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OP-ED: Schools Bring Hope in Devastated Philippines

Aerial view of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: Russell Watkins/ UK Department for International Development/ CC by 2.0

TACLOBAN, Philippines, Dec 12 2013 (IPS) - Last Sunday, I bought a bouquet of 45 small fresh yellow chrysanthemums. They cost me three dollars – not cheap for these parts. They were in a bucket in front of a tiny shop crammed with workers and customers in the heart of Tacloban City.

Just one month ago, the streets were impassable, the sight of body bags commonplace, many people hungry and thirsty. Florists had gone into the blender with everything else, all the fallout of a storm so terrible meteorologists decided it was pointless to categorise.

After Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, bullied her way out to the sea and finally sank, millions of Filipinos had a new life. One man found the corpses of his mother and father washed up near the Astrodome. Another said that he and his family, including two grandchildren, clung to a pole for five hours as the water surged around them. His home is gone, and he is staying with friends.

So here, yet just 30 days later, Tacloban City residents are shrugging off the deadly Typhoon Yolanda with unflagging spirit. You can order a pizza with mushrooms and onions and a double espresso from an Italian restaurant. Motorcycle repair shops, small stands selling salt, soap flakes and SIM cards, and the street market are all open for business.

With nearly all schools damaged or destroyed, children are buzzing around, using everything as a toy or a game. One favourite is a kind of hurling sport, involving a soda can and a flip-flop. They have all kinds of untreated cuts and bruises and wearing whatever can be salvaged from ever-rarer piles of muddied goods on the side of the street.

Surviving has its price. Some cry at night, afraid that Yolanda is still there.

For Filipino education officials, the solution has been straightforward: Convene school principals, administrators and teachers. Get them some shovels, and ask them to clear out a space in the schoolyard. Set up a tent, and truck in materials and toys. Get a hose and poke holes in it, stream the water in, take a soda bottle, cut it in half, put a bar of soap in it, and string it up.

The hand washing station is in place. The word has already gone out, from neighbour to neighbour and via the few community radio stations, that school is back.

A mere three weeks after Yolanda, thousands of schoolchildren woke up early, splashed some water on their faces, put on what clothes they had and trotted off to school. Yul Olaya, a United Nations Children’s Fund education specialist who attended Palo Central School and helped get his former school’s classroom tent erected, told me that children expressed anxiety that they did not have their notebooks and book bags

“I tell them not to worry – they have gained a life experience worth a lot more than any of the notebooks or text books they lost.” Several teachers worried that school life would be too chaotic, the children too unruly, their own lives too upside-down to begin again so soon.

Yul said that teachers are trained to teach in normal situations, but a post-typhoon situation is not and cannot be normal. The trick is to apply a Biblical saying, with a twist, that wherever two or more gather for the purpose of learning, then a school is formed. In other words, put a teacher with children, and inevitably, learning will happen.

The early opening of the schools, a burst of optimism, will be followed up in a few months by a more formal school opening.

In the meantime, the idea is to give kids some structure, a regular schedule. And those children who might slip through the cracks can be identified and helped. Government officials will be better able to gauge how many children are still in the affected areas and how many have left. Above all, Tacloban’s comeback has to lead to all of the other areas where Yolanda hit, areas that are poor in the best of times.

*Kate Donovan works for the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, as a press officer. She is based in New York City.

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