Sama Bajau community volunteer on the frontlines of COVID-19 response
Merhamna Taala belongs to the Sama Bajau tribe, one of the populations identified to be at risk of statelessness. A pre-school teacher and community volunteer, she helps her fellow Sama Bajaus access government services and is at the forefront of COVID-19 awareness and response.
Photo: © CHR IX/Shahribar Pajiran
“When I was young, I always felt inferior compared to other children. This feeling motivated me to strive hard and finish my studies. So now that I am already equipped and confident, I want to give back to my community by teaching kids and helping people in any way I could.” says Merhamna Taala, a pre-school teacher and community volunteer from Barangay Kasanyangan, Zamboanga City.
On a regular day, Merhamna, 27, can be seen in her classroom teaching toddlers how to read, write, identify colors, and feeding them with a nutritious meal before they go home. But her day isn’t over yet. After her class, she attends to the needs of the toddlers’ parents who are mostly illiterate. She helps them with their queries on how to have access to government services such as birth registration, information on school admission processes, and the social amelioration program.
“Only a few of the Sama Bajaus are literate so they need assistance in accessing to services as well as guidance in acquiring government documents, so what I do is I volunteer to help them understand the process. In this way, they become confident in relating to other people, but sometimes, they still don’t have the courage, so I accompany them to the government offices” she shares. For Merhamna, helping her community is more of a passion than a responsibility. “I want to help my community in any way possible. This is the only way I could assure that people in our community gets access to the services we deserve” she added.
Sama Bajaus and the Risk of Becoming Stateless
Merhamna belongs to the Sama Bajau tribe. The Sama Bajaus are an indigenous group mostly found in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The tribe is recognized by the Philippine Government as Filipinos. However, due to their frequent border-crossing and generations of non-registration of birth, this population faces the risk of becoming stateless.
Between 2016 to 2018, UNHCR, in support of the Philippine Government’s implementation of its National Action Plan to End Statelessness (NAP) embarked into a desk review and a series of studies in focused communities within Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi. The initiative aimed to capture the protection issues of the population, particularly on their lack of birth registration. As a result, a pilot birth registration was conducted for Sama Bajaus in Vale Vista Phase 1 and 2 in Barangay Kasanyangan in September 2019.
Merhamna was there as one of the volunteers who were tapped to help in the implementation of the project. She took the lead in doing rounds to inform the Sama Bajaus about the birth registration activity. On the birth registration day itself, she helped the Sama Bajaus in filling out their forms and in preparing their requirements for the process. With her calm and jolly self, she encouraged every Sama Bajau registrant to relax, be confident, and honest in declaring relevant information needed by the staff from the Zamboanga City Civil Registrar’s Office.
“As a volunteer, I want to prove that anyone could help without expecting something in return. I (just) want to ensure that the Sama Bajaus have access to government services.” she explains.
Protecting the Most Vulnerable at the Time of COVID-19
Merhamna’s dedication for serving her community was proven months after the pilot birth registration. In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, UNHCR shared COVID-19 related information materials translated to Sinama, the local language of Sama Bajaus. Merhamna pro-actively reproduced copies and posted it in the community for people to have access to it.
“In this pandemic, access to information on COVID-19 is very important so when the information material, which was translated to Sinama was shared by UNHCR, I immediately printed it out and posted it in strategic areas in the community.” she shared. “My neighbors started to ask about it and then when I explained, they understood, and it makes me happy that I was able to help them in my own little way.” she added.
Merhamna also volunteered to distribute UNHCR hygiene kits to 300 Sama Bajaus in her community, as well as help with community level health awareness by sharing prevention tips like the importance of wearing a face mask, physical distancing and proper handwashing.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, UNHCR has been engaging in monitoring, preparedness and contingency planning, particularly in communities with IDP populations, refugees and persons at risk of statelessness. With disease prevention primarily relying on deeply established WASH practices, UNHCR and partners are working on the provision of WASH-related support to these communities. Recently, UNHCR provided hygiene kits to the local government unit of Zamboanga City, upon its request. Given the vulnerability of the conditions of Sama Bajaus in high-density settlements amid the pandemic, Merhamna’s community was given a priority.
Merhamna’s passion for helping her community is remarkable. When asked about the challenges she encounters as a pre-school teacher and a volunteer, she said being overwhelmed is one of them. “Sometimes, I get overwhelmed with the things that I need to do in the community. When this happens, what I do is I identify the priority and for me it is always for the Sama Bajau because I know that my tribe needs more help than anyone else.” she says. “My dream is for more Sama Bajaus to become teachers and professionals so they could also contribute to our community.”