Typhoon-ravaged Philippines celebrates Christmas

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Christmas boosts the spirits of those still coping with displacement and striving to recover their livelihoods three months after Typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines. Dow Punpiputt reports.

Streams of international pop songs, Asian hits and Christmas tunes fill the air. Kids scream with excitement over games and competitions. A crowd of about 500 people gathers around the stage in the multipurpose covered court of a barangay hall in Tanay. Laughs and cheers as a girl is dancing her heart out to Korean hit 'Nobody' in a show down round against another boy who is trying his best to catch up with the moves. Everyone has a smile on their face.

It is the second day of a Christmas party series for children and parents staying in evacuation centres in Tanay municipality in Rizal province. The events are organised by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). There are singing and dancing competitions, prizes and Christmas packages containing toys and canned ingredients to make 'Noche Buena', a traditional Christmas dinner where the family gathers and exchanges gifts.

"We want to tell people that Christmas is still here," Eden Banggawan, a social worker said.

Successive typhoons swept through capital city Manila and other areas of the northern Philippines in late September, damaging thousands of houses and displacing millions of people.

In Tanay, many people in evacuation centres lost a family member from Typhoon Ketsana and most wooden houses located along the lakeshore were completely destroyed. Over 1,000 families have moved to temporary evacuation centres set up in schools, churches and private land around the municipality since early October. Today, 606 families still remain in nine centres. Those who left the evacuation centres either stay with relatives or have returned to their strong concrete houses.

"It's a chance for us to be happy despite what we have been through," said Honoria Gonzaga, 42. She lost three grandchildren.

"I'm happy because it is for the kids. When they are happy, we are happy too," said another evacuee, Maritez Bucao, 35. "We forget about our situation for a moment." Maritez's home was washed away in the flood. Luckily everyone in her family is safe, including her two-year-old son she is holding in her arms.

"It's very difficult now because we cannot find jobs. Relief operations are starting to pull out. Kids are having sickness: diarrhoea, coughs and colds." said Maricel Matienzo, 38, sitting nearby holding a four-month old daughter, the youngest of her five children.

Maricel came to the evacuation centre after Oxfam's hygiene kit distribution was already finished. She received a 1,000 pesos cash grant (around 21 USD) that she spent on school supplies and uniforms for her three school-aged children. Schools are resuming but these children lost all their belongings to the flood.

Honoria, Maritez, and Maricel are among those who cannot return home because either their houses are still flooded, or they were washed away. Some who lived in the area that was defined as a 'danger zone' will be relocated. In the meantime, they have to stay in the camp-like environment of temporary evacuation centre waiting for relocation plans.

In one of the multi-purpose covered courts used as evacuation centre, blue jerry cans can be seen in every corner. The camp shared by 225 people staying in tents is very organised, clean and tidy, thanks to the camp leader and to the cleaning kits Oxfam distributed along with hygiene kits and cash grants.

"The first thing I do in the morning everyday is walk around and ask people to clean up. Each family is responsible for their own area," said Ben Matangga, the camp leader.

"We are very thankful for Oxfam. The cash and hygiene kits helped us a lot," Ben said. "We are most thankful for the cash. People were able to buy their basic needs like kitchen utensils, food and clothes for kids."

By the second week of December 2009, Oxfam reached over 22,000 families in three provinces: Laguna, Rizal and Bulacan, with its hygiene kit distribution. Over 10,000 families received a 1,000 pesos cash grant in the immediate response.

"The most difficult thing here is we have very limited space to live. We have to share almost everything," said the camp leader.

Berina Masuver, 77, another evacuee shared the same feeling. "I lost weight since I got here. I cannot rest at night because our tents are next to each other so we can hear all noises from the next tents."

Berina has been staying at one of the evacuation centres with her 42-year old daughter, Honoria Gonzaga, and her family, sharing a tent with 12 other people from three families. Her grandson has to sleep outside the tent because there is not enough space.

Honoria used to be a tailor in her community, earning up to 1,200 pesos (around 25 USD) a week from making dresses, bags and luggage.

"Because of the typhoon, my shop and machine were destroyed." Honoria observed that most tailor shops were closed in this area and if people want to order tailor-made clothes, they will have to go elsewhere. "If I have a sewing machine here, I could take orders and get income," she said.

Over the next two months Oxfam will distribute the second round of cash grants to 5,000 vulnerable families like Honoria's, to provide them access to basic necessities, and help them resume their small businesses.

"The first priority now is livelihoods. We need to look at longer term plans, looking for jobs or starting small businesses," Ben Matangga said. After Christmas he plans to start a livelihoods project and seek support from other organisations.

"We just want to have our normal lives back."