Tragedy and Hope

Today (Saturday) we flew out of Tacloban, the coastal city where we’ve spent the last three days. We headed back to Manila where we’ll spend our last afternoon before flying back to the States on Sunday morning. I’m sorry I haven’t posted more these last few days but there has been too much to see and process. These days were the central purpose of our trip. It was in Tacloban that we talked to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, to the people who have helped them recover, and to the incredible community leaders who are taking steps to make their communities safer.

Driving now through the streets of Tacloban City, especially at night, there is bustling activity and life. Restaurants and street stands selling food are busy, everywhere there are vendors, people, pedicabs and “jeepneys” crowding the streets. It was a very different scene two years ago. Many of these streets were impassable with debris, piles of it, up to five or six feet high. Almost every building is new – most were completely destroyed in the storm. The human toll was even worse. As we drive through the surrounding countryside into neighboring towns we pass multiple common graves where the hundreds of bodies that filled the streets were carried in the horrific days following the storm.

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A memorial site at one of the common graves.

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The Anibong district of Tacloban City is famous for the photos that appeared all over the world on news syndicates of huge tanker ships that were washed ashore here. Today, most of one of the famous ships has been removed and what is left is being constructed into a memorial.

Views from the top of the tanker ship washed ashore during the Typhoon. Informal settlement communities have sprung up just as before up to the water's edge once again, even though this is a

Views from the top of the tanker ship washed ashore during the Typhoon show informal settlement communities that have sprung up all the way up to the water’s edge even though this is a “no build zone.” It looks much as did before the typhoon.

From the roof of the tanker ship some of the destruction from Haiyan is still visible.

From the roof of the tanker ship some of the destruction from Haiyan is still visible.

It’s been only two years, not much time to recover from a disaster of this scale, but during our time here we spoke to family after family who has somehow managed to pull together the pieces of their lives again in that short time. Without fail, everyone I talked to would cry at some point remembering the disaster; the memories are still very fresh. But the majority of our conversations centered on their recovery. I spoke to business owners who are back and making higher profits, to families whose living situation is finally being regularized thanks to housing projects that have moved them off of “no dwell zone” land, to people who in the rebuild process finally have a toilet to call their own after a lifetime of little privacy.

Angel and Mariane are best friends. Their school was used as an evacuation center during Haiyan, but now it's reopened, and equipped with hand washing stations through CRS. They say they're happy they don't have to walk across the school to fetch water anymore.

Angel and Mariane are best friends. Their school was used as an evacuation center during Haiyan, but now it’s reopened and equipped with hand washing stations through CRS. They say they’re happy they don’t have to walk across the school to fetch water anymore.

Edito lay on the second story of his house for more than 12 hours with his children, grandchildren and four other neighborhood families during the Typhoon. They covered themselves with a tarp and didn't leave until the storm was over. Part of the roof was blow off. What kept him going then and in the months that followed was the need to stay strong for his grandchildren, he said.

Edito lay on the second story of his house for more than 12 hours with his children, grandchildren and four other neighborhood families while the Typhoon raged around them. They covered themselves with a tarp and didn’t leave until the storm was over, even when part of the roof was blown off. What kept him going then and in the months that followed was the need to stay strong for his grandchildren, he said.

Mary Jane was a small convenience store owner before the storm. Her entire business and her family's home were completely swept away in Typhoon Haiyan. Through help from CRS and her own entrepreneurial spirit she's built her business back stronger than before.

Mary Jane was a small convenience store owner before the storm. Her entire business and her family’s home were completely swept away in Typhoon Haiyan. Through help from CRS and her own entrepreneurial spirit she’s built her business back stronger than before.

This Neighborhood

This Neighborhood “captain,” an elected official, helped his community survive after it was completely wiped out after Haiyan. Now they are one of the most advanced villages in terms of disaster preparedness. Here he demonstrates the town’s early warning system. His voice echoes on megaphones throughout the neighborhood.

