Peer to peer: young people help children recover from Sendong
Seventeen year old Kim sits with a group of young children in a child-friendly space at an evacuation centre in Cagayan de Oro, one of the towns worst hit by Tropical Storm Sendong last December. The centre is in a barangay (village) covered court. It’s crowded and humid, with the smell of sweat. Over 130 families live on top of each other with little comfort or privacy – sleeping, cooking and washing in the open.
But this morning an area has been cleared for children, marked out by a UNICEF-supplied tarpaulin mat. Here, Kim and other young volunteers are teaching math. “What does five plus two equal?” Kim asks in English, holding up a piece of paper with numbers drawn on it inside different shapes. “Seven!” the children shout happily in unison, before colouring in the right number with a yellow crayon.
Kim, who wears a UNICEF supplied t-shirt, has a natural, easy interaction with the children. They clearly have a lot of affection for him too. Six-year-old Robin* climbs onto Kim’s lap and gives him a spontaneous hug, grinning broadly. “I come here to help out every day for two hours before school,” Kim says. “I wanted to help the children forget their upsetting experiences through play and learning. I enjoy it so much. I love being with children like Robin, seeing their smiles and their enjoyment of the activities.”
Kim is one of ten ‘youth focal points’ at the centre who assist staff and volunteers from Community and Family Services International (CFSI), a Philippines-based NGO that is supported by UNICEF to provide services for children in twelve evacuation centres. “The youth focal points were nominated by their local communities,” Binladin from CFSI explained. “We trained them how to work with children, assist with educational activities, and look out for children at risk of abuse. Some of the young people have also developed their own activities. They need to have good moral values and a willingness to learn.”
Binladin is grateful for UNICEF’s support. “UNICEF has helped us with training, materials and uniforms for the volunteers,” he adds. “They’ve given us all the tools we need to set up and run the child friendly spaces, including recreational play kits.”
It’s been six weeks since the disaster and Kim has seen the difference in the children since the project began. “In the days after the storm they would just hang out in the streets, doing nothing,” he says. “Now they play games, they listen to us and they cooperate with each other.”
Memories of the flood
Like most people in the area, Kim’s family was directly affected by the floods. They live in a two storey house half way down a small street leading to the river. “The storm came at night while we were sleeping,” Kim remembers. “The first floor was completely flooded in minutes and our furniture was washed out and destroyed.”
The flash flood was the worst to hit northern Mindanao since 1916, and local people were unprepared for its ferocity. “We were very surprised and shaken,” Kim continues. “There has never been a flood like this before, even in my lola’s (grandmother’s) lifetime. We were afraid we would all drown. We couldn’t even open the front door because of the water pressure outside. I remember my mother panicking and shouting. I was very scared. I thought, ‘what can I do to help?’ It was very traumatic for me.”
Kim’s grandmother, Erlinda, took charge of the situation. A young-looking sixty two year old, she is clearly a strong willed woman with a sense of responsibility for her community, which she has passed on to her grandson. “I realised that there were lots of families down by the river who would need help,” she says. “I went out and brought about 100 people back here. At first we took them upstairs but then the water got even higher and we had to leave the house. We all linked arms as we left so that no one would get swept away.”
Erlinda showed us the damage to her house and took us down to the river to see the devastation there. An area about a hundred meters back from the river was swept clean, with just bare earth and a few surviving trees. A handful of families were camped out in makeshift shelters, with washing strung out between the trees. They were burning trash, filling the air with smoke and the acrid smell of burning plastic. Across the road were ruined shanty houses and the street was strewn with broken furniture.
“The water level came up to about 11 feet at the highest point,” Erlinda says, pointing to a water line on the side of a wooden house. “It’s gone back down now but the river is wider than it used to be, because the bank collapsed.”
Although Kim and Erlinda’s immediate family all survived, their extended family was not so lucky. “My 92-year-old aunt and her daughter both died that night,” Erlinda says, her air of strength departing for a moment as her grief surfaces. “They were trapped in their house when the waters rose. They managed to break a hole in a screen and get the granddaughter Dixie out, but they were trapped inside and drowned. Dixie survived by clinging to a log. The next day rescuers found her asleep, with her arms still wrapped around the log.”
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
After a disaster like Sendong, UNICEF’s top priority is protecting vulnerable children. The child friendly space where Kim works is just one of our interventions, which also include psychosocial care and support for children and family tracing and reunification. “We are working with the government to set up a database of separated and unaccompanied children,” Rohannie Baraguir from UNICEF’s child protection section comments. “So far, we have identified 53 cases, of whom 32 have been reunited with their families. The others are being cared for by relatives or social workers.”
Over 330,000 children have been affected by the Mindanao floods, with at least 15,000 living in evacuation centres like the one in Barangay Carmen. Many children have been separated from their parents and are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. UNICEF urgently needs more funds to continue its child protection work in the affected areas, as well as to expand programmes to children living outside the evacuation centres.
“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,” says Nonoy Fajardo, head of UNICEF’s temporary office in Cagayan de Oro. “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 need your help. Please donate online now to help UNICEF continue protecting them.
*Some names have been changed to protect children’s identity.