Home for Christmas: evacuation centers in schools
For the last two and half months, Mariel Cervito, 9, has been living with her parents and four siblings in a two-metre square corner of a classroom at De La Paz Main Elementary School, in Binan, Laguna. The family’s tiny living area is marked by bedsheets hung from a clothes line, with their few remaining possessions neatly arranged on a small wooden table.
Mariel is in Grade One. She enjoys maths, reading and writing and wants to be doctor when she grows up. “I like having lots of play mates here but I miss my home,” Mariel says of living in the evacuation center. “I like helping my mum wash the dishes.”
On Saturday 26 September, Tropical Storm Ondoy slammed into Manila, one of the most densely populated urban centers in the world, deluging it with 18 inches of rain in 12 hours and flooding 80 per cent of the city. Over 600 people were killed and nearly 400,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centers. While many have since returned to homes or resettlement communities, around 70,000 are still in the centers.
After the storm struck, Mariel and her four siblings were carried to safety by their parents. “We just took the children and left all our possessions,” her mother Marlene recalls. “My husband and I waded here through the flood waters carrying the children.”
Marlene’s home is near Laguna lake and has been flooded since September. The waters are slowly subsiding but with no drainage channel from the lake, it will take until the end of January before it’s safe for families to move back in, so they will have to spend Christmas in the evacuation center. “I’ve been back to the house to clean it but the water’s still knee deep outside,” Marlene says. “When I open the doors, it just floods back in.”
There are nearly 150 families still living at De La Paz Main Elementary School and life isn’t easy for them. “It’s uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous,” Marlene comments. “My one year old fell down the stairs and cracked her head open. She’s OK now but we had to rush her to hospital.”
Marlene’s three oldest children are in school but the classrooms are very crowded because of the space given over to evacuees and they’re finding it difficult to learn.
Using schools as evacuation centers creates problems for teachers, pupils and evacuees alike. “It’s a very difficult issue because there are conflicting rights here,” Education Cluster Coordinator Martijn Engels comments. “Some of these people have lost everything and the only place they can stay is in schools. We don’t want to force them out.
“But on the other hand children need to be back in school, both for their education and their protection,” he continues. “We know that in emergencies, some people take advantage of the chaos to abuse or traffick children. Being in school is their best protection. It also offers children a sense of normalcy, which is good for dealing with the disaster psychologically.”
In an emergency, schools are often used as evacuation centers because they’re among the best constructed buildings in a community. “When a natural disaster strikes, schools are one of the first places people run to,” Martijn explains. Normally they stay there for a few days but in this case the evacuees have been in schools for nearly three months, which has caused problems with water, sanitation and hygiene, leading to the spread of diseases.
There is also a need to keep children and young people in the centers occupied by providing activities such as games and sports. “If there’s nothing for young people to do, they can get involved in damaging behaviour like drinking, gambling, fighting and sexual abuse,” Martijn says. “This could lead to an increase in HIV-infection rates, for example.”
For teachers and schools, the main worry is about the impact on children’s academic performance. They have to make up for the lost days and ensure that examination results are not be affected. Another problem is that, under Philippine law, teachers are responsible for the school premises. “There have been cases where school equipment has been damaged or stolen from the evacuation centers, and teachers have been held personally liable for it,” Martijn comments.
To address these problems, the Government is now pushing for people to either return to their houses or be relocated to other buildings. However, the relocation arrangements and incentives are different for each municipality. “Every municipality has a covered court, which could be used as an evacuation center, but often there’s nothing else there,” Martijn says. “People need water and sanitation facilities, transportation and a school and health clinic nearby.”
While relocation options are being explored, UNICEF is continuing to support learning activities and child-friendly spaces in the evacuation centers, along with psychosocial support activities, to help children come to terms with their distressing experiences.
Mrs Bennett Layngan is the teacher in charge of evacuees at De La Paz Main Elementary School. She also teaches a Grade Four class in the afternoons. Bennett is managing the situation as best she can. “The evacuees are in a separate extension wing, separated from the rest of the school,” she explains. “They have a water pump and cooking and cleaning areas. There are also education sessions for the children, run by Save the Children. To make room for the evacuees, some of our students have been transferred to another school nearby.”
The responsibilities are huge. When Marlene’s daughter had her fall, Bennett paid for her hospital visit out of her own pocket because the family had no money. “I’m looking forward to life getting back to normal next year,” she says.
UNICEF Philippines is working to uphold children’s right to an education, whether they’re returning to school or still in evacuation centers. In coordination with our partner agencies and with the help of dedicated teachers, we are helping children like Mariel get back to a normal life as quickly as possible.
Andy Brown is Senior Web Editor at UNICEF UK. He is working in the Philippines until December.