At the moment, I am overwhelmed with all I have seen this week. I’m overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster itself, so much worse than I imagined when I put faces to the tragedy; the poverty, which is desperate; and the unfairness of the fact that a changing climate, which these people did the least to cause, will mean that these kinds of tragedies will, without doubt, continue. However I am also overwhelmed by the resilience of these people, by their kindness, their amazing sense of community, the stories of heroism and courage that I’ve heard this week. I am also so very impressed by the work of Catholic Relief Services here and proud to be a part of the U.S. Catholic Church. It’s a lot of conflicting emotions, and over the next few days it will be my job to somehow translate them into news stories that somehow do justice to what I’ve seen here.

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These children live in extreme poverty and at high risk of water-borne disease; many are sick already. But, like the adults in the town, they’re smiling. It’s part of the Filipino culture to wear a smile and laugh, even in the worst of times. Many of the people I talked to believed that’s why they’ve been able to recover so quickly.

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A City Transformed

Today was our first day in Tacloban City. We flew here from Manila in the wee hours of the morning. Tacloban sits on the coast on a different island, the island of Leyte and it was the town and region most devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. It’s incredible to think how the city has been rebuilt in so short a time after such utter destruction. Pictures of this town immediately following the typhoon show streets piled high with rubble and little left standing. But though many people have rebuilt, the emotional and psychological wounds remain. Today people I spoke to about the typhoon began to cry – the memories are still so fresh. And yet, reconstruction, particularly a transitional housing community built by CRS that we visited, demonstrate the resilience of these people and are a great sign of hope. Because of our early morning, I’ve decided to make this post a photo essay so I can go to sleep! I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Coming in for a landing on the island of Leyte, one of the islands most devastated by Haiyan.

Coming in for a landing on the island of Leyte, one of the islands most devastated by Haiyan.

This airport, right on the ocean, was completely destroyed during Haiyan. It was amazing to land there, just two years later.

This airport, right on the ocean, was completely destroyed during Haiyan. It was amazing to land there, just two years later.

Residents of poor village impacted by Haiyan are proud to show off their new community latrine sponsored by CRS. Sanitation is a huge problem in the wake of disasters when poor sewage control means that flood waters are toxic and dangerous. In this community, situated in a no dwell zone on government land, the latrines help

Residents of poor village impacted by Haiyan are proud to show off their new community latrine sponsored by CRS. Sanitation is a huge problem in the wake of disasters when poor sewage control means that flood waters are toxic and dangerous. In this community, situated in a no dwell zone on government land, the latrines help

In the house that she and her family repaired piece by piece after Haiyan, Leonarda Mooney shows me how high the flood waters came.

In the house that she and her family repaired piece by piece after Haiyan, Leonarda Mooney shows me how high the flood waters came.

We visited a temporary settlement of shelters built by CRS. These shelters were given to families living in "no dwell zones" following the typhoon. The government is supposed to be providing a permanent shelter solution for these families. In the meantime, CRS provides these shelters, which the families own, that are designed to be easily disassembled so the families can take the materials with them when they leave. For two years, they finally are living in a regular housing situation, rather than being squatters on land they don't own.

We visited a temporary settlement of shelters built by CRS. These shelters were given to families living in “no dwell zones” following the typhoon. The government is supposed to be providing a permanent shelter solution for these families. In the meantime, CRS provides these houses, which the families own, designed to be easily disassembled so the families can take the materials with them when they leave. For two years, they can live in the security of knowing exactly what the terms are of the land they occupy. CRS is working with local government to make sure they are first in line for permanent housing when this two-year lease is up.

Throughout this community, smiling happy children were a welcome sight. Everywhere there were children playing and neighbors chatting. People said they loved their community.

Throughout this community, smiling happy children were a welcome sight. Everywhere there were children playing and neighbors chatting. People said they loved their community.

Volunteers manage this community's safety. These members of the security patrol were proud of their role and their new vests. CRS arranged for them to receive training from the Tacloban City Police force. Self-governance and policing is common in Philippines villages.

