Concepcion, Iloilo – The place bustles with activity. Everywhere you walk, you hear the sounds of hammers and saws. The markets are open. So are the schools. A hundred days after Super Typhoon Haiyan made its fifth landfall in this municipality and destroyed nearly everything in its path, the people of Concepcion are making great strides toward rebuilding their small town. Even with the progress, the scars of the typhoon will forever remain with the people who live here.
I am a Filipino living in New York, and I’ve been away from home for the last seven years. This was my first emergency response with Concern and to be honest, perhaps the last thing I ever wanted was to respond to a massive catastrophe in my homeland.
Growing up and living in the Philippines most of my life, typhoons were not new to me. They torment us about 22 times a year, some worse than others, but somehow we’ve almost always managed to get by on our own. We are a resilient country, and usually well-prepared to take on natural disasters like storms and the occasional earthquake. No one and nothing could have prepared the Philippines for Haiyan.
When the news of its devastation flooded my television set and social media feed last November, my heart was completely broken. I gladly accepted the opportunity to be part of the Concern response team. As a Filipino living overseas, there is no greater honor than to return home to help your fellow countrymen.
Two months later, I find myself on the island of Igbon, where the team and I set out to validate some of the data we’d collected on damaged and missing boats. We are starting a program to repair or replace small fishing boats damaged by the storm. About 60 percent of the country’s population lives by the sea, so fishing is a huge source of income and food for many communities.
Small-scale fishermen are among the poorest people in rural areas. Before Haiyan hit, most were already living day-to-day. With their boats now destroyed, they’re left with nothing. It is now Concern’s goal to get some 2,000 boats back on the water so they can start to earn a living again.
The validations involve speaking to each member of the community, asking about the status of their boats and the extent of the damage. Personally, I think Filipinos take “community involvement” to a whole new level. It takes five minutes for everyone to show up and then I am surrounded by people peering over my shoulder and calling out the names they recognize from my list. While some might see this as an intrusion on personal space, I smile and welcome a nostalgic sense of family.
It is amazing to see how everyone vouches for each other and how honestly they respond to the questions. These people aren’t looking for hand-outs, or to cheat any system. No games. No lying. If their boats are in good shape, they say so and back up neighbors who aren’t so fortunate.
It’s not uncommon for Filipinos to be fiercely loyal to each other, as well as grateful for every small gesture of kindness regardless of who receives it. You give one of us a break, you inherit a whole community. And all these people really want is for their community to bounce back, and to have the chance to fish again.
After our work, a small group of women set out a plate of food for my colleague Christine and me. It was a very simple meal—scrambled eggs cooked with onion, tomato and rice. Smiling, they adamantly refuse to let us move on without eating. It makes my heart melt and I try to hold back the tears as I bite into the food.
These people lost everything, yet here they are taking care of me. As a Filipino who loves to feed other people, I know they are taking as much joy in giving as they do in receiving. We Filipinos eat to live, but we live to feed. It’s how we show we care. This is one humbling foodie experience I will never forget.
Before leaving, my new friends invite me to come back on Saturday. It is Iloilo’s annual Dinagyang festival, a religious festival commemorating the conversion of the island’s early settlers, the dark-skinned Ati people, to Christianity. After enduring Haiyan, the whole island will don their best outfits and festival smiles, setting a fine example of how to bounce back, no matter how many times you get knocked down.
I have to refuse because I’m heading back to Manila but I thank them for all their hospitality as I make a mental note to include every one on this island in my own prayers, for the rest of my life.