The Girl Who Moved Places: How Super typhoon Yolanda inspired one woman to do humanitarian work

Frances Damazo

I am taking it all in.

The sights, the sounds, the people, the chaos, the peace.

As if having an out of body experience, I feel like I am not here but I am.

What does this supposed to feel like?

Surreal.

I have made the jump from metropolitan city girl to provincial lass.

I am back at the place where it all began. November 8, 2013—the strongest typhoon to ever hit land—caused massive devastation to 171 cities and municipalities, with Region 8 as one of the hardest hit regions. I remember watching the destruction from my TV screen back home and how my heart ached when I saw the lifeless bodies on the streets. The region looked uninhabitable. Prior to typhoon Yolanda, I have never visited the region. It is unfortunate that my first glimpse of the place was that of destruction. Fast forward to 2 years after the unfortunate event, I find myself relocating to Tacloban City.

Looking at my surroundings, I am in awe of the resilience of this community. Back then it looked so raw. But today, it’s as if the typhoon hardly graced this place, save for some areas where you can see remnants of destruction. Destruction led to rebuilding and now Tacloban is as good as new. Business is booming, livelihoods have been restored, and operations are back to normal. Everything about the city is screaming, “I am back.”

But there are wounds that remain unseen to the naked eye. I may never truly understand the depths of pain these people had to go through but their strength is truly inspiring. Imagine losing everything—carrying the trauma of the disaster—and trying to restore normalcy in day-to-day life.

Teachable.

I have a lot to learn in and from Tacloban—it is the realization that this world can easily break; it can drive us to our limits. But we can all rise from the ashes of brokenness and destruction and rebuild.

To just be. I am learning that it’s okay to just be.

To not be anxious of the banality of day-to-day life. To be present. To appreciate this moment, knowing that it’s fleeting.

Move, a voice inside is telling me. Move and be moved—by people, by things, by experiences.

“What makes you happy?” we were asked during one of our team get-togethers. It was a beautiful night by the sea, our faces illuminated by a single light bulb. The mood shifted from merriment to pensive.  “Family.” “Life” “Making a difference” “Sense of Purpose” “Being alive, surviving Yolanda.”

Stories are just stories until you encounter someone you know who lived to tell the tale. There are a multitude of stories I’m wanting to share—stories of despair, survival, hope but I sat there, still, and listened. Really listened.

A lot of my friends were commenting on my fiery boldness of leaving home. Little do they know that I needed to pack a suitcase full of courage just to come here. And if can tell them one thing, I’m gonna tell them that they ought to meet the people here and see that courage comes in different packages.

It’s in the form of a single mother and her cerebral-palsy afflicted son, who live in a remote barrio in Carigara, Leyte. She has inspired her community to bounce back and never lose hope. It’s in the form of the kids I have interacted with during school visits. Most of them have been traumatized by the typhoon and have lost some family members. Despite all that, they fight for their dreams and continue going to school.  

After you go through something life-changing as being in the eye of the strongest typhoon on earth, you learn that these people no longer have time to spend on things that do not matter. When push came to shove, they fought strong winds and dangerous currents just so they could come out of it, with their breaths intact. People become real, authentic—the kind that knows that the things that last in this lifetime are, in fact, not things. They are just glad to live and be alive.  

It’s not so much as standing tall when difficulties ravage but standing tall—albeit broken and bruised—after the fall.

I learned that storms past. People are strong. People are capable of rebuilding and making a comeback. 

The author with some of the children from Salvador Elementary School, one of the beneficiary schools of USAID Rebuild in Region 8

The author with some of the children from Salvador Elementary School, one of the beneficiary schools of USAID Rebuild in Region 8

Beautiful.

This is a beautiful region—both the landscape and its people. Our people.

I can see the stars here—not that I’ve done a lot of stargazing but the skies are clearer on this side of the world. I can hear my voice. I find myself reading more. Writing more.

I am not taking a lot of pictures as I used to. Instead, I make mental pictures of things and people. I try not to just catch memories but to actually be in the moment. I try to remember it all on my mind—with all its vividness and nostalgia. I hope the shutter that is my memory will not fail me.  

Two years in an international NGO and it is only now that I have fully submerged myself into the experience. Uprooted from her natural habitat, called to serve and be part of the humanitarian work, I have left the comforts of home and welcomed something unfamiliar. Every inch of that decision has been life changing.

This is a story that refuses to remain untold. In fact, I could make an entire universe out of all them. I wish I can tell this story eloquently because words could not give these experiences justice.  

But I guess what I wanted to say is that go make your own experiences. Craft your own journey. You’ll never know where it might lead you but when you go through with it with spark and drive, the adventure is worth it. People will always be worth it.

Words fail in the presence of pain. But I learned that there is contentment in emptying your heart out and offering it to the people around you. Maybe it’s the only consolation you could give right now but it may mean the world to someone.

Empathy.

This story might be about me. But this is as much about the beautiful people of this country. I’m looking at this city as if I’m seeing it for the first time. Maybe because in a lot of ways, this is now a brand new place and it begs you to look at it, amidst the scars.

Beneath all the rubbles, hope springs. 

I am taking it all in.

The sights, the sounds, the people, the chaos, the peace.

The girl who moved places finally feels at home.

I am glad to be here.      


Frances Grace Damazo, 24, is working under the United States Agency for International Development - Rebuild Project which supports the reconstruction and rehabilitation activities in