Volunteers manage this community’s safety. These members of the security patrol were proud of their role and their new vests. CRS arranged for them to receive training from the Tacloban City Police force. Self-governance and policing is common in Philippines villages.

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Keeping Above Water

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Julie Martinez in her home with two of her daughters, Sharmine (11) and Aubrey (3).

Today we visited another “barangay,” this one just outside Metro Manila. Kalayaan is situated near a lake called Laguna de Bay, which feeds the Pasig River. The river cuts through the town and through all of Metro Manila to empty into Manila Bay via Baseco, the barangay we visited yesterday.

In Kalayaan I got to speak with Julie Martinez, mother of six. She’s the chairperson of a newly formed micro saving group like the ones in Baseco sponsored by CRS. She’s trusted by the community because of her extensive work as a volunteer for the church and the local government.

Kalayaan is another settlement that is extremely vulnerable to weather events and flooding. The area was devastated during Typhoon Ketsana (known here as Ondoy) in 2009 and by the Monsoon Habagat in 2013 when waters rose as high as 6 feet and didn’t recede for months. Julie’s family of eight lives in a tiny wooden shack that stands on stilts about three feet above the ground. To get to her house, you walk along narrow boards suspended in the air. Below is trash that was swept in during the floods and is too overwhelming to clean up.

Julie and I talk in her living room. The space becomes the bedroom at night and the entire family sleeps on the floor. During the monsoon, they were woken in the night to water coming up through the wooden floor. Flood waters remained around the base of the house for three months while the family lived in a makeshift shelter in an open evacuation center. The foundation, walls and roof of the house are all wood and haven’t been repaired since the flooding in 2009. Julie hopes to shore up her house’s foundation using micro loans through the community saving group she will chair.

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The narrow footpath between houses suspended in the air leading to Julie’s house.

However, no one in the community wants to make large investments in their homes’ infrastructure because very few people actually own the land their houses sit on. Julie isn’t sure who the owner is, but there are rumors that it is owned privately and that any day her family could be forced to leave and the house destroyed. But in the meantime, she would like to make minor repairs; when visitors walk along the planks to her house, she says she can feel the foundation shake. The family has lived in the house for 22 years.

The saving group has already had two meetings and are finalizing their by-laws and constitution. The group of 24 women have decided to save just under 50 cents per week. Loans from the collective will be paid back at 5% interest per month. In addition to repairing her home, Julie would like to open her own business selling fried “itik,” or duck using a loan from the group. Now she works in someone else’s stall but she hopes to one day open one of her own.

For Julie, the savings group is more than just access to capital. It’s also a fellowship group where women can talk out their problems and form bonds of friendship. Laughing, she tells me through a translator that they even talk about their marital problems, about their husbands!

“It really helps,” she said. “Because sometimes you need to talk about these things.”

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Aubrey on the pathway to her house.

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Philippines: Day One – Just Economics

The sign welcoming us to Baseco's government offices, made out of recycled materials.

The sign welcoming us to Baseco’s government offices, made out of recycled materials.

Good morning USA! From over here in Southeast Asia it’s late Monday night and definitely time to go to bed after our first full day in the Philippines. We’re staying in Manila, the capital city with a population of 12 million people in the city proper and surrounding area that makes up what’s known as “Metro Manila.” It’s a sprawling city, full of smaller neighborhoods called “barangays.” Among the barangays, some are pockets of great wealth and some are pockets of great poverty. The metro area holds nearly a thousand “barangays.” Some of the most populated and poorest are urban slums, swelling with a migrant population from rural parts of the country looking to make a living. These communities are often centers of extreme poverty, overcrowded and growing all the time, and at heightened risk during natural disasters.

A view over the Pasig River to the barangay slums beyond.

A view over the Pasig River to the barangay slums beyond.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) – the host of the Egan Journalism Fellowship reporting trip that’s brought me here with three other Catholic journalist –  works in 15 of the most densely populated and poorest of these barangays in the city, comprising nearly half a million people. Today we visited what is known as the poorest of all and the largest: Baseco, population 51,000.

