Typhoon Haiyan diary 4: Amid endless challenges, a day of inspiration in Tacloban

Typhoon Haiyan diary 4: Amid endless challenges, a day of inspiration in Tacloban

Children play basketball in the typhoon-hit town of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, Philippines.

By Kent Page, Senior Advisor Strategic Communications, UNICEF Philippines

After losing everything to Typhoon Haiyan, a boy and his siblings face a daily struggle to survive.

TACLOBAN, Philippines/ HONG KONG, 22 November 2013 – For several days, UNICEF child protection staff in Tacloban, working with local government and NGO partners, were trying to track down a group of unaccompanied children who had lost their family to the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan.

© UNICEF Philippines/2013/Maitem

Children play ball in the street in Tacloban, Philippines, as a cargo plane flies overhead.

After an extensive search, the five children were found and referred for help, and they are now receiving much-needed support.

Theirs is an inspiring story stemming from tragedy. The five children are brothers and sisters, the oldest an 18-year old boy, and the youngest an 8-year old boy. They are sheltering at an evacuation centre in a school overrun with hundreds of families made homeless by the typhoon.

The five children stay close together. Their mother and father both died in the typhoon, along with three of their siblings.

The oldest boy gathered his surviving siblings and got them to the evacuation centre to make sure they were safe.

He has not had a second to grieve, to process the loss he and his siblings have experienced, or even to sit back and rest for a moment. His younger brothers and sister are looking to him for support. Although he is exhausted, he gives them all he can.

When we met them, they were in the small classroom that is their temporary home. They sleep on a piece of plywood on the floor. The windows are gone. At night the room is cold and the mosquitoes come.

There is some mercy – they are sharing the room with their cousin and his family. They have lost everything too, but are willing to take in the five kids as extended family.

The younger sister looks up to her brother and told me what he has been doing to help his siblings: standing in long lines in the rain to get relief goods; watching over them at night so they are safe; working during the day in the dangerous job of cleaning debris and wreckage from the street; and keeping the small amount of money he makes to buy them food.

When we met him, he was busy preparing food for all five of them, boiling water over a small wooden fire in the classroom to make instant noodles with some rice.

I can see the grim determination in his face as he takes on all the tasks required to care for his siblings. They are now all getting support through UNICEF and others, which will help, but it can’t replace the loss of their parents and their 11- and 5-year-old sisters and their littlest 3-year-old brother.

He tells me the water was “as high as the coconut trees”, pointing up in the air. That he grabbed hold of one of his younger brothers with one hand and held on the top of a bamboo tree branch with the other at the height of the storm. His sister clung, alone, to the top branches of a jackfruit tree as the water surged more than 100 meters from where their house used to stand.

Neither of them have any idea how the other two boys survived the storm, only that they found them sitting in the sand in front of where their home used to be. The only thing that remained is a toilet bowl fixed firmly into a block of concrete. No books, no photos, no plates, no furniture – nothing.

I’d love to have a happy ending for their story, but the best I can manage is a hopeful ending. UNICEF has opened a child-friendly space at the school where they are staying, and the three youngest now have a safe, clean place to play, sing, learn and be with other children. They are registered with the local government and other organizations.

And their cousin’s family says they will take them in.

The only surviving sister, 17 years old, is sad because her high school was severely damaged and shut down. She had hoped to graduate this year, and she is determined to go back to school and graduate.

And the young man who has had huge responsibility thrust upon him is doing his very best, every waking moment. He is a hero and an inspiration.

After the media have packed up and moved on – as they are already starting to do – these children will still be here, struggling to survive, like the millions of other children living in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.