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At a glance: Philippines

Restoring normalcy for children in aftermath of tropical storm Ondoy

Because the streets remain flooded in the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy, children are forced to pay 20 to 60 pesos to ride makeshift boats just to get to school, while many children in the worst-hit areas are unable to attend school at all.

PASIG CITY, Philippines, 19 October 2009 – The flood waters that still inundate much of the Philippines' capital have become black with waste and garbage, a daily reminder of tropical storm Ondoy, which struck the country on 26 September.

"We felt it was hopeless," said Jennifer Cortel, who now lives in a classroom with her six children and eight other families. "The water rose so quickly, but I knew I had to be brave for the children."

Family members and neighbours helped Jennifer carry her children, aged 12 months to 11 years, to safety in waist-high waters and biting rain.

Ms. Cortel’s is among 116 families who were evacuated to classrooms in the Liberato Damian Elementary School in Santa Cruz Village, Pasig City.

In school, but not in class

At the school, potted plants and chairs divide the hallways into operational classrooms and housing for evacuees.

The rooms, which would normally seat 20 to 30 students, now house up to 14 families each. Almost every room has two or more infants.

The Government ordered the resumption of classes a week after tropical storm Ondoy hit, but such efforts have been hampered by the fact that  many schools have been converted into evacuation centres.

Ms. Cortel’s son, 8-year-old RJ, wants nothing more than to begin attending classes again. Like many other children in the more than 500 evacuation centres throughout the capital, RJ escaped the floods with only his drenched clothes on his back.
"All his clothes were destroyed. His uniform is gone and his bag and notebooks are covered with mud," Ms. Cortel said.

Jaime de Venecia, a sixth grader at Liberato Damian, fled to the school with his parents and three siblings. His dream is to graduate and get a good job so that he can help his parents. He spends the days anxiously waiting for the waters to recede.

"When the flood waters go down, I really want to go back to school,” he said.

Restoring normalcy

In tropical storm Ondoy's aftermath, much of the efforts have understandably gone towards filling the immediate needs of affected families. But beyond providing the basics of food, shelter and clothing, the specific needs of children must also be met.

"In times of emergencies, concerns of children are not given enough prominence," said UNICEF Education Chief Maria Lourdes de Vera. "From the point of view of children, what they need is normalcy. We need to ensure that they have creative experiences. That's their world. Without it, their world crumbles."

Educational system in need

Although classes have begun to resume, teachers and school officials fear that it will take some time before any sense of normalcy can return. On the first day back, teacher Melorine Gallardo, who handles preschool and Grade 2, said none of her students were able to attend. On the second day, two students managed to come to school. In addition, many teachers were also affected by the floods and some have become evacuees themselves.

Jennifer Cortel and her sons RJ and John are among the hundreds of flood-stricken individuals who were evacuated to classrooms on three floors of the Liberato Damian Elementary School in Santa Cruz Village, Pasig City, one of the worst-hit areas.

Principal Arsenia Soriano said that overall, only about 7-10 per cent of the school's 1600 students have been able to go back to school. Despite being a safe refuge for many evacuees, many school buildings were also damaged in the storm and several remain flooded. In Pasig alone, 34 out of the city's 40 schools were affected by tropical storm Ondoy, with 21 serving as evacuation centres.

"We know school performance will go down whether we like it or not," said Ms. Soriano.

Addressing psychosocial effects

Damaged infrastructure and ruined supplies can be repaired and replaced, but the storm’s psychosocial effects on children may be more permanent and difficult to repair if they are not addressed.
"The more it's ignored, the more it stays with them – the scar, the fear. We need to help children unload their fears, or you don't know what might happen to them," said Ms. de Vera.

In response, UNICEF has not only replaced damaged school supplies but is also addressing the psychosocial needs of the affected children. Aside from distributing early child care and development (ECCD) packages consisting of books, toys and other learning materials, UNICEF is also offering stress debriefing and psychosocial counselling through creative modes, such as art therapy and the creation of child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres.

It is hoped that by continuing to support children’s education, UNICEF can restore a sense of normalcy to their lives and help them forget the traumas caused by the storm.



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