Children overlook the river and a trashcan shows the progress of groups like CRS, the local government and Caritas that are promoting waste disposal.

Children overlook the river and a trashcan shows the progress of groups like CRS, the local government and Caritas that are promoting waste disposal.

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A Baseco street.

Despite the extreme poverty, in Baseco we witnessed some of CRS’ most innovative programs at work. I got to meet  Lesley Tambago, the chairperson of a small micro-finance group in the community. The group is made up of 25 women, many of them single moms like Lesley, all of them scraping together a living from what little the barangay has to offer. The group is a micro-saving and micro-lending group. The women save between $1 and $5 in the collective account each week. If they’re absent to the weekly meetings or pay late they incur fees. Any member of the group can take out a loan and must pay back with interest. At the end of a period of time, according to what the group decides, the savings are withdrawn, the collective fees and interest distributed equally and the saving begins again. The group gives the women the community support and motivation to save and budget and provides an economic safety net. Before, if they needed a loan they were at the mercy of sharks who charged 20% interest and collected daily.

Lesly Tambago with the lock box provided by CRS that stores her community's savings. Each box has three unique locks and three different members of the group have the keys.

Lesly Tambago with the lock box provided by CRS that stores her community’s savings. Each box has three unique locks and three different members of the group have the keys.

In Baseco CRS also works with local government and Caritas Manila volunteers (more on Caritas Manila in a moment) on disaster preparedness in this flood-prone community, situated right on the edge of Manila Bay. These measures include establishing a network of community leaders, often gathered around a chapel, or community church, who train residents on how to be prepared and activate the warning and evacuation system in the event of a disaster. They’re prepared not just for floods and tropical storms, which rip through this community multiple times a year, but for fires and earthquakes.

Part of disaster preparedness is also solid waste management, a major problem in many of the barangays, especially Baseco. The longest river in Metro Manila, the Pasig River, empties into the bay right through Baseco, carrying with it the garbage of the entire city. This trash and the pileup in Baseco itself blocks water drainage during floods. By again mobilizing the community and a network of volunteers through Caritas, CRS is training people on how to separate their garbage into non-recyclable and recyclables that, in the case of plastics, can be sold to junk dealers for additional income.

A woman in Lesley's micro-saving group peals garlic with her daughter and nieces.

A woman in Lesley’s micro-saving group laughs as she peals garlic with her daughter.

Community volunteers with the disaster preparedness and the waste management programs who received training through CRS. All women!

Community volunteers with the disaster preparedness and the waste management programs who received training through CRS. All women!

Boats perched on beaches of trash on the Pasig River, are taken downriver into the bay for fishing.

Boats, perched on beaches of trash on the Pasig River, are taken downriver into the bay for fishing.

Father Pascua in the Margins store.

Father Pascual in the Margins store.

This afternoon we visited Caritas Manila’s headquarters and met with their executive director, Father Anton Pascual. Caritas Internationalis is an international network of social services agencies similar to the Catholic Charities network in the U.S. Caritas Manila is based in the Archdiocese of Manila, but as the country’s largest Caritas agency it serves not only the metro area but poor provinces all over the country as well as disaster-stricken areas. A project of particular passion for Father Pascual is the agency’s micro-enterprise programs. The agency’s own brand, “Margins,” taken from the meaning-rich word in Catholic Social Teaching ‘marginalized,’ gives small entrepreneurs a platform for their products. The brand officially launched two months ago but has been in incubation for three years and boasts a line of 900 different products ranging from crafts to packaged foods. Caritas Manila helps the producers through the process of quality controls and packaging, and then markets the product and helps distribute it through online sales and stores in parishes and a few malls.

Inside the Margins store on Caritas Manila grounds.

Inside the Margins store on Caritas Manila grounds.

Their second social enterprise is called “Segunda Mana,” a second-hand goods retailer that repurposes used items, inspired by Goodwill Industries in the States. In the process it is recycling, earning revenue for Caritas’s other social programs, and providing another outlet for micro-entrepreneurs. Donated items that can’t be sold in the stores are sold cheaply to the poor who then either sell them at a profit in the barangays or turn them into craft items sold under the “Margins” brand.

