Merly Bandojo, 40, still remembers fearing for their lives as she, her husband, and her three children sought refuge during that fateful coming of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) in the Municipality of Estancia in Iloilo, moving desperately from one place to another after their house was completely wiped out by the raging storm. Eventually, they found safe haven in a nearby computer shop. For a brief moment, they knew they were saved from harm. But they also knew it would be a long and hard road after.
“Gusto kong ayusin ‘yung bahay namin (I want to have our house fixed),” Merly recalls saying in grief, citing the need to have a decent space for her three girls while she is expecting another baby.
Soon enough, her worries were replaced by hope when an opportunity to rebuild their home finally came. Sisters from the Fr. Francisco Palau Foundation, Inc. (Carmelite Missionaries), as part of their mission to help the poor in Iloilo, organized a shelter project for homeless survivors of Yolanda from different barangays in Estancia when the local government approached them. Fifteen families, including the Bandojo family, were selected to be beneficiaries of the shelter project, in which Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), the socio-political apostolate of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines served as sponsor.
With the initiative, Merly knows that her wish is now turning into reality. Despite what Merly and her family have gone through during and after the typhoon, she cannot hide her happiness now that they can dream again in the comfort of their new home.
Rising from waist-deep
It has been two years since the province of Iloilo was placed under state of calamity following the onslaught of Yolanda, which is considered to be the deadliest storm that struck the Philippines.
Damage to properties, apart from unfortunate loss of precious lives, was unimaginable. A total of 9,041 houses were damaged by Yolanda in Estancia, one of Iloilo’s severely affected municipalities. Since then, local government units and various groups such as the Carmelite Missionaries have provided housing rehabilitation projects for those who have lost their homes, especially those who were practically left with nothing and were staying in makeshift shelters or tents.
For Vergilio Burda, a housing beneficiary from Barangay Daculan, having a new home after Yolanda completely destroyed their house located near the coast is both a literal and symbolic rising from the rubble. During Yolanda, he and his wife Junita took shelter to one of the four evacuation centers in their barangay. “Umabot hanggang baywang ‘yung tubig-dagat kaya lumipat na kami doon (We needed to move to the evacuation site immediately when the seawater was already waist-deep.),” Vergilio told of their situation. With a new shelter, Vergilio and his family are now ready to rebuild their lives and rise from a waist-deep predicament.
“New homes, new lives”
Similar to the experience of Vergilio, the beneficiaries feel that the road to rebuilding has lasting impact to their lives.
For one instance, the shelter project has brought together persons of different faiths. Even if the beneficiaries practice different religion, some are Roman Catholic while some are members of the Aglipay Church, all of them see God as their ultimate source of strength and one reason that unites them in the process of rebuilding.
Junita’s mother, Benita Jacobe, an Aglipayan, remains faithful to God even in times of hunger following the typhoon. “Okay lang magutom kung para kay Lord (It is alright to be hungry if it is for the Lord),” she mentions of how the grace of God fills her. Now that she tends a vegetable garden as a source of living, she knows that God continually sheds his grace to keep her and her family physically and spiritually fulfilled.
Their new homes have also opened doors for new livelihood opportunities that they needed to fully recover from the effects of Yolanda. Robert de Montano, for example, learned to build exquisitely polished tables and benches using wooden nails for their newly-built house. He just recently discovered his unique talent in building furniture using the wooden nails in place of the traditional iron nails when they moved in. He is now exploring options how he can turn his skills into an income-generating endeavor to support his three children and his long-time partner Evelyn Soberano.
For Sister Cynthia Calamba, more fondly called as Sister Ting who led the Carmelite Missionaries in implementing the housing project, there are enduring signs of hope in these stories. “Kung hindi nila naranasan ‘yung Yolanda, hindi sila ganyan ngayon na mas maganda ang buhay (If they didn’t experience Yolanda, they wouldn’t have built back better),” she remarks. True enough, the beneficiaries were not only able to get back on their feet; they are moving their best foot forward with all the lessons they learned from the disaster and the rebuilding after.
Happily ever after
To grace the new houses, SLB conducted a blessing ceremony led by its executive director, Fr. Xavier “Javy” Alpasa, SJ last 28 April 2015. Official markers of the houses were also distributed during the door-to-door blessing which they gladly received and posted on their doors as a gesture of appreciation for all those who took part in the mission.
Incidentally, five couples who were also housing beneficiaries signed up for a mass wedding that took place at the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish, the central parish of the municipality, which was officiated by Fr. Javy the next day. In the reception after the wedding, Fr. Javy held a large wooden key in front of the newlyweds and other present housing beneficiaries as a symbol of “bagong bahay, bagong buhay”, a new home and a new life. He shared to the audience that the houses built because of the shelter project are concrete manifestations of how God never left them in their struggle and all the partners in the project had only been instruments of God to help them.
“Ang laking ginhawa! (What a relief!)” John Lee, one of the youngest beneficiary to be married, exclaims how grateful he is knowing that he and his wife, Kathlyn Hangco, can start fresh and build on their future with their new home. While they can still recall all the challenges they faced before, from surviving Yolanda’s deluge to proving the people around them that they can stay together as a couple through thick and thin, they still believe in that one life-changing factor in their lives, and the lives of the people of Estancia, forever:
That no matter how tragic their experiences in the past were, everything is still a blessing in disguise. What they found in the end are not only new houses but new homes and stories built on hope, faith, and ultimately, love.
-Clarisse Galino de Guzman