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The smiles of children I meet keep me going

“Are you sure you don`t want anything?” I asked the young boy. I was suddenly concerned. When I was 10 years old, I wanted a lot of things for Christmas. Justin just looked back at me and said, “I`m alive, Mama and Papa are alive. All three of us are alive.”

Justin and his family were sheltered at the evacuation centre at the Special Education Centre in Tacloban. Their home had been destroyed in the winds and catastrophic storm surge caused by Typhoon Haiyan.

As ChildFund Philippines` Communications Officer, I`ve been on assignment with ChildFund`s Emergency Response Team since the 7th of November, before the typhoon first made landfall. I`ve been with the team for our rapid assessments of communities in Leyte Ormoc City, Palo, Tolosa, Tanauan and Tacloban  and other ChildFund teams were in Bantayan in northern Cebu, Capiz in Iloilo and Toboso in the western Visayas.

Everywhere that I`ve pointed my camera lens, it has found unique forms of misery, homes flattened for miles around; as if the entire landscape had been carpet-bombed, vehicles strewn about like toy cars and trucks flung about by a now unseen force. Every kilometre or so, I found distress messages painted on pavement or concrete. Unfortunately, bodies by the roadside were an even more frequent sight.

I remember shooting dozens of photos in all directions the first time I walked through the Leyte corridor. When I thought I`d captured everything, we`d push on into the next community to find more of the same. It took a while before it sank in that I could fill memory cards and still fail to capture the full extent of the destruction, hunger and misery.

I turned to see the row of young faces lined up next to Justin. Two 9-year-old boys sat with him at a little table. When the children caught my glance as I scanned the room, they all smiled back at me. The boys were in the middle of a trauma support exercise with ChildFund-trained volunteers at a Child-Centred Space, safe spaces for children to play, gather and receive support. They were writing and drawing their wishes and thanks for this Christmas.

Many children were volunteering to read the entries they had written. Each time I lifted my camera to my face, their smiles grew wider and the boys automatically touched their chins with their thumb and forefinger, vying for attention in my viewfinder.

I could feel my legs starting to go numb from squatting to talk to the kids. Standing up to stretch, I bumped my head into something hanging from the ceiling. It was a parol, a handmade Filipino Christmas lantern fashioned like the star of Bethlehem. I wasn`t sure who had hung the parol there, but I could see a few more of them dotting the corridor. Despite the circumstances, Christmas had found its way to this small space in Tacloban.

After long days in the field, wading through my countrymen`s anguish, scenes like this at Child-Centred Spaces have become the respite I look forward to.

UPDATE: As of 22 December, Typhoon Haiyan has claimed more than 6,100 lives, with nearly 1,800 missing and almost 28,000 injured. More than 1 million homes were damaged and 550,000 of these were destroyed. The estimated total cost of damage is $36.6 billion.

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