Thursday 28 November 2013

by Dave Ryan Aguirre Buaron, Special Projects Officer-Community Manager, Cempaka International Schools

Dear fellow Cempakans,

Most of you are probably wondering who I am. I am your Special Projects Officer-Community Manager, in-charge of our school’s Social Media. Today however, I will not be lecturing you about digital media but something more personal, something more intimate.

At half past midnight on the 8th of November 2013, I received a call from my mother. A call that I knew I would be getting sooner or later. After suffering more than six months due to cancer of the urinary bladder, my father passed away. I was devastated. But I really did not have the time to mourn. I was alone in my apartment with my two cats, and my father’s passing made every moment even lonelier. It wasn’t over however. 

At this time, I knew from news all over Twitter and Facebook that a very powerful typhoon was roaring towards my country. And my hometown and surviving family looked like they were right in its direct path. I frantically contacted my mother and sister to make sure that our house was secured, and that they and my father's body were safe. In 2008, our house was flooded during the onslaught of Typhoon Fengshen. I did not want to relive the memories of not being able to contact my entire family for two whole days again.

You see, typhoons and earthquakes are common in the Philippines. Not only do we sit on the Ring of Fire, but we are also right on the path of typhoons forming in the Western Pacific. In one year, we average 20-30 typhoons strikes. However, Haiyan (or what we call Yolanda, as we have a different naming convention for storms entering the Philippines) was different. The ferocity of which, was unmatched in recent memory. With winds gusting around 380kph and sustained winds at 315kph, it’s equivalent would be standing at the back of a jumbo jet taking off. 

I had already booked tickets prior to my father’s passing. I meant to go home on the 13th of November - a day before my father’s birthday, and mine. Due to debris on the runway, the airport was shut down for three days, and I had to move my flight to the 11th when commercial flights were allowed to land. When I landed in Manila, I went to the Philippine Airlines office to have my tickets coming back to be moved as well. One of the people queueing was a man who worked for the immigration. 

When I asked him where he was going, he replied that he was looking for flights to Tacloban or anywhere nearby. When I asked how his family was, he replied that they were still looking for them as there was hardly any communication coming out from the city of over 200,000. I tried to reassure him that perhaps his family was fine after all. To which he said that their house was right in the hardest hit area of the city. From the sound of his pained voice, he seemed resigned to the fact that he had very possibly lost ten members of his family. He then recounted to me how corpses were floating out in the bay and under the scenic San Juanico Bridge. There were too many bodies laying about with nobody giving them a proper burial. The grisly stories coming out definitely gave me a different perspective about my own personal loss.

I finally got on an earlier flight to Kalibo, my hometown, over 450 kilometers south of Manila, and there were only 14 passengers on that plane. I did not even know we were about to land because the entire city and province was pitch black - only a few buildings with their own generators had any light in them. The darkness was oppressive. On my way from the Kalibo International Airport to the funeral home where the wake was being held, I could see the outlines of fallen trees, electricity posts and damaged houses in the dark. When I got to the funeral home, I met my mother, sister and my father. We were using our own family’s generator which my father bought in 2008 after Typhoon Fengshen to ensure there was some light in case of emergencies. 

I looked out onto the balcony where I was confronted by darkness. Usually around this time of the year, the entire country is filled with twinkling Christmas lights. The Philippines celebrate the longest Christmas season in the world starting from the 1st of September until the first week of January. But there was none of that this year. At daybreak, I saw visible damage in some parts of the town centre, more noticeably along the outskirts and the river where houses made of light materials were partially to totally damaged. Thankfully, ours was fine. I visited the coastal village where I was born and majority of the houses sustained a significant amount of damage, including my late grandfather’s house which was pretty much destroyed. I haven’t been there since 1998. I visited the school which my father helped build and saw their school canteen damaged and the oldest room had lost parts of its roof. 

The next evening, relatives told me that the Congressman’s men went to the village to distribute relief goods, but only to their political supporters. I was furious. How can they politicise aid? We are talking about the lives of people here. For the most part when I was in my province, I did not see any visible nor even rushed relief efforts to help the victims. In fact the local Commission of Audit denied a request by a local council to release relief funds before the typhoon. The stories coming out from the government’s inefficiency and lack of human decency were absolutely horrendous.

Immediately after my father’s funeral, my family decided to do our own relief work, from our own pockets, in our living room, we bought and repacked rice and tinned goods, and had at least 100 food packs, together with donations from employees of the British Council Malaysia (flashlights, first aid kits) we handed out half of it to the coastal village while inside our van and the other half we endorsed to the local Catholic Church for distribution to another town hit even worse. Throughout this time, there was no power and hardly any internet connection but I couldn’t really complain. Thousands of lives had been lost and millions more are suffering so we have to think of things bigger than ourselves. 

When I returned to Cempaka this Monday, I was shocked to see the boxes upon boxes of aid inside the office at the Sick Bay. I nearly cried. When Dr. Rizal said Cempaka will send aid, I did not realise it would be this much. 
Photo Credit : En. Syariz
It was truly a humbling experience. It was heartening to see Cempakan students, parents, teachers, and staff help wrap and move goods into the Malaysian Red Crescent Society truck. Truly, it’s a privilege to give and in the spirit of Christmas, what is more appropriate but lend a hand to those in need?
Photo Credit : En. Syariz
Special thanks to the Soo family, Damansara parents who donated 440 boxes of bottled water. Thank you to Dato’ Freida, Dr. Rizal, the rest of management, staff, teachers, parents and students for making this possible.

While millions of my people are roofless, hungry, in the dark, they are not hopeless. On behalf of my countrymen, thank you very much, Cempakans. Maraming Salamat at Maligayang Pasko. Merry Christmas.

Sincerely yours,
Dave Ryan Aguirre Buaron
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