November 28 2013

A Christmas wish from Tacloban

In the Sulvera household, the toys of Christmas past have been washed away in the floods that followed Typhoon Haiyan. In a race against time the SOS Children’s Village team is working to ensure that Christmas brings hope to such families who live in muddy smoke-filled shacks where support is desperately needed.

Pamela fights to keep her children safe and and healthy in unimaginable conditions. ©T. Standún

A banner on the roadside reads: To all countries and other municipalities in the Philippines, thank you so much for helping Tacloban.A few metres away, opposite the entrance to the SOS Children’s Village, stands a woman with a five-month old infant in arms. She smiles at passers-by as they walk through the rain. Behind a battered structure made of salvaged galvanised sheets, her husband, a butcher, prepares to slaughter a pig. It appears that the family is getting back on its feet. On entering her home the woman’s smile quickly turns to tears when she relays the harsh reality.


No place to play
Confined under 25 square metres of rusty leaking roof live three generations of the Sulvera family. They have no running water, no toilets, no electricity. The floor is made up of broken furniture; it floats on black mud that provides a breeding ground for disease. Pamela, who wears a plastic bag on her head to protect her from the rain, attempts to stop the children from playing in the dirt; her efforts are in vain. She gestures to a small make-shift bed. This is the only playground available for her infant, his four-year old sister and three cousins, who are aged between two months and six-years old.

Families require strengthening. ©T. Standún

Pamela and her husband, parents, parents-in-law and two sisters live cheek to jowl – all are unemployed. She points to her six-year old nephew Jay Keam [pronounced Jian]. The stitches across his forehead are a reminder of the eighth of November, a day when rising floodwaters almost swept him to his death.

Mother recalls escape from the storm
“We were at the Hermann Gmeiner School on Friday morning. We were told to evacuate, but the water rose very quickly. We could not get out,” recalls Jean, Jay Keam’s 22 year-old mother. She begins to cry as she and her infant cough in the damp smoky room. Pamela takes up the story. “We could see small children in the water crying for help – we knew them, we wanted to help, but we knew we would not survive if we helped them. We were trapped in the classroom. We had to dive under the muddy water to get out the window. I could not swim. My brother and father knew how to swim. Without them I would not have made it .We had to swim and swim until we reached the roof-top of the school.
As we sat there we could see children being washed away in the flood that had reached a height of two metres. We picked up some of them. Then Jay Keam slipped off the roof, and hit his head before plunging into the muddy water. Miraculously, we managed to pluck him out. Later as the water receded we formed a human chain and made our way to higher ground.” At this stage Pamela pauses. Tears role down her face as she remembers seeing dead children in the water. 
She then regains her composure and smiles as she looks fondly at the little boy. “Jay Keam always looked forward to going to the Hermann Gmeiner School. He asks every day when can he go back. He misses a nice place to play – here it is full of mud. He has no toys now, his favourite, Spiderman, was washed away with everything else. He wakes up every night when he hears the rain. He fears that he will drown again,” she said.

The smoke of burning debris fills the air.© SOS Archives

Children cough continuously as smoke filled air penetrates every corner of their confined living quarters. Between the daily rain showers, like others the Sulvera family attempt to dry clothes and bedding. Fires smoulder on every street in an effort to dispose of the stinking debris.
Meanwhile, the pig has been quartered and carried to a pick-up truck. Though the family is desperate for food, the pig will be consumed by others who have paid Pamela’s husband 200 Pecos for his services– this will buy three kilos of rice.

Children’s Village strengthening the family
Fortunately, a child-friendly space will be available across the street at the SOS Children’s Village in the coming days – as soon as hazardous debris is removed. This should provide Jay Kean and other children with a safe place to play, a place to overcome trauma, a place to go while the Hermann Gmeiner School (which was built by SOS Children’s Villages but now run by the state) is rebuilt.
In the weeks ahead the SOS Social Centre will again reopen to serve Pamela and single parents like Jean. There is a possibility that Pamela’s husband may also be employed to help repair of the SOS Children’s Village. For now the emergency team is working to ensure that the children have access to basic provisions. Medical advice is being sought to ensure Jay Keam’s head injury is treated. Food, water, clothing and shelter materials are also being arranged.
When asked what $20 can buy in Tacloban today Pamela replies, “I could buy rice, medicine and milk supplement for the children. With $100 we could build a room.” Her greatest wish for Christmas is to ensure the children can quickly return to a normal life, and that the family can remain intact. That is priceless.