by Anna Villanueva
ILIGAN CITY, Philippines; January 2012 – At only 9 years old, Genina* has braved the wrath of Tropical Storm Washi (locally known as Sendong), and survived one of the most catastrophic natural disasters that struck Mindanao in living memory.
On the night of December 16, 2011, at around 8pm, Genina noticed that her older sister Jean*, 10 years old, was troubled and uneasy, seeing that water was starting to come inside their house.
Just minutes later, water rushed inside their house and was instantly ankle-deep. This prompted the girls’ father to decide that the family should vacate the house, correctly guessing that what was about to happen was unlike anything they have ever seen or experienced.
The entire family, together with Genina’s aunts, uncles, and cousins, rushed to a nearby waiting shed, seeking refuge on its roof. Not too long after they climbed up the roof, the waiting shed collapsed due to the beating it got from the floodwaters that ferociously gained speed and force.
“That was the last time I saw my family,” says Genina. After the waiting shed completely fell apart, they were all dispersed in different directions, carried away by mammoth floods while trying to dodge huge logs and all sorts of mangled remnants from fallen houses and structures.
The young girl recalls losing consciousness hours after she started swimming. “The next thing I remember is waking up the next morning. I was still holding on to the small piece of wood, but I noticed that at that time, I was floating in a bigger sea,” shares Genina. From a short distance away, she saw a teen-aged boy holding on to tires that have been turned into lifebuoys. Genina shouted for help and was later rescued from sea with the boy.
To the little girl’s surprise, she was actually found in the municipality of Manticao, in the province of Misamis Oriental, north of Iligan City. She was taken to a hospital where doctors happily found out that Genina only sustained minor cuts and scratches on her chest.
While she was in the hospital, a municipal councilor served as her temporary guardian.
Searching for Genina
This was when the process of turning over Genina to her family started. “Because Genina’s relatives lost all their identification cards and documents to the floods, we had to follow a meticulous process in verifying whether or not they are really related,” shares Funjetrias Sacan, Social Worker III from the DSWD in Iligan City. “After verifying all the needed information and finding that Genina’s uncle and his wife are fit to take care of the girl, we turned her over to her family.”
Reunited with her family
Two of her sisters have also been found and already turned over to her grandfather. However, the search for her parents, as well as her 1 year old sister, still continues.
While her relatives are still looking for her parents, hoping that they too survived the tropical storm’s devastation, they have already applied for a DSWD assessment in order to formally turn over Genina to an aunt in South Cotabato, making the aunt her legal guardian. It was the 9-year old who expressed her desire to live with her aunt so that she can continue her studies. Her aunt has assured Genina that she would support the girl’s education.
“We are in the process of determining Genina’s aunt’s parenting capabilities. Once we finish the due process and deem her aunt fit to be her legal guardian, we will turn over the child to her relative in South Cotabato,” says Ms. Sacan from the DSWD.
Until permanent housing is made available to families being assisted within the transitory shelter sites,
UNICEF works to protect family unity
“UNICEF believes in the importance of protecting family unity, especially in emergency situations and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Tracing parents, siblings, or extended family and reuniting separated children with them is UNICEF’s top priority,” Sarah Norton-Staal, UNICEF Child Protection Chief says.
During the Sendong emergency, a total of 21 Separated and Unidentified Children (SUC) were in Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro City. Reintegrating these children to their families becomes an important step, restoring a sense of normalcy to children who faced profound stress after the ensuing chaos and panic that usually follow a natural disaster.
This also ensures that children will not remain unsupervised and unaccompanied by their parents or relatives. Thus, reducing the risk of children becoming victims of abuse and violence, such as human trafficking, child labor, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual exploitation.
Being with their families also protects the emotional and psychosocial wellbeing of children, despite going through the horrors that the tropical storm brought.
UNICEF is committed to protect other children who have been separated from their parents in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Washi. Just like in the case of Genina, UNICEF works hand-in-hand with the government and its partners to ensure that displaced and separated children will be reunited with their family.
To know more about what UNICEF is doing in Iligan and Cagayan, go to Facebook.com/unicefphilippines. You can also help children in these areas, go to http://donate.unicef.ph