Road to recovery: helping children in Iligan go back to school
“We were asleep in our house when the flood came,” Joy remembers. “The Barangay Captain woke us up. He was going from house to house in a bamboo boat. We had to leave immediately. My grandfather brought blankets for me and my sister but we left everything else behind. I was very scared. It was dark and the water was rising, and I could hear people crying out for help.”
At first, the family went to stay at a neighbour’s house higher up the hill. Two days later they moved to the evacuation centre in the barangay covered court. When we visited, there were hundreds of families crowded into the small space but the atmosphere was friendly. Joy played games in the courtyard with the other children and then went to help her grandfather with the washing. In the afternoon it started raining in a sudden, violent downpour that must have been frightening for the younger children, and more people rushed in to shelter under the wide metal roof of the courtyard.
“We’re not used to living like this,” observes Joy’s grandfather, 47-year-old Ismael, who was in visibly poor health, with a chesty cough and a bad back. “It’s uncomfortable and we don’t always have enough food to eat. Joy’s uncles work by the river, panning for gold, but I’m jobless. We can’t move back to our old house because the area has been declared unsafe.”
There is an obvious gap in the family: Joy’s parents are both absent. Her mother works as a dancer in Manila and her father as a fireman in Cagayan de Oro. Joy treats her grandfather like a father and is very affectionate with him, giving him lots of hugs which make him smile. “Before the floods came we were 100 per cent happy,” Ismael says. “Now we are 50 per cent happy.”
But on 3 January, a new school opened, bringing some sense of normality back to the children’s lives. The local government donated some land further up the valley and UNICEF provided tent classrooms, teaching materials, portable toilets, cooking equipment and back-to-school kits for the students. At 11am, the children line up for their lunch. Each child gets a hot bowl of beans and sauce with rice. Other children run around the grassy field which has become their new playground, many wearing new UNICEF backpacks.
In her new tent classroom, Joy sings a Tagalog love song, ‘Because You Love Me’, for her class. Like many Filipinas, she has a beautiful voice. “Joy is a good student,” her teacher Zoraida says, smiling proudly. “She listens well and understands easily. It’s hard for her because the new school is a long way from the evacuation centre. She sometimes comes in late, but I understand her situation so I tell her it’s OK.”
There is a small office on the site where we meet the school principal, Zenaida Simon. “We are very grateful to UNICEF for their support,” she says, shaking our hands warmly. “It is good for the children to be back at school. They are still afraid of the storm, and seeing the devastation by the river reminds them of that fear. Here, they can start to get back to normal. All of us, students and teachers, are still adjusting to the new situation.”
Almost everyone in the area has been affected by the floods, and Zenaida is no exception. “Our house is on two floors and the ground floor was flooded up to neck level,” she recalls. “My youngest son is just six years old. He was crying and said ‘Mummy, this is the end of the world. Where can we go?’ It made me cry too, he was so sad.”
After a disaster like Sendong, UNICEF works to keep children healthy and get them back to school as soon as possible. In Barangay Mandulog, we are providing water and sanitation kits for families living in the evacuation centre, including water filters to allow them to collect and safely drink rain water. The nutrition surveys and school feeding programme helps tackle malnutrition, as well as attracting children back to school.
In other evacuation centres, UNICEF is providing breastfeeding tents and child friendly spaces for play and learning. We are also working with the government to reunite separated and unaccompanied children with their families, to support children’s emotional recovery, and to report any cases of neglect, abuse or violence against children.
Over 330,000 children have been affected by the Mindanao floods, the worst in the area in modern history, with at least 15,000 children living in evacuation centres like the one in Barangay Mandulog. Many of these children are still out of school and, worryingly, cases of malnutrition are increasing.
“UNICEF was one of the first agencies to arrive in northern Mindanao after the floods,” says Nonoy Fajardo, head of UNICEF’s temporary office in Cagayan de Oro. “We had prepositioned supplies and staff in the south of the island and in Manila, which were delivered here within days. After that we started working on distribution and building the capacity of local government and NGOs in the area. The fact that there have been no major outbreaks of disease here is a testament to the effectiveness of the early response.”
“The government is aiming to resettle those families who have lost their homes by June, but for now they have to stay in evacuation centres or tent cities,” Nonoy continues. “We currently have enough funds to continue operating here for another month or two. After that, if we don’t get more funds, we’ll need to scale back our activities or even shut down the office.”
Children in Mindanao urgently need your help. Please donate online now to help UNICEF continue to keep them healthy and get them back to school.