By Martin Nañawa, ChildFund Philippines
In September, rebels attacked the coastal communities of Zamboanga City in the Philippines, taking civilians hostage and using them as human shields. After several weeks of fighting, the government has quelled the attack and security is returning to the area.
ChildFund works in six communities in and around Zamboanga City. Although children enrolled in ChildFund programs were not directly affected by the fighting, ChildFund’s local partner organization, the Holy Rosary Family Center, under the leadership of Sister Nini, set up Child-Centered Spaces to ensure children have a safe place to gather, play and express any fears. ChildFund’s Emergency Action Fund allows us to provide these spaces to children affected by strife or natural disasters. Sister Nini agreed to share her experiences at the height of the fighting.
Sister Nini is used to getting up at dawn. Like other Dominican sisters in her order, she takes her morning prayers silently before dawn and lately by herself. It’s been more than a week since fighting erupted in the Philippines’ Zamboanga City, and there’s much work to be done.
Within an hour of waking, Sister Nini has already picked up seven volunteer mothers and youth. Though it’s a tight squeeze, everyone fits in the cabin of her order’s pickup truck. Laughter fills whatever space is left, as her company tries to keep their spirits up and their legs from falling asleep. Thankfully, their destination, Boalan, an elementary school that has doubled as an evacuation center, is not far. Though they are far enough from where the fighting continues in Zamboanga, Sister Nini is always wary of the possibility of danger on the road.
Arriving at the school grounds, Sister Nini and her volunteers unload the contents off the flatbed. There’s rice, canned sardines, instant noodle packs and biscuit tins donated by former students of Nini’s from her days at Ateneo de Zamboanga and St. Joseph School. She and her volunteers also unload bundles of lush malunggay (moringa) leaves, mustard greens, bright orange carrots, lettuce stalks and lengths of string beans, all harvested from the sisters’ organic vegetable plot at the convent. The women carry the vegetables to a makeshift kitchen on the school grounds.
Dawn’s first light brings warmth to 56 families who’ve spent the evening with little more than woven mats or flattened cardboard boxes between them and the cold pavement of classroom floors. Dawn also brings the aroma of a hot breakfast, wafting through the wooden shutters and rousing weary evacuees from their sleep. The Department of Social Welfare and Development has been providing and coordinating aid to this evacuation center and others as fighting displaces families. Sister Nini’s crew complements the DSWD’s support, taking care of breakfast at this site. Today, breakfast is steamed rice porridge — arroz caldo, fortified with fresh vegetables.
Sister Nini does not always stay through breakfast at this site. She makes the rounds of three more evacuation centers, setting up Child-Centered Spaces at these four sites. These spaces host activities addressing displaced children’s psychosocial needs, playing, and creative and productive expression of their emotions. Nini alternates her schedule for her own security.
By the time Sister Nini returns to the first evacuation site, many parent volunteers are ready to return home to their families. The youth volunteers stay to assist local teachers who conduct stress-debriefing activities for children living at the school. The volunteers play with the children or tell them stories. “These young people know the importance of helping others,” Sister Nini says. “They themselves are sponsored children with ChildFund and know just how big a difference a stranger’s kindness can make.”
Sister Nini also checks on the elderly at the evacuation centers, monitoring their blood pressure and asking if anyone needs to go to the hospital. There’s been no need so far, but she offers the service anyway. She also arranges safe drop-offs for volunteers who live along her route from the evacuation center. “My vehicle is a public vehicle,” Nini jokes, before expressing gratitude for the family and friends who donate what they can to keep the truck’s tank full.
Returning to the convent at the end of the day, Sister Nini thanks God for all the support behind her work with children and the safety they’re afforded. She admits, “In truth, I’m always afraid, but I know God is greater than my fear.”