A combination of troubling and inspiring experiences this first day on our trip to the Philippines. In the face of desperate poverty, it’s fascinating to see how Caritas and CRS’ programs put economics – which in the Philippines has worked to consolidate 75% of the nation’s wealth in the hands of just 40 families – at the service of the poor.

“Margins” merchandise. Their tag line is “The social brand, helping to end poverty.”

Segunda Mana storefront and pick-up trucks at Caritas Manila headquarters. Every second Sunday is

Segunda Mana storefront and pick-up trucks at Caritas Manila headquarters. Every second Sunday is “Segunda Mana Sunday” and parishioners are encouraged to donate their used items. The churches are all pick-up sites.

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A Farewell to Greece

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One of the seven Meteoran Monasteries.

We’ve said farewell to Greece and are moving into the second phase of our journey: Turkey. Here are some last thoughts on a few highlights from our visit to this land of incredible beauty and economic turmoil.

Wednesday, Jan. 21

We visited two of the seven monasteries comprising the Meteoran Monasteries. Perched high atop cliffs, the monasteries are near the town of Kalambaka and are Orthodox communities. More pictures of these stunning clifftop monasteries below.

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Friday, Jan. 23

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With reluctance we bade farewell to Greece on Friday. Now, on a Sunday evening, the results of the Greek election are coming in. It appears the opposition party called Syriza (an acronym meaning “Radical Coalition of the Left”) will win. The Greek economy is in very bad shape, exacerbated by tough austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European Community and designed to force Greece to cut public sector spending.

I saw some statistics that would startle anyone, particularly Catholic Charities staff: in Greece the unemployment rate is 25%, with youth unemployment at 60%. Average monthly wage in Greece is approximately $600-$660. That kind of unemployment and wage levels does not promote the common good.

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In the Footsteps of St. Paul

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The remnants of the old Roman Road in Philippi. The road dates back 300 years Before Christ and is called Via Egnatia. This road would have been trod by St. Paul.

Good morning from Greece and a town called Kalambaka very near to monasteries in Meteora which we will visit tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful trip so far, but tiring. I will do my best here to record some of the highlights.

Monday, Jan. 21

We began following in St. Paul’s footsteps by coming to Philippi in Greece. This seems fitting. It is in Philippi that Paul makes his first presence in Europe, Paul himself a native of Tarsus, which is in present day Turkey. St. Paul is of two worlds: steeped in his Judaism, and a citizen of the Roman Empire, trained in the arts of the Greco-Roman Empire.

Our first step in Paul’s footsteps was to visit Lydia’s grove. As Paul writes in Acts 16, it is here that he met Lydia, dealer in purple cloth, worshiper of God. After listening to Paul, Lydia asks to be baptized.

We noted the connections between Lydia and those we serve in Catholic Charities. Lydia was a single female head of household (a widow). Being that purple was a most expensive dye, it seems clear Lydia was a successful businesswoman. And so, by the small river in Philippi, we pilgrims from Catholic Charities noted how we are trying to empower women through our asset development programs.

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Welcome to Salt, Leaven and Light

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A photo of Mount Nebo, Jordan taken by Kevin Hickey during his 2014 pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine.

Welcome to the official blog for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden! Here I will be chronicling my adventures as I travel with other directors of Catholic Charities agencies across the country on the Catholic Charities USA annual pilgrimage. We will go to Greece and Turkey, following at times in the footsteps of the great apostle Paul, to the very birthplace of the modern Church.

Last year I embarked on a similar journey, this time to Israel and Palestine. The previous post chronicles my adventures from that trip and gives a preview of what’s to come.

Subscribe at right to receive an e-mail every time I publish a new post. Thank you for your interest in Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. Click the link at the top of this page to visit our website. I will keep you in prayer as I embark on this journey.

In Charity,

Kevin Hickey
Executive Director, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden

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