We Are Your Family

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I am not sure anymore about the latest death count and the numbers of the still missing from the destructive Tropical Storm Sendong. What I am sure about is the deep pain of the affected, the nightmare the floods must have been, and the continuing agony of accepting death in the family and accepting the loss of homes at the same time. Just 48 hours after the disaster struck, I was able to accompany a few leaders of Gawad Kalinga from Manila to CDO and Iligan. We joined volunteers of GK from the affected cities and several provinces in Mindanao who brought with them the first truck of food packs for distribution. Twice, I returned to monitor the developments after the first visit before Christmas to just days before I flew to the United States.

In a month’s time, a miracle of sorts was beginning to emerge. Of course, I have to begin with the instant and massive response of Filipinos towards their own. While I had experienced this kind and generous behavior during the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy, seeing so many from all over the country rush to help CDO and Iligan convinced me that the new dawn for Filipinos has arrived. In Iligan especially, I also saw a powerful response from the local government, its leadership quickly taking charge despite the initial shock and overwhelming tragedy.

As I write this, Iligan is experiencing the end of a most unusual but inspiring day. It began with the President himself celebrating his mother’s birth anniversary with the Iliganons. He chose to do so because he wanted to support a groundswell of multi-sectoral cooperation and the exemplary engagement of government and private sector. Forty days after the horrible disaster that claimed over a thousand lives with a greater number still missing (and should be assumed dead by now), P-Noy painted a model house in a new relocation area which will soon host thousands of new homes in village settings.

Accompanying P-Noy were not only the usual Cabinet Secretaries who have direct responsibility for major reconstruction work in Iligan but the senior officers of San Miguel Corporation. In an awesome display of corporate sympathy and generosity, San Miguel Corporation donated 5,000 homes for survivor families in Iligan, and an earlier 2,500 for Cagayan de Oro. The 5,000 homes will be built following the management and template of Gawad Kalinga’s community development program. San Miguel is also hoping that its radical initiative will spark a similar wave of response from the corporate world.

More than P-Noy’s presence and San Miguel’s generosity, or perhaps, because they wished to honor it, was the visible and exciting presence of volunteers, numbering about 2,000 strong, who joined the local and national effort to rebuild Iligan. This inspiring display of solidarity between those who can help with those who desperately need help is setting the tone of reconstruction to more than the building of new structures but the building of a new nation. In a country long besieged by divisiveness and petty politicking, the cooperation by national and local governments with various groups from the private sector symbolizes the sentiment of many who seek solutions more than recriminations.

The thousands of volunteers who lent their presence in Iligan were not all there to build new homes and villages, but also to show Iliganons that they are family, that the pain of one is the pain of all, that Filipinos can be their brother’s keeper. The Executive Director of Gawad Kalinga (GK), Luis Oquinena, assured the victims of Typhoon Sendong that GK volunteers “will be their father, mother, brothers and sisters” in a journey to rebuild their lives. From my own visits to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, I know many others share that affinity and fraternity with the affected residents of the two cities.

In a bold move to reverse the shock and depression caused by the loss of lives and homes, the multi-sectoral force who committed themselves to a sustained rehabilitation effort gathered several thousands of children to be part of a celebratory event with food, balloons and games to signal that it was time to move on, to move forward, to carry the pain but not allow it to paralyze the future.

All these events were shown through live-streaming so that Filipinos everywhere can know that there is hope beyond disaster, that there is the sense of family beyond divisiveness, that there is a new dawn where dreams can be built to create a future full of hope. The tens of thousands of victims of Tropical Storm Sendong in Iligan alone will not find it easy to rise above their loss and pain. This time, however, they will not walk alone in fear and deep uncertainty. This time, they have many concerned Filipinos with them every step of the way in a new path of solidarity.

The way of Iligan is a show window for nation building. It can still fail, but only if we waver, if we give up on a fresh pathway to change and solidarity. Many died to create this new atmosphere of fraternity among Filipinos. Like the brave among our ancestors, like the heroes who sacrificed their lives for the freedom we taste today, let the thousands who were swept by Tropical Storm Sendong to their death be the seeds of nationhood built on sacrifice, built on a newfound brotherhood, built on shared work and shared joy.

It is not only about rebuilding Iligan; it is as much about building the Philippines. Even from here, from afar, connected constantly by the Internet and SMS, but even more connected by the sympathy and generosity of Filipinos in America, I sense hope, I smell victory.


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