Finding the Spirit of Christmas in a Filipino Shelter

by Martin Nanawa, ChildFund Philippines

Perspiration beaded on Phillip’s forehead as he stacked boxes of bottled water in a second-story classroom at Macanhan Elementary. The school has functioned as one of five evacuation centers housing more than 40,000 displaced families after tropical storm Washi (locally known as Sendong) tore through Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on Dec. 16.

Youth stacking water

Phillip volunteers at Macanhan Elementary School evacuation center.

Phillip has called the evacuation center home for the past 12 days, including Christmas. A 23-year-old youth with a demeanor more resilient than his stocky build, Phillip has been actively volunteering at the center, assisting with the hauling, storage and distribution of relief goods. On this day, Phillip helped move and distribute 516 bottles of drinking water and 1,800 packs of instant noodles delivered by ChildFund.

Richard Tener, the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s appointed camp manager, says 90 percent of Macanhan residents were affected by the flooding that ensued after the tropical storm. Thirty-eight families, including Phillip and his four younger siblings, have found shelter at the Macanhan Elementary evacuation center. Still-standing homes in the school’s periphery house an additional 218 displaced families. Richard tells me that many fled homes that are now partially damaged or heavily silted from the floods. Some families, including Phillip’s, lost their homes completely and nearly all of their belongings.

“It was about four in the morning, when the waters rose around our home,” Phillip narrates in Filipino. The rain, water and winds forced Phillip and his four younger siblings to abandon their home, seeking safety on their neighbor’s rooftop. From that rooftop they watched helplessly as the raging floodwaters tore their home down and carried the remains away, along with their belongings. “Lyak na lang; wala kaming magawa dahil sa lakas ng tubig, [All we could do was weep; we could do nothing against the strong current],” Phillip says. They remained huddled on that rooftop, rain lashing at their backs, for two hours until it appeared safe to flee to safety around 6 a.m. That’s how Phillip and his siblings came to shelter at Macanhan Elementary School.

Relief aid has not overlooked this evacuation center, Richard, the camp manager, reports. ChildFund, along with various donors and agencies, had distributed sufficient goods to allow him to plan a Christmas program and some semblance of Noche Buena, the traditional Filipino Christmas dinner. It was decided among the evacuee community, however, not to push through with the program due to sheer fatigue. Everyone was too tired and weary. There would be no Christmas celebration in the mud and congestion of the evacuation center.

Yet, Phillip was determined to have Christmas. So on Dec. 25, Phillip took his four siblings – two brothers and two sisters – to church to give thanks. They were alive and well, and that’s more than could be said of others from his community. “Bahay lang naman ang nawala [We lost only our home],” Phillip says, hinting at the strength of his will and determination to persevere.
Despite the bleakness of his family’s circumstances, Phillip – having had his Christmas – continues to help haul and distribute relief supplies received at the evacuation center. He is determined to help his family and community to recover and rebuild.

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