THE Tzu Chi Foundation, the Taiwanese Buddhist Great Love humanitarian organization, invited me to Leyte last week for a visit to their housing project in Barangay San Jose, Palo. Palo was one of the sites of great tragedy wrought by typhoon Yolanda, in November 2013. There is a mass grave in front of the rebuilt Palo Cathedral where numerous bodies were buried as an emergency in the aftermath of Yolanda.
Under blue skies and gathering of cumulus clouds, Leyte looked bucolic beside the sea from the air. But the truth is the trauma, both physical and mental, that people in Leyte underwent with Yolanda, will take decades, if not a generation, to become distant history and memory.
Tzu Chi Foundation was a First Responder in Yolanda’s wake. Volunteers from all over the Tzu Chi universe which is quite extensive (Taiwan, Caribbean, US, Asia and the Philippines) came to help for weeks in adverse conditions – no power, no markets, no decent shelter, scarce water supplies, with mayhem and corpses in the streets and garbage and debris everywhere.
The first thing that Tzu Chi did as it learned and institutionalized from prior experience in the Infanta, Quezon, landslides, Marikina s wide flooding during Ondoy, was to establish a Cash for Work program wherein any man, woman and child from and out of the area who registered and promised to work was paid P500 at the end of the day.
Tzu Chi is a hands-on non-governmental organization that responds to victims of calamities and disasters (they were First Responders in the Ormoc ferry sinking recently) with eminent common sense and underlying awareness about the dignity of human beings. The Cash for Work program is an example. People work at a day-long job and at the end of the day they are given a wage. In the case of Tzu Chi, a generous wage, indeed. They avoid red tape, too much paperwork and other bureaucratic delays that many NGOs have become addicted to, almost becoming like ponderous government agencies that proceed lethargically at their tasks. But most of all, Tzu Chi trusts the people they help. No one monitored individuals to see if they were really working clearing garbage from the streets but the streets eventually were free of garbage.
The housing project at Barangay San Jose in Palo is state-of-the-art with over a hundred houses set and spaced in neat rows on well-laid if unpaved streets with drainage provisions (courtesy of the Palo Local Government Unit which also gave the land). Mayor Remedios Petilla has been hospitable and helpful to Tzu Chi.
The housing is temporary until the local government provides permanent houses for those made homeless by Yolanda. Yet they are made of strong material, mostly polycarbonate aluminum. The roof has a provision for opening up a segment that releases the hot air inside the house. Each house is between 27 and 29 sqm skillfully divided into three small bedrooms, a separate small kitchen and a separate bathroom with a small living room. Each house came furnished with a plastic bench convertible to a bed.
Tzu Chi realized early enough that housing the homeless was not enough, they had to have livelihoods. So in Barangay San Jose they established a bakery, a sewing room with electric sewing machines, cement-block manufacturing using bamboo, and vegetable gardens. All in all about 70 employees.
The bakery does not compete with the local ones who do pan de sal and other staples common in provincial bakeries. Rather, it does high end stuff like focaccia bread, some kind of croissant and hopia. Buddhists are vegetarians and the bakery comes up with amazing vegetarian dishes like Kari Kari with vegetarian bagoong, chicken dishes using vegemeat and extensive use of fruits and vegetable dishes. We had them for lunch and got introduced to the local langka whose pods are so much thicker and sweeter than the run-of-the-mill langka elsewhere. Each day the bakery prepares hundreds of take-out meals for lunch and merienda under the supervision of Tzu Chi volunteer, Sally, who stays permanently in Tacloban. The bakery delivers to a growing clientele in the nearby government offices. A vegetarian lunch with rice sprinkled with garlic goes for P45. Moreover, the customers are developing a taste for focaccia bread and croissants.
The highlight of my visit was the Tzu Chi hanging bridge over the river in San Jose. Tzu Chi volunteer, Judy Lao, noticed children not going to school in the area and upon inquiry discovered that because the original hanging bridge was swept away by Yolanda, it took two hours one way to take circuitous path avoiding the river to go to school. This time Judy tapped her classmates from St Stephen s School in Binondo and they responded. A hanging bridge was put in place in a record six weeks with pre-fabricated materials. It is a first class hanging bridge compared to the ones I experience in the Cordilleras which use World War II airfield steel plates for the floor with big holes to graphically show the distance down below and frighten you. The Tzu Chi hanging bridge is made of steel plates put closely together with small holes. Its sides are not just the cables as rails but steel wires all the way to the floor and up from the rail making it an enclosed passage that in case of wind will not blow one over. It is also wide enough to accommodate tricycles. While visiting it and walking back and forth its approximately 20 to 30 meter length during photo ops, I noted quite a bit of coming and goings across it.
The sewing room at the housing site is manned by housewives making very sturdy katsa bags which by the way will be on sale this weekend, August 22 and 23 at the Metro Tent in front of Marco Polo Hotel on Meralco Avenue. In a tribute to where they come from, the bags carry three icons – a house, the hanging bridge and the toog tree (a huge, very tall tree with leaves clinging close to the trunk rather than from widespread branches) which survived Yolanda. All of these at Barangay San Jose.
Things were really in place at the Tzu Chi Foundation in San Jose there. In time there will be a bookstore and products from the livelihood programs for sale. Tzu Chi not only has its projects but goes out from them to help others. It provided the new roof of the Sto Niño Shrine in Tacloban.