A City on a Hill That Can’t Be Hidden

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Overlooking the shimmering waters of Subic Bay stands an ordinary building with an extraordinary history. Sitting atop one of the many hills here in the mountainous region of Zambales, the Preda centre is the headquarters for the organisation I have been lucky enough to volunteer with for the last four weeks. It actively works with 58 professional Filipinos and volunteers to protect and defend the rights and dignity of women and children who have been victims of forced prostitution, sexual abuse or inhumane jail conditions.

The PREDA team are working tirelessly to rescue children and teenagers from the sex trade and defending them by offering legal assistance to convict their perpetrators. Staff also offer education seminars for local elementary and high schools where they teach students, staff and parents about issues of sexual abuse and the urgent need to protect children and take action against abuse and exploitation.

Aside from the inspiring work they do with the victims of sex crimes, PREDA also take in boys who have been in conflict with the law or have been abandoned by their families. More often than not, these boys are put into government care (which is usually oversubscribed) and forced to live in the squalid conditions of detention centres. If they are over 15 years old, they may be forced to stay there as they await their trial or if they are under 15, until they are transferred into the hands of other child care organisations.

The children in conflict with the law (CICL) are victims themselves of broken homes, parental abandonment and will often turn to petty stealing to survive. Some of the children in the home are caught up in overlong legal trials where they have been involved in petty theft. On Wednesday, I was able to join the Home for Boys team with PREDA social worker Joan on a visit to Manila to attend the trial of one of the boys, visit the homes of some others and pick up new children due to move to the Boys’ Home here in Zambales.

We started our day at 4 am and headed towards the big, bustling city of Manila. If you’ve ever referred to London as ‘The Smoke’ you’d never use the term again after spending just a few hours in Manila. The air is thick with smog and pollution as a result of thousands of diesel powered cars, jeepneys, buses and tricycles which spend most of their driving time waiting in traffic. The sweet smell of garbage, fumes and the ‘biologically dead’ Pasig river lingers in the air and the sticky heat causes a layer of sweat to stay with you the whole day.

We arrived to the government buildings at 8:30 am and made our way to the corridor where the courts are located. People were coming and going in all directions: social workers, lawyers, prisoners and their guards, families of the accused headed with purpose to all corners of the building.  We entered the courtroom and I was reminded of all the trials I had seen in TV soaps over the years, although the judge wore a simple black robe rather than the pretentious wigs I’m so used to seeing at home.

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

The boy we were with was charged with being caught up in a petty theft. The incident happened almost two years ago and has been delayed and delayed because the complainant and witnesses have never shown up to court. This boy’s life for the last two years has consisted of him waiting and waiting and he has not been able to move on, re-integrate himself into his community (which has all but shunned him) and get back into education to finish his studies. Thankfully, the PREDA Foundation was able to transfer him from the government facilities (where waiting for two years would be a genuine nightmare) and provide legal support, a positive and friendly environment to live, and counselling to help him when he moves on once the seemingly never ending trial is over. He has shown impeccable behaviour since moving to the Boys’ Home.

In the afternoon, we visited the homes of four of the boys currently staying at the Boys’ Home; or at least that was the plan! One of the parents was supposed to be at the local basketball court, but he didn’t show up. A mother of one of the other children was at work, so we had to go to her street food cart and talk to her there. In the third boy’s home, we were greeted by two barking shih tzus but no parents. After some questions, it turned out he lived there with is brother, auntie and three cousins; I was left unsure as to what happened to his parents.

Finally, we visited the home of the fourth boy. When we arrived, his mother was sat on a deckchair with his seven-month-old brother down a side alley of a house. His grandfather, who the three also lived with, went to fetch a bench for us to sit on. When he returned, we asked him where the home was, to which he simply replied, “it’s here” pointing towards the narrow area that we were all standing in. Their home consisted of an area no larger than a metre wide and 3 metres long, opposite bags of garbage and cardboard. The grandfather had to fold up the deckchair in order for us to sit on the bench in the 3 square metres that this family called their home.

