Rebuilding from ruin: The strength of Rohaima’s spirit

Amidst the difficulties of living in displacement, a grandmother from Marawi demonstrates resilience and strength

Five months of fighting ripped through Marawi City in 2017 and forced hundreds of thousands to escape to safety in neighboring villages and cities. Among them was Rohaima Macarambor, a 55-year-old grandmother and breadwinner who found refuge at an evacuation site in Iligan City, some 40 kilometers away from Marawi.

In the blink of an eye, Rohaima and her family lost not just their home but also everything they owned. Amid the difficulties posed by their displacement—such as limited livelihood opportunities, lack of access to basic social services, and reliance on relief rations—Rohaima was determined to rebuild their lives with whatever little they had left.

Rohaima is in tears as she tells UNHCR how she started her own business with capital of only PHP300. (© UNHCR/A. Ongcal)


With a capital of only PHP 300, Rohaima first sold bananas to families residing in the evacuation center. When her meager earnings grew, she started selling cooked meals.

One afternoon in December 2017, half a year after conflict erupted and barely a couple of months after Marawi’s liberation, Rohaima was going about her daily activities in the evacuation center when she met Atom Araullo, a broadcast journalist and High Profile Supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Rohaima fought back tears as she spoke of the difficulties she and her family encountered since fleeing home. “Everything we owned was gone. Everything you see here was just given to me,” said Rohaima. Atom, for his part, was inspired by the deep resilience Rohaima demonstrated. Shortly after they met, Atom wrote about their encounter.

UNHCR High Profile Supporter Atom Araullo wrote about his encounter with Rohaima on his Instagram. (Photo © UNHCR/A. Araullo)


Madali siyang umiyak, pero madali rin siya patawanin (She cries easily, but it is also easy to make her laugh),” he wrote.

Atom then appealed for sustained awareness and assistance to families like Rohaima’s and the people of Marawi, lest their displacement become another forgotten humanitarian crisis. “Assistance to the displaced families from Marawi does not stop when fighting is over. The process of rebuilding and recovery will take a lot of support,” he said.

Relocation to Sarimanok

Months later, Rohaima felt uprooted once more when she and her family were relocated to the Sarimanok Evacuation Camp, a transitory site perched on a hilly portion in Marawi City.

She was back in the city where she grew up, but Rohaima felt she had to start from nothing again. In various dialogues with UNHCR’s humanitarian workers, many heads of families and breadwinners like Rohaima spoke of the same difficulties, but also expressed hope that they will soon be able to get back on their feet.

To make ends meet without having to rely on dole-outs, Rohaima started selling some mangoes, rice cakes, and other basic necessities to residents of Sarimanok and other neighboring villages. It is tougher this time, she says, but she presses on every day for the sake of her grandchildren.

On World Refugee Day last June 20, Rohaima and Atom met again when UNHCR marked the occasion in Sarimanok. Rohaima was among the recipients of core relief items and clothing distributed to families still living in displacement.

UNHCR Philippines High Profile Supporter Atom Araullo encounters once more grandmother Rohaima whom he met in December 2017 while visiting evacuation camps in Iligan City. (© UNHCR/M. San Diego)


The grandmother turned emotional at the unexpected encounter, saying that she thought she will never see Atom once more, and that meeting him again is like seeing an old friend and familiar face.

Atom himself was delighted after seeing Rohaima.

UNHCR Philippines High Profile Supporter Atom Araullo and Rohaima share a light moment together at her makeshift store in the new relocation site in Marawi City. (©UNHCR/M. San Diego)


“Nanay Rohaima was one of the mothers I met in one of the evacuation centers in Iligan and she immediately struck me as somebody who’s carrying a lot of trauma and a lot of pain. I can see that in her demeanor but at the same time, she was such a ray of sunshine and she was always positive and optimistic about their situation, and very resourceful as well,” said Atom.

Rebuilding from ruin

It has been more than a year since pro-ISIS militants laid siege to Marawi City. The massive forced displacement of more than 353,000 people, as well as the plight of families who are still recovering from the tragedy, no longer grab the headlines today.

But as Rohaima’s story would show, behind the statistics are individuals who demonstrate strength and resilience even if they have to put their lives, dreams, and aspirations on hold.

Rohaima Macarimbor is all smiles as she receives core relief items on World Refugee Day. (©UNHCR/M. San Diego)


For Atom and the UNHCR staff she has inspired, Rohaima is a testament that even if displaced persons need help, it does not mean they are helpless. Despite having to leave everything behind, they continue to stand on their own two feet because their spirit is strong. They may have been uprooted, but they have the will to build their lives once more.