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A time to comfort Filipinos not sanction them

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : This is a time to comfort the 190,000 Filipinos who live and work in Hong Kong. Philippine cabinet secretary, José Rene Almendras, told a press briefing on November 11 that he had received a telephone call from the Hong Kong government expressing its sympathies over the horrific loss of life and suffering of the people during Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda, as it is called in The Philippines.

Despite its differences with Manila over the Spratley Islands and suffering its own damage from the typhoon, the government of China sent relief money to help with the aid effort.

As people in Hong Kong gathered in churches on November 10, the full extent of the damage and human suffering caused by the category five typhoon that struck earthquake devastated Bohol, the islands of Cebu and Samar, plus Leyte and Iloilo on November 8, bringing 313-kilometre an hour winds, six-metre waves and drenching rain, was beginning to unfold.

At a Mass held in the offices of the consulate general, Father Emil Lim, the chaplain to Filipinos in Hong Kong, said that there are no simple answers to comprehending such suffering.

He quoted from a piece circulating on the Internet, which says that of all the peoples in the world, Filipinos may be the only ones with the resilience and fortitude to cope with such a disaster.

He commented that bearing this suffering bravely can be thought of as a gift from the Filipino people to the world, as they may cope better than others.

“It could even be thought of as our privilege to have born that suffering for our neighbouring peoples,” he reflected.

Searching for signs of hope in such seemingly hopeless circumstances can be like clutching at straws, as many in the congregation were still wondering whether their family and loved ones were still alive or not.

Many knew that they had lost their homes and everything they had spent a lifetime building up.

Social media in Hong Kong was hot with news of lost homes and other catastrophes, while others reported that their children had been taken to evacuation centres and they did not know where they were or could not contact them.

One said my children left for an evacuation centre, but did not arrive. “Now there are no telephone networks, I cannot contact them. I’m so worried.”

Another said that her grandfather died. “He had been sick and when my family had to flee the house for higher ground he developed complications, especially since it became cold in the drenching rain. They eventually got him to hospital, but he was already dead.”

Some, however, had better luck. One said that her home survived the initial storm, but fears of flooding meant they were preparing to evacuate.

The wife of the mayor of Tacloban commented that the massive winds treated rich and poor alike, so that the whole island of Leyte became a land of no privilege before its fury.

Although initial reports of casualties listed only four, they quickly soared into the hundreds as the killer winds moved on and rescue workers began to access the ruins. Fears are high that when more remote places are reached that figure could become 20,000.

In the biggest emergency ever declared by the Philippine government, it is estimated that up to 12 million people were at grave risk as the typhoon gusted across a 600 kilometre front towards the country.

In Palo, Iloilo, people were taking refuge in the cathedral when the roof began to give way, causing panic and fear of mass loss of life.

Bodies taken to churches around the area were not able to be embalmed to await proper burial, as funeral parlours were mostly rendered inoperable and the fear of disease demanded immediate burial after identification.

For some Filipinos in Hong Kong what to do is the problem. Many employers do not have a problem with them going home, but to go now is fraught with difficulties. Can you get there is the first conundrum. And what would you do when you arrive is the second. To arrive laden with supplies could invite a riot.

The hardest thing is to be able to do nothing. The usual response is to send money, but when remittance offices have been destroyed and there is nothing to buy anyway, even that is out of the question.

But for grieving and worried mothers it is difficult to pay attention to much else in this time of mental anguish and lost hope.

While the great depth of faith in God and life that allows Filipinos to pick themselves up and carry on even after the most terrible disasters is a hallmark of their character, the wholesale looting that has been reported in Leyte, the worst hit area, is a blight on the national image.

The consul general, Noel Servigon, commented that it reflects badly on the Filipino character. “The widespread looting is the worst problem,” he said.

The people are hungry. They have not eaten for three to four days. One shop owner commented that they are welcome to food stocks, but televisions, washing machines, cameras and computers are a different matter.

With infrastructure totally destroyed in some places and not a building standing in which to set up an evacuation centre, roads impassable and communications cut, the suffering goes on, begging the question of how do we pray in such circumstances.

Father Lim suggests that the only prayer left is one of thanksgiving for what remains and the life that survived, and for the courage to face the difficulties that lie ahead with hope.

It is also a time that calls for creativity, as the destruction is so complete it does offer a chance to completely reorient the structure of life and livelihood in the region.

Grinding poverty and exposure to the violence of nature, the culture and daily life has made Filipinos a resilient and highly creative people, as they have to invent their own survival mechanisms.

It also calls for generosity and sacrifice. Prisoners in Muntinglupa Jail forwent a meal to donate the cost to the typhoon victims and people gave generously to collections at parishes around Hong Kong.

The bishops of The Philippines have declared a nine-day period of prayer and giving. All Masses will be offered for the dead and suffering survivors, and will be marked by a charity drive to collect funds to assist with recovery.

But the real question is how to sustain the generosity, as the immediate needs are not going to be solved with one collection and recovery will need years.

Those who have lost loved ones can still contribute to the living by keeping their plight in the public consciousness, lest it be lost in the next disaster or forgotten in the passing of time.

As Typhoon Zoraida was threatening Mindanao on November 10, Pope Francis brought his own perspective to the issue, while calling for concrete help for The Philippines.

“Eternity enlightens and gives hope to the earthly life of each one of us, (whilst) death is behind us, behind and not in front of us. The God of the living is in front of us, the God that bears my name, and yours, yours…,” he said.

The Vatican aid agency, Cor Unum, also donated US$150,000 ($1.2 million) to the cause.

Television footage showed images of tourists carrying bags of rice and pitching in with everyone else to do what could be done.

Journalists who had returned to Cebu told how it was impossible not to become part of the tragedy. They said that they went to do a story, but became victims. They described how the story became their own struggle to survive, as they too pitched in with whatever was needed.

It is also a call to the whole world to respond to the immediate need for manpower, helicopters, planes, ships and equipment to clear roads and recreate basic infrastructure.

People in need of the most basic of necessities, food, drinkable water, clothing and basic medicine, cannot be helped until these things are in place.

... the only prayer
left is one of thanksgiving for
what remains and
the life that survived, and for the


courage to face
the difficulties
that  lie ahead
with hope

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