They had previously rented an apartment, but they couldn’t afford to pay the rent so they moved onto the streets. Each day they are forced to pay for some food elsewhere, as there is no space to cook for themselves. The area was hardly a shelter either, as it started to rain very heavily and the tarpaulin covering the alley leaked water onto our shoulders as we sat below and talked to each other. Many of the local children enjoyed stripping off their clothes and dancing in the rain; some even had soap with them and took the opportunity to shower. A joyful moment for the children living in such offensively cramped conditions.

After chatting to this family, who welcomed us so warmly, we visited a government home for boys to collect four new children who had been abandoned by their families and are accused of petty theft to survive on the streets; an all too common case in the stories of these young people who are jaded with life because of their family circumstances. A vicious cycle of behavioural problems because of a lack of love in life, which causes further behavioural problems causing the attitude and outlook of the young people to sink further and further into chasms of darkness. It is this cycle that PREDA social workers are trying to break by taking in the young people who can hopefully turn their lives around after experiencing the holistic approach of the Boys’ Home which is appropriately nicknamed, “Childhood for Children”.

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We arrived back in Olongapo after 11 pm. A long, 20-hour day which helped me to understand in more detail some of the problems that are facing the people of the Philippines as well as the issues facing PREDA. I returned to my room here at the Preda centre, and couldn’t help but think about how many lives the operations from within these walls have helped save. It could be said that PREDA is fighting a losing battle in a country that is gripped by corruption, nepotism and poverty. There will always be street children as long as there’s poverty and there will always be sex tourism as long as foreigners are coming and spending money in bars. However, in spite of this, if it weren’t for the activity here at PREDA, hundreds  maybe thousands  of children wouldn’t have the lives they are living now: empowered, motivated and loved.

The centre is not just a building, and not just the headquarters for the work of this organisation, but is a sheer beacon of light looking out over a city and country that is filled with so much darkness and depravity. We are all called to be salt for the earth, to cleanse and purify, to restore justice and dignity to people who are deprived of theirs. It would be pointless to sit quietly  like flavourless salt  and do nothing.

The PREDA Foundation has an important mission, and it burns brightly aloft this hill. The exposing light is here for everybody to see; anybody who is involved in crime and corruption can see this crucial place from all over the city. It is not hidden, it is in plain sight. All the staff (some of whom were rescued victims and successful PREDA boys and girls themselves) are committed and working tirelessly to ensure that the flame will never go out, ensuring that there will always be a place in this world for the vulnerable and marginalised who are given such a terrible start in life. The urgency never ends.

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Viva Pit Señor!

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As I stood in the baking sunshine with only a small circular fan to block out the rays of the sun and as sweat dripped uncomfortably out of every pore of my body, I felt completely unfazed as I stood transfixed at the colourful, exuberant sights of the marching bands and traditional dancers that paraded down the street. People of all ages, from many different islands of the Philippines, had turned up to show off their well choreographed, well costumed routines to the beat of the drum and the striking of the glockenspiel all in honour of an image of Jesus as an infant.

This is, of course, Cebu’s famous Sinulog festival: the annual celebration which marks the commemoration of Ferdinand Magellan bringing Christianity to the shores of the Philippines and the devotion to the image of the Child Jesus which was brought along with him 450 years ago. Filipino Catholics believe firmly in the miraculous nature of the image of the Santo Niño and will pray to it with their own personal intentions. Cries of “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” and “Pit Señor!” (a cry of help to the Sto Niño) can be heard on every street during the fiesta and it is unusual if you don’t carry a little (or sometimes big!) statue of the Child Jesus around with you for the duration of the feast.

Sailing at dawn.

Sailing at dawn: so many came out to see the Fluvial Procession; you can just make out the silhouettes of the crowds on the bridge.

A highlight of the weekend was the Fluvial Procession which took place the day before the Sinulog. Waking up at 3am (it hurt!) we took ourselves down to Pasil, one of the main communities Don Bosco work in, and joined the rest of the Salesian contingent for the boarding of one of three Don Bosco boats. Hundreds of boats in total, both big and small, took their place in the procession as they took sail along the coast of Cebu. Flags of red and yellow adorned the decks and musicians took to their drums to craft the unique beat of the festival soundtrack. We were led by the image of the Santo Niño (although a replica as the original is too fragile) for over three hours, finally returning to the port in Pasil at 8:30am.

