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Written by: Michele Tan and Edwin Lim
Photos by: Kenny Tan and Gabriel Lee

For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14) and so eventually, 25 CHARIS volunteers came forward for 7 days (29th Nov - 5 Dec 2015) to help and experience working alongside the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda within Bogo City, Cebu, one of the shelter building sites that CHARIS supported with the generous donations from the Singapore Catholic community.

When Super Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Haiyan) hit the Visayan Islands on November 8, 2013, it left in its wake a violent path of destruction and devastation. Most of Cebu's residents whose homes are mostly made from planks, plywood boards, zinc sheets and whatever bits and pieces that they can gather to protect themselves from the elements found their homes destroyed by the strong winds or sweeping waves of floods from the sea. When the storm subsided basic necessities provided by the mayor of Cebu proved to be insufficient to meet the requirements of those in need due to the scale of the disaster.

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Figure 1: His Most Reverend José S. Palma, Archbishop of Cebu speaking to CHARIS Volunteers

His Most Reverend José S. Palma, Archbishop of Cebu, commented, "The biggest donation came from all of you (CHARIS), and it came immediately, while government aid took months to arrive. The support and aid that we received from our brothers and sisters in Singapore provided us with the belief and strength to carry on. At first, when the disaster struck, it saddened us all that many lives were lost and many more displaced but the Philippines - even though we are a country with many natural disasters (I.e. Volcano eruptions, earth quakes, typhoons of all types and names, tsunamis, landslides), we would be able to stand tall and rebuild our lives again. There is a famous saying in Tagalog - If we can survive World War II, we can survive any natural disaster. From a calamity and chaos it gave rise to blessings of a different sort," Father José explained that a child in his innocence once exclaimed to him to thank God for the typhoon for because of the storm they now have a beautiful home from Caritas when before they used to stay in a Warong-Warong (wooden shanty).

Although Father José appreciates us coming to help with the building of the houses, he reminded us that this is not a holiday trip for us as serious work needs to be done to ensure that the beneficiaries have a roof over their heads with proper water and sewerage systems.

The house building project, aptly name Caritas Village, is run by The Archdiocese of Cebu’s Relief & Rehabilitation Unit (RRU), a group comprised of passionate young Filipinos intent on bringing hope back to their fellow displaced and poor Cebuano’s. Led by Father Charles Louis Jayme, the group has so far completed 48 out of 150 homes in the village of Bungtod, where 25 volunteers from Singapore went to help with basic construction work.

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Figure 2: Bags of sand passed on a human chain by CHARIS Volunteers and Villagers

RRU has also put in place a program of ‘Sweat Equity’ for the villagers who will live in the houses. The idea of this is to encourage a sense of ownership, equality and teamwork among the villagers to work together to rebuild their lives after the disaster. This is also to promote self-reliance and reduce the dependence on foreign aid groups who come in to build houses without requiring much help from the locals. Thus, each family in the village would need to complete about 400 hours of house building and would only be allocated a house by drawing of lots upon completion of the 400 hours.

Our work on the houses included shovelling sand and soil into sacks and ferrying these half-filled but heavy sacks to lay the foundations of a half built house. Our efforts to haul the bags via human chains paled in comparison to the sacks that were usually filled to the brim and carried by the villagers to build the foundation. Even though the volunteers were only able to complete the foundations for the house, a CHARIS volunteer Tania Roy shared that ‘It was a wonderful experience coming here and helping the people to improve their lives. It was good to note that despite the language barrier, we are coming together as a community in solidarity to support one another’. Other than construction work in the sun, we also taught and built the Bio-Sand water filtration system, an initiative led by CHARIS to provide clean and safe drinking water for the villagers.

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Figure 3: Jacelyn Lawerence (Villager) and Jonamie (RRU Staff) seen here washing sand for the Bio-Sand Filtration System

Jaclyn Lawerence, a Cebuano married mother with two young children staying at the village noted that: ‘Last time, we got water from the tap and everyone had to queue up to draw water and then boil it before drinking. Now with bio-sand, it will make our lives better by providing immediate clean drinking water. The construction and the preparation of materials for the Bio-sand water filtration system like the washing of soil was also participated by the local villagers and RRU crew themselves, so that they are able to learn the practical aspects of building a Bio-Sand water filtration system in the hope more can benefit from it by replicating the system to other villages in the area.

Our trip also took us to Bogo Central III School for the opening ceremony and blessing of 3 communal latrines by Father Charles. In times of disaster, the school being in a central location, will act as a relief centre for the people of Barangay-Gairan, part of Bogo City. These people will seek refuge within one of the classrooms where the toilets are located. These communal latrines provide the much needed water sanitation and hygiene that is usually lacking in relief centres in the Philippines. As Father Charles sprinkled Holy Water into these latrines, we witness how important such a facility is, the everyday things that we take for granted - a clean toilet and running tap water.

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Figure 4: The Bio-Sand Building team and villagers sharing a drink from the Bio-Sand Water Filtration System

The day before we left, we were blessed with clear skies and crystal clear water as we had lunch on Capitancillo Island, and a symbolic arch of a rainbow to end it all. A significant reminder of the hope that Christ brings us this Advent even through the storms of our lives.

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Figure 5: CHARIS Volunteers and villagers celebrating the completion of the foundation of a house

All in all through our sweat and effort the structures went up but our true reward was the sight of how husbands and wives, fathers, mothers and children, with God’s grace and love turned houses into homes. So as we handed over the houses to become homes, we took a big step along the path of our spiritual growth and we realized that with God’s love, a small act of random kindness by a few can be magnified to overcome even the biggest adversities. One Mission, Many Borders, Love Multiplied.



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