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Column My Christmas in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan

This year I’ll be spending Christmas on the island of Panay in the Philippines, where families have had their homes and their livelihoods wiped out by typhoon Haiyan, writes Clare Ahern.

I WILL BE spending Christmas this year in the town of Concepcion, on the island of Panay in the Philippines.
Concern Worldwide is working with families here who have had their homes and their livelihoods wiped out by typhoon Haiyan.

Our immediate focus has been to distribute a full kit of emergency relief items such as plastic sheeting and tools for shelter and essential household items including soap, kitchen sets and solar lights. With relief efforts well underway the next big step will be helping people to recover.

Thousands of boats have been damaged or destroyed and the majority of fishermen have been unable to fish in the weeks since Haiyan struck; it is so important now that they can re-establish their livelihoods and set themselves on the road to recovery. We are working closely with local authorities at provincial and municipal level to assist affected families to replace or repair their boats and fishing equipment so that they can start to fish again.

We are still in the early phases of our emergency response so there won’t be much time off for us – we’ll work right up until Christmas day. Still, Christmas is a big deal here so we will definitely celebrate it in some way. There should be a group of at least twelve of us – Concern staff members and some of the friends that we have made here. I’m not sure exactly what the meal on the day itself will be, but as fishing drives the local economy, there will definitely be seafood on offer.

As for the communities we are working with here who have lost so much – their belongings, their homes, their livelihoods – I have wondered myself if they will still celebrate Christmas.

I asked a few people if they would, and on each occasion the answer has been a resounding yes. Rodrigo Soliga answered the question with a smile on his face. ‘Whatever happens’, he said ‘Christmas will go on’. Like everyone else, when he talked of celebrating, it wasn’t about presents or food or drink, but about being with the people that he loves. The smile widened across his face as he explained that his older children who have flown the nest would all return home. ‘Everyone will be here. Whatever happens we are one family, we are complete, it is enough for me’.

Meeting Rodrigo and so many others with a similar outlook makes me feel privileged to be here at such a memorable time of the year. Yesterday we met a group of students from Iloilo who had travelled up to Concepcion for the day. Iloilo is the provincial capital and is the largest city on Panay – thankfully it was unaffected by Haiyan. These students had travelled up to break with their long-held tradition of buying gifts for each other so that they could instead bring gifts to the students of the high school here, most of whom had been badly affected by the typhoon. The initiative to do this was entirely driven by the students themselves and it was a touching act of solidarity.

There are lots of things I will miss about Christmas at home. Specifically, I will miss all the time spent with my friends, my family, and my boyfriend. I might miss my little niece the most. She’s almost 18 months, has endless energy and is tons of fun. Having said that, this is a beautiful part of the world with some of the of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met so I’m sure whatever we do on the day, it will be a special Christmas, and definitely one to remember.

Clare Ahern is a Communications Officer with Concern Worldwide.

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