During the boat ride, I truly saw the joy of the festival. People stood on the front-sections of their boat holding their Santo Niño high, dancing to the music as on-lookers from the shore watched on as the boats passed them. Crowds gathered along every bridge we passed and whole villages turned out to watch from the riverbank, where their homes stand precariously on the water’s edge. Having this Holy statue, which means so much to the people of Cebu, pass your home by boat must feel like a dream come true as there is no tall person, concrete pillar or obnoxious umbrella to block your view.

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Carrying a statue of the Santo Niño is a must throughout the whole of the Sinulog celebrations.

After alighting our boat, we joined the community in their gymnasium to watch the many groups from Pasil in their musical interpretations of the Sinulog story. The acts were being judged on their costumes, their choreography and their uniqueness. Joining the community for the Fluvial Procession and their dance competition, was a very special moment, as this authentic experience of Sinulog is not how I would experience it if I just arrived to Cebu as a regular tourist. Of course the performances were not as polished as those on the grand stage — I’m sure the budgets were far less, and the monetary prizes definitely were — however, the insight into a smaller version of the grander festival showed just how devoted the Cebuano citizens in the poorest barangays (a Filipino word for a village or local community) are to their faith and love of Jesus. In spite of the fact their performances were slightly rough-around-the-edges, there was great enthusiasm and devotion poured into their routines; real moments of jubilation and celebration!

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

The next day, the official day of the Sinulog, a truly captivating carnival atmosphere gripped the city. Everywhere you looked there were crowds: market vendors selling all-sorts of street food, festival-goers standing still whilst a henna tattoo is painted onto their body, children smiling as they received a helium balloon… all the while the official music of the festival was blasting out of every shop window, restaurant and home. We then joined the grand parade for an afternoon of street dancing where groups from all over the Philippines came to showcase their dancing and musical interpretations of the classic Sinulog routines.

Children dressed in colourful gowns and exotic headdresses danced their way down the 4-mile long parade route in the blazing sunshine. I found it difficult to stay standing at some points, so I have no idea how they felt under so many layers of make-up and sequins. Some wore more traditionally Filipino outfits: pretty dresses or formal Filipino shirts. One group decided to make all their outfits out of rice sacks and another decided simply to wear grey and yellow onesies. It was a feast for the eyes, and if it weren’t for the stifling heat and the busy crowds, I could have stayed there all day.

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The theme of this year’s festival was “Santo Niño: Hope of the People” and this hope for answered prayers and miracles, for Catholics in the Philippines, is the cornerstone of this celebration. Although I have to admit, even as a Catholic myself, this kind of worship left me feeling confused at times. In Europe, we are not so used to chanting Christ’s name in a way that sounds almost like we’re at a rally, nor are we in the habit of waving hello to statues. Yet, in a lot of ways, the diversity of the Catholic faith is what makes it so beautiful to me.

As I have learnt over the last five months, the culture and customs of this place are so radically different to what I am so used to and getting under the skin of the culture, and trying to discover the meaning and history behind practices, is so important in my own learning and personal growth. I can’t simply say, “This is stupid.” and walk away; I need to know more.

So, I guess, for Filipinos this representation of Christ has brought so much hope to the citizens of the Philippines for centuries. Whether you are rich or poor, there really is something for everyone and everybody has a chance to celebrate, party and be merry. It’s clear to see how happy this festival makes people, and infectious enthusiasm rubs off on all. And it is within this enthusiasm, I think, that people find their hope. A hope that once a year, in spite of tragedy after tragedy, there will always be an opportunity to praise God in a lively, dramatic and highly fabulous way. Perhaps this festival is just what people need after a year of typhoons, earthquakes and other such depressing matters. Sinulog gives a chance for people to celebrate the gift of life and offers people a hope, through Jesus (infant or otherwise), that all will be well.

Have you ever experienced a festival or carnival that still carries its religious history and significance into modern day? I’d love to hear about others’ experiences.

Typhoon Ruby: Raging winds and an overnight community (Part 2)

Typhoon Ruby

As the winds swept in and the darkness somehow darkened, there were many thoughts that were flowing through my head that night. How were the people outside of the evacuation centre? What were my family back in the UK feeling? Was everything going to be okay? The stories of those who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan were etched on my brain like dark scratchings and it left me wondering if we would be victims or survivors.

By around 10 pm on the night of Saturday, December 6th, 2014, the winds of Typhoon Ruby blustered their way into our communities, finally making landfall in Eastern Samar, the place I had called home for the three months prior to this monumental moment. We had been worried for the whole week what was going to happen, and where the storm would land and a town named Delores, some 70 km away from Borongan City, eventually revealed itself to be the target of Ruby.

The storm was made worse by the fact that it happened overnight. Having no electricity, and only one emergency light bulb to light up our small office room in the evacuation centre, it was easy to build up exaggerated pictures of what was happening outside. I remember re-assuring a friend that the sounds we were hearing weren’t waves or floods, but the sound of the heavy rain hitting the walls of the building sounding worse only because of the extreme winds. Every so often there would be a deafening bang: the sound of a tree being uprooted or a roof blown off a house, but what was going through the minds of all of us was (hopefully) far worse than the reality.

Sustained winds of up to 130 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph thrashed the land that I had come to love and the heavy rain and rising tide threatened the coastal places (such as the house in which we lived) with a serious risk of flooding. There was so much to think about, so many people to pray for, and so much to hope. Yet, for what turned out to be around six hours of extreme winds, what happened inside the room turned out to be far more powerful than what was happening outside.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My "spot" was by the pillow just below the plywood.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My “spot” was by the pillow just below the plywood.

At the start of the evening, our room began with only around ten of us inside. We had pillows for the ground, and torches to see each other with; before the winds it was like we were camping – we told jokes, shared biscuits and chatted about Taylor Swift. However, once the storm took hold, we soon discovered that our spot was prime real estate because the winds of Typhoon Ruby were approaching from the west and our room had no westerly facing windows. So whilst the other classrooms and offices were becoming wet and hazardous as window panes were blowing in, our room (sheltered by a toilet on the other side of our westerly facing wall) stayed relatively dry and safe.

As the hours slowly and painfully passed, people began to gravitate towards our room. When the storm was at its worst, there were probably around 50 of us tightly squished together like the tinned sardines I had been so used to eating in the mornings. After several decades of the rosary, the noise and the bustle of the inside of the room began to quieten. Of course it was impossible to sleep because of the noise outside, but somehow a peace descended on the room and whilst we all were carried away with our own thoughts, there was a silent connection, a silent support, between all of us together.

For those hours, we became a community. It no longer mattered where we were from, or what our culture was, how old we were or what our first language was. We spent the night shifting our bodies so that the next person could take their turn to be comfortable, moving like our own complex weather system spread out on the floor of the middle office. There was an old lady of a considerable age, and a young baby who was barely 18 months old. Faces I recognised, those of my friends, and faces I didn’t.

And in the deepest moments of Typhoon Hagupit I felt strong. Strong, not just because of the optimism and prayer of those around me, but strong because we shared in that moment together. If I witnessed before the typhoon a raw emotion seen in the eyes of families for their children, I now experienced a different kind of emotion that oozed out of all of us, an emotion that expressed itself, definitely in fear and vulnerability, but also in confidence and solidarity. A feeling that we wouldn’t just get through this because we were with our individual families, friends and colleagues, but that we would get through this because all of us were family together.

As the winds began to subside, many began to drift off to catch a moment’s sleep before sunrise. I probably managed an hour or two. When I woke up, people had begun to move back outside to see the damage that had been caused and although the winds were still howling through the gaps in the building, it was no longer dangerous to go outside. As expected, most of the landscape and agriculture of the village surrounding us had been flattened. I saw buildings that I had never seen before because they were previously obscured by trees.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

None of us were sure what had happened farther than what our eyes could see and in a lot of ways, I could never have been prepared for what I was to see in the following hours and days. But one thing that was not destroyed throughout the destructive typhoon, was the spirit and faith of the people I had shared one of the most memorable nights of my life with. We bonded in ways I had never expected, and whilst it’s probably true I will never see or meet 95% of the people I shared that room with again in my life, I won’t ever forget what they did for me and for each other. It was truly a moving and special experience amidst the terror and anxiety of what could have been a night a lot more terrifying if we had been alone.

This is the second part of my Typhoon Ruby story. You can catch up with part one by clicking here and you can find out what happened next by following this link.