A far-flung mountain barangay affected by protracted conflict, a calamity-prone lakeside village, and an island barangay recovering from Super Typhoon Rai (Odette) were among the communities visited by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Atom Araullo during a field mission to Caraga Region, Eastern Mindanao in August.
“This mission really crystallized and demonstrated the crucial work that UNHCR is doing in far-flung communities that in many ways have been forgotten and need so much assistance,” said Atom.
The last two years delivered a triple blow of recurring armed conflict, worsening climate emergencies, and the COVID-19 pandemic to vulnerable communities across Mindanao – many of whom were already suffering from protracted displacement and deep-rooted inequalities.
Seeing the determination of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to overcome the challenges they continue to face, Atom reflects, “It’s important to show that IDPs are partners themselves. They have the capacity to be part of the efforts to protect the community and also to make sure that durable solutions are in place.”
With the support of donors and through close collaboration with government, humanitarian partners, and forcibly displaced and host communities, UNHCR continued to deliver life-saving assistance, protection, and long-term solutions to the forcibly displaced, even at the height of the pandemic.
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Atom Araullo meets the Barangay Health Workers (BHW) who are in charge of the health facility in Barangay Culi, San Luis, Agusan del Sur. They are happy to report that the health of the residents in their barangay has greatly improved. As volunteers, they remain on standby to provide services and respond to medical emergencies even when they are not formally on duty during the weekends. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
As a Barangay Nutrition Scholar (BNS), Mechelle Senadero is one of the volunteer health workers running Barangay Culi’s health facility. When Atom Araullo met her last 6 August 2022, she proudly shared that with this new facility and their collective efforts, they were able to reduce the number of malnourished children in their barangay, as well as improve the health and well-being of the most vulnerable members of their community. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Atom Araullo is shown around Barangay Culi’s health facility by volunteer health worker Mechelle Senadero. She explains that they are now equipped with the necessary medical equipment for services like immunization, prenatal checkups, family planning counselling, schistosomiasis treatment, tuberculosis treatment, and deworming, among others. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Even prior to the pandemic, the difficulty of accessing health care was a major concern for the residents of Barangay Culi, a far-flung mountain barangay. Today, essential health services are available to everyone in their community, thanks to a quick impact project implemented in 2021 by UNHCR and ACCORD in collaboration with the local government from the barangay to the provincial level. The facility is run by volunteer health workers. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Atom met Mechelle Senadero, one of the health workers in Barangay Culi, San Luis, Agusan del Sur – a remote mountain barangay that is home to indigenous people belonging to the Manobo, Banwaon, and Higaonon tribes. When it rains, the roads leading to the community become extremely difficult to traverse. Access to health care is particularly challenging when floodwaters isolate the community from the town center. Cases of schistosomiasis, a water-borne disease, were reported where children and mothers were most at-risk.
“Nasisira yung aming center noon. Yung mga tao hindi madalas bumisita kasi maliit lang po, tapos wala kami gaanong mga equipment,” said Mechelle. Pregnant women would have to travel far to get prenatal care, and children were severely malnourished.
Through a quick impact project implemented in 2021 by UNHCR and Assistance and Cooperation for Community Resilience and Development, Inc. (ACCORD), in collaboration with the local government unit from the barangay to the provincial level, the people of Barangay Culi now have a fully operational health center.
Mechelle gave Atom a tour of the facilities and proudly showed him equipment also furnished in the center. “Marami na ang nagpapa-check-up, nagpapa-prenatal, at nagpapa-immunize,” said Mechelle. She and the other barangay health workers (BHW), who are all volunteers, help run the center and provide feeding and basic health education to other residents.
Speaking to the other BHW, Atom underscored how important they are to the entire operation. “Kayo naman talaga yung nagpapatakbo ng pasilidad. Wala namang silbi yung gusali kung wala yung mga tao dito, yung mga BHW natin,” he said.
Access to health care is a fundamental human right that is now ensured in Barangay Culi. More importantly, the quick impact project has fostered the confidence and enthusiasm of the entire barangay to take ownership in leading their community’s health care.
Street lights serve as a source of security for the residents of Barangay San Roque, a calamity-prone lakeside village that also faces the recurring threat of flooding and armed conflict in surrounding areas. Now that their barangay is well-lit, residents can move around without fearing for their safety. It particularly benefits the fisherfolk who go to the lake before daybreak to fish. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Ronaldo Rangas shares that the street lights make the residents feel much safer–especially women and children. Incidences of theft, which used to be rampant in Barangay San Roque, have been eliminated. Their whole community has also come together to ensure that the street lights will last them a long time by putting up a maintenance fund and taking care of all the repair and upkeep work. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Meanwhile, in the northern part of Caraga, Atom met the residents of Barangay San Roque, Kitcharao, Agusan del Norte, who have mobilised themselves to ensure the safety of their community. Situated along the bank of Lake Mainit, their barangay is prone to coastal flooding, which forces affected families to flee to higher ground when it rains. The threat of recurring armed conflict in the hinterland barangays, as well as the lack of street lights, also made it very dangerous to go around at night.
