In my 5 months working with communities affected by the typhoon Haiyan (locally known as ‘Yolanda’) in the Philippines, I have made so many friends with children in Tacloban, Basey and other areas where ActionAid is working. Their stories and experiences of Yolanda revitalize my energy to serve the people. Yolanda made a number of children orphans, others separated from their families, and others are still hoping they will see their parents again. Earlier this month when I heard that typhoon Glenda was approaching the Philippines, I couldn’t help thinking about the children’s experiences. On 17th July, as we drove from Tacloban airport to the city, seeing school children moving back to their homes calmed me down. I couldn’t wait to talk to my friends, the children. I am probably the first African they have got close to and made friends with, which makes them excited and open to share their stories. Their smiles are unforgettable. Smiles of resilience, smiles of innocence, smiles of uncertainly, smiles of hope and smiles full of wishes. One thing hard to contemplate is that behind the children’s smiles lies a deeply rooted fear as a result of their experiences, their loss and anguish caused by typhoon Yolanda.
I visited a few families, who after nearly 8 months since Yolanda, still live in tents and areas designated by the government as unsafe for people to occupy. On 14th July when Typhoon Glenda struck Tacloban city, the government evacuated 997 families with 4,472 individuals living in tents and unsafe areas to five evacuation centres in schools. I went to San Jose Elementary school located in the Fisherman’s village, to visit the children. As I walked past the classes from grade 1 to grade 6, the little angels were all smiling like children who had not been in the evacuation centres a day ago. I held a focus group discussion with 26 children from grade 6 to discuss their experience of typhoon Glenda. It was clear that Glenda had renewed their fear of the impact of typhoon Haiyan. It rang a warning bell of the potential dangers to children ahead of the typhoon season. It reminded children of how insecure they are leaving in tents by the sea. It’s amazing that they keep on smiling even though they live in fear of typhoons. The children are worried that typhoons could separate them from their families, could kill them, and they worry how they will continue to survive in evacuation centres.
The children only wish they had better houses, stronger houses to resist typhoons with a storage building to protect them from storm surges and rising sea tides. They are now afraid of rain, afraid of living near the sea, afraid of wind, and afraid of dying. Their teacher, Mr. Pedro Casa, Jr., said that the children are still traumatized. He said that they are very scared when it starts raining, and often run home to be with their families because they fear that the rain could easily turn into another typhoon Yolanda. During the discussion, they used their writing skills to express what they would like to do in the event of typhoon. Below is some of the extracts of their dreams.
July to December is the typhoon season here in the Philippines. Children continue to be at risk living in tents and unsafe shelters. It’s unfortunate that the children strongly feel that the worst typhoon is yet to come when they have not yet fully recovered from their Yolanda experiences. These children are in urgent need for sustained psychosocial support. What is even more worrying is that the children will never be safe in tents. In June, seven people from one family living in a tent all perished when a gas cooker caught fire. Heavy rain during this typhoon period will keep children wet and standing in tents all day and night. Strong typhoons will force these children to go to the evacuation centres with no food, no water and sanitation and no hope for life. Maybe they will still be smiling even when they continue to live a life without dignity, and a life in constant fear of the unknown.
The fundamental question for me is: what needs to be done to transform the children’s smiles of fear into smiles of enjoying a life with dignity? All the children ask for are stronger houses that are resistant to typhoons to keep them safe. With just £1,200 per family, the children’s dreams would come true. A typhoon resistant home would mean that they no longer have to flee to evacuation centres, they would be free from inhuman and degrading experiences in the centres, and they wouldn’t be separated from their families. Children have the right to live with dignity.