prioritized by the government, and hopefully, they will be eligible for one soon. Until that time, I suspect their stay in the tent compound is indefinite.

Despite the uncertainty of their future, Salvador said he is still looking forward to a good life for his family. His daughter, Sandra, dreams of becoming a teacher someday. But with her schooling interrupted, it may remain just that, a dream. Cindy, too, would like to teach small children how to read and write though, at age 9, she needs more education on these skills herself. Perhaps it is her way of expressing her own desire to be reading, singing, playing and learning again.

When it is time for me to leave the tent compound, Cindy and Sandra run after me. They tell me their mother wants to say “thank you.” Cindy, in her usual shy voice, then tells me her mom wonders if I can help send them back to school, or even get a house. I looked back toward the tent and see their mom busy hanging wet clothes to dry, her head purposely turned away from me.

I tell the kids to let their mom know that I don’t have the money or the means to provide for the specific help she’s asking. But I lean toward Cindy and tell her I will try to help in other ways. And that is what I am doing now. With neither the money nor the position to give them something that will alleviate their suffering, I will try to tell the world their story and, hopefully, someone who can do much more will care.


Anonymous said...

Reading these stories from the field sure puts life into perspective. I was wondering whether anyone has stepped forward to sponsor any of the children in this family yet?

Thank you,


Jennifer said...

The children are available for sponsorship. If you're interested in sponsoring Cindy or one of her siblings, please contact us a and we can make sure that happens for you!

Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jennifer. I already sponsor 2 children but maybe I can find some way in my budget to add one of these children... I'll sure try.