“Sobrang dilim dati tapos talamak ang nakawan dito sa amin,” said fisherman and purok chairman Ronaldo Rangas. Today, the path going to the main road is well-lit, thanks to the installation of street lights, which was a quick impact project implemented by UNHCR in 2019, with the support of donors and in collaboration with ACCORD, the local government units, and the people of Barangay San Roque.
“Nag-bayanihan kami dito para mabuo yung project,” said Ronaldo. The residents gave their time and effort to help install the street lights, and also put up a maintenance fund that they contribute to monthly and manage as a community. Aside from providing protection and being a crime deterrent, the street lights also benefit the fisherfolk who often have to get up before dawn in order earn their livelihood.
When Super Typhoon Rai (Odette) devastated parts of southern Philippines in December 2021, the street lights sustained major damage. Undeterred by the typhoon, the residents once again worked together to rebuild what was lost. Funding for the refurbishment of the street lights came from the generous monthly gifts of donors. The repair was completed in June 2022 in time for the monsoon season.
Atom also visited Barangay Catadman, Hikdop Island, Surigao del Norte, a remote island barangay that is only accessible by boat. He met with Maribeth Yuntas, one of more than 1.5 million individuals in the Caraga region affected by Super Typhoon Rai (Odette). With Odette wreaking havoc and cutting off all power and communication lines, the island was completely isolated and it took some time for emergency assistance to reach the families.
Super Typhoon Rai (Odette) damaged most of the coconut trees, fishing boats, houses, and facilities like schools, health centers, and water systems in Hikdop Island, Surigao del Norte. Eight months after the typhoon, the families in Barangay Catadman are still working to rebuild their homes and are as determined as ever to recover. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Days after Odette made landfall in December 2021, Hikdop Island was left totally devastated and without power. Their remoteness from the mainland makes the journey to recovery extra difficult. Many of the families in Barangay Catadman have yet to fully rebuild their homes and livelihoods, eight months after the typhoon. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Hours before Odette made landfall, Maribeth convinced her elderly mother to seek shelter in the island’s chapel, bringing a radio and emergency supplies. She vividly recalls the fear their entire community felt that day. “Kami po ay natakot talaga dahil malakas yung hangin. Sabi ko ‘wag kayo sisigaw kasi ang mga matatanda, kawawa. Magdasal lang kayo kasi si Lord lang ang pag-asa natin,’” said Maribeth.
This pre-emptive evacuation saved their lives, but the typhoon wiped away their home and her husband’s fishing boat. “Ang pinakamasakit talaga, yung bahay na pinagsikapan namin, ay sa isang iglap nasira ng bagyong Odette,” said Maribeth. The typhoon left their island heavily damaged and without power.
The emergency assistance their barangay received from UNHCR – which includes shelter-grade tarpaulins, solar lamps, mosquito nets, and hygiene kits – is something Maribeth is very grateful for to this day. Like the other members of their community, Maribeth and her family are slowly rebuilding their home.
On 7 August 2022, Atom Araullo visited Barangay Catadman, an island barangay severely affected by Odette. He met with typhoon survivor Maribeth Yuntas, whose positive mindset and lively energy is a source of inspiration for many in her community, despite what they have gone through and the challenges they continue to face. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Maribeth Yuntas is one of 1.5 million individuals in Caraga whose lives have been upended by Odette. It has been eight months since she and her husband lost their home and fishing boat, but she is grateful that they are still alive and have the chance to rebuild. She adds to their family income by collecting shellfish, and hopes to save enough so they can purchase the materials they need for their home. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Maribeth is grateful for the solar lamps, hygiene kits, mosquito nets, and shelter-grade tarpaulins provided by UNHCR and partners as emergency assistance to the families in Barangay Catadman. She shared that she brings the solar lamp with her wherever she goes, especially to light her path during nighttime. The tarpaulin also helps reinforce their shelter and protect them from the elements. © UNHCR/Martin San Diego
Inspired by the individuals he met during this mission, Atom said, “IDPs aren’t helpless. There’s a perception that people who have gone through traumatic experiences – violence, persecution, displacement because of calamities – are helpless. But that’s not the case. If we give them life-saving assistance, they can be really strong partners on the ground to make sure that the people are protected.”
For more than a decade, UNHCR has been working with multiple stakeholders to provide life-saving support and help re-establish basic services in displaced and host communities. Yet armed conflict and climate emergencies continue to threaten the lives of displaced, marginalized and vulnerable populations in Mindanao.
“Hindi pa kami nakakabangon dito,” Maribeth shared as she brought Atom around the community and showed how much damage still exists. “Pero nabalik na naman ang sigla,” she continued. Despite the devastation that is still very much evident in their surroundings, we were met with a palpable energy and determination to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
Maribeth also shared that she is quite busy during the day collecting and selling shellfish to add to their income and help her husband save for the materials needed to rebuild their home. “Pangarap ko talaga na makabagon kami ulit. Tagpi-tagpi pa yung bahay namin at sa ngayon wala pa kaming pambili ng materyales,” she continued.
The road to recovery for communities like Maribeth’s may be long, but their determination to recover and rebuild has carried them through multiple challenges. Still, it is only through solidarity, cooperation, whole-of-society support, and working with the communities themselves that durable solutions can be attained, and the root causes of displacement addressed.