A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Golda Hilario is an Oxfam Policy and Research Program Officer in the Philippines. After Typhoon Haiyan struck, she was part of one of three Rapid Assessment Teams deployed to Tacloban, Leyte to assess what help people need, and plan how Oxfam should respond.
It was half past one in the afternoon. The heat was at its highest point. My team mate Jermaine and I found a school that families were using as an evacuation center.
In the school I met Jonalyn Felipe. She’s 21 and four months pregnant with her first baby. Before the typhoon, the couple was renting a room in a boarding house close to this informal evacuation center.
Jonalyn told me about the typhoon: “We were at the boarding house. I never thought that the water would rise so much. We had to break out of the roof of the house to get away.
"That was the first time that I had experienced anything like this. We were used to typhoons, but I just did not imagine that the situation would be like this. We went back to the boarding house afterwards, but it is no longer livable. We just took the things that can still be used, to dry them here”, said Jonalyn, pointing to a pile of crumpled clothes that her husband Rexon was folding.
“We desperately needed food, water and a place to stay now. We thought of leaving Tacloban but decided against it. I might have survived the typhoon but may not survive the journey. Before the typhoon came, I went to the doctor and was nearly confined. I have asthma. The doctor prescribed two medicines – I could not find the other one but this is the other thing.” Jonalyn pulled a strip of foil from a pair of Rexon’s shiny leather shoes.
I examined the medicine. “This is folic acid. You need this for your baby. Please take it,” I prodded Jonalyn, remembering that my own sister was also prescribed with the same prenatal vitamin.
"Even if we do not have anything left, we share everything."
Nearby, another couple, Ricardo and Rizalina Villegas, were cooking over a small stove. Ricardo poured me a cup of hot noodles, taken from a food parcel delivered by a local organization distributing emergency food aid. "Go on,” he said, “I know you are hungry too… In here, even if we do not have anything left, we share everything… what is important is that your stomach will be warmed."
Embarassed I asked if it was ok to take half a cup. "Thank you very much. It has been three days since I tasted something hot."
The hot cup of noodles was the start of a conversation. “I am still nursing but I am running out of milk,” said Rizalina, with worry in her voice. “I do not know where to get milk for our baby... my children are getting sick. Three have asthma, coughing at night. This place is hot during the day but we all get wet when it rains, like last night.”
What we need now is food, water, medicines for the kids, a new place to stay and things to start over – food, cooking pots, plates”, Rizalina said. “The kids went to school, but I do not know when it will reopen, and the kids lost their bags and school materials.”
Ricardo asked me what I do. I told him that Oxfam is an organisation that responds to disasters and that my colleagues were trying their best to look for solutions to address the water needs.
I asked if I can share his family’s story with the public and to highlight their need. He said yes, but refused to have their photos taken because they have relatives in Manila and they do not want people to see them in this light. I respected their wish, finished my interview and went back to the city hall with Jermaine.
In front of the city hall, I had a moment, and for the first time I nearly broke down. It was not because I saw the devastation, not because of hunger or frustration, but because I saw kindness in the heart and hands of strangers. May pagasa! (There is hope!).
Text and top photo by Golda Hilario/Oxfam
Second photo: Filipino residents sleep on the floor as they seek refuge inside a gymnasium turned into an evacuation center in Sorsogon City, Bicol region, Philippines, 8 November 2013. Photo: EPA/Kit Recibido