I wanted to see the site of the fire; I had never been to an emergency ground zero. Most Filipinos barely know what Navotas is, much less where it is; Manila is huge, it is nearly impossible to know all the different districts.
In a city of over 11 million, the most unknown areas are the slums, so when I asked around to see who could take me there no one. As our driver asked around, one of the affected men kindly offered his guidance to the site, without asking for anything in return he took us to where his used to live.
Arriving at the site, you find burnt zinc rooftops neatly pilled up ready to be taken to a recycling plant. As you walk into the Tanza Barangay, thru a slender path, you begin to see the extent of the fire. Only a few structures were spared, so it is hard to phantom how so many people could live in such confined spaces. Living conditions don’t seem to have been appropriate, with all the houses built over the water with makeshift wooden or brick columns; the water was covered in ashes and rubble, or trash, lots of it. One begins to think if the fire was a blessing in disguise, this place shouldn’t be inhabitable either way.
More than 1000 families where affected, more than 430 have been displaced due to complete or partial destruction of their homes. Government officials have prohibited people from returning to the site, yet we found a dozen families living in the ruins, saying they were better off staying put. As our friend led us thru the precarious path, he suddenly stopped and looked to his right. He said “Diyan nakatayo ang bahay naming dati”; as he pointed to the place his humble house used to be.
As he went down, I worried for his safety, but he steadily walked thru the rubble and stood still for a while. He looked around, as if he was imagining how his house used to be. As we walked back in silence, I didn’t see the face of a sad man, I saw the face of one determined to face the challenges ahead for his family’s well being.
After we got back to the shelter I thanked him and began doing other things, yet as went near his spot in the coliseum he presented his family to me. He was there with his wife and three daughters. The girls were all smiles, probably making fun of the foreigner (me), either way after all they had been thru I was surprised. Our friend was a serious guy, but his daughters and wife were very jolly. Their little square that was now their home was incredibly organized and clean. How? Why? Such resiliency.
As the day went by, they registered and like everyone else received the small merienda from the Adventist Community Service. I watched from afar as they sat down together and ate their meal with gratefulness, thankful for another day in safety hoping for better times.
Mornings are not my cup of tea, but I was excited to be able to witness and help with the aid distribution. Arriving at the shelter, I was amazed at seeing how everyone was already lined up without anybody’s instruction. There was my friend again; apparently he was the same as me… not a morning person because he was near the back of the line. As we got organized, everything began of very smoothly and the distribution got under way.
Taking pictures is a fun yet stressful job, always waiting for the right shot, or the right lighting and maybe a smile. Yet here I was seeing happy faces all over, the joyous spirit I had seen in my friend’s family was widespread. As I thought on whom to interview I knew I had to interview my friend, so I waited for him to get his food parcel. As I searched for a translator, I wished I knew Tagalog, I would have loved to speak to them directly, I really didn’t want anything to be lost in translation.
When we asked if we could I interview, I was surprised to see the wife stand up and prepare to be interviewed. I shouldn’t have been, after all this is the Filipino way; the matriarchal system is very much entrenched in this society. During the interview, our friend sat in the back just cooling off in front of the fan. His wife told us that it was not the first time that this happened, in 1990 there was a similar fire, so they do not want to go back. They are hoping the government keeps its promise on relocating them, she said a congressman assured them he would help them, but of course he was then running for office.
During this whole time our friend stayed in the background, while his wife told us about how the had to run and gather their things as fast as they could, taking her parents out of danger specially since they are disabled. As she finished, she thanked God, saying that they are expecting better things ahead. Then she did something I did never would have expected, she asked her children to bless me. As each one of them blessed me by pressing my hands into their foreheads, I finally saw a smile on my friends face but I’m pretty sure mine was bigger.
I was down right tired; it had been a long two days. My back and knees were hurting, my head aching and the temperature kept going up, but there was no place for pouting, I was blessed to be able to help these people. Their positive outlook and positive mood was a lesson for me, even after having lost it all they kept the hope that things would get better. I had been thinking of all the things I had to get done, worrying about work and my pains, and here were these resilient people showing me to be grateful and positive. I had been so busy I forgot to ask my friends name, nor I gave him mine, yet even though he thanked me it was he and his family who blessed me in a big way. I wish I had got his name. (JOSE OROZCO)