What is happening in the Philippines at the moments has really touched me, as I’m sure it has so many other millions of people all around the world. In my ‘day job’ as a journalist I have spent time going through many photographs of the total devastation Typhoon Haiyan has caused in many parts of the country. Children begging for food by the roadside, family members still frantically searching for their loved ones and old men and women wandering hopelessly, in complete shock that the homes they thought they would spend the rest of their lives in are no more.
I have never been to the Philippines, but watching the aftermath on the television reminds me a lot of the time I spent in Thailand following the 2004 Tsunami.
I arrived on the island of Ko Phi Phi six months after the terrible event. It was when the film crews had returned home and the news had moved on to more recent tragedies but I was shocked at how little seemed to have been done on the island. One whole side of it – which has been filled with beach hut accommodation and restaurants – remained completely empty and many of the hotels on the ‘fancy’ side of the island were basically empty shells. It was like a ghost town. Every day, new debris was washed back onto the beach, from huge pieces of concrete to small, personal items, such as the badge of a Manchester United Football Club shirt.
I immediately joined a small team of volunteers, led by a group of divers from around the world who had promised to stay and help rebuild the island. Many had been there since the clean-up began and were physically and emotionally exhausted.
During my time on the island I helped to lay the foundations of a memorial garden for those who had died in the tsunami, we knocked down the remaining walls of a school so a new one could be built and we worked to create a new beachside bar as a means of income for a local man who had lost his entire family.
All of it was hard, physical work, but what I remember being the most difficult part of it was listening to people’s stories. I sat and cried with a mother from New Zealand whose little daughter had been swept into the sea, along with her visiting sister; I watched the man we had built the bar for just sit and stare at the sea every night and I remember looking into his glassy eyes and wondering how he was ever going to find the strength to cope without his wife and two children; locals we worked with each day told the same stories again and again, as though still trying to process what had happened to them.
But what I also remember is how grateful people were. Every day we were greeted by smiles and thanks, even though we felt helpless about the fact that we could give so little. One day the lady from New Zealand asked me why I was there. She was there for her daughter, she told me, but who was I there for? I told her I was there for her, and all of the other amazing, brave, kind, strong, people who were somehow managing to wake up each morning and put one foot in front of the other to get through the day. I felt incredibly humbled that someone who had lost so much would take the time to thank us volunteers for our tiny efforts. But in their eyes it was purely the fact that they hadn’t been forgotten, that people would continue to help them.
In these situations it is so easy to feel powerless and to wonder what difference your small donation is going to make in the wider scheme of things. But what I would say is that when you make a donation you are not just giving immediate assistance and aid, both of which are vitally important of course, but you are giving the gift of hope. You are showing people that they are not alone, that the rest of the world remembers them, thinks about them and supports them.
It is a long road ahead for the people of the Philippines, but it is one which we can all help to make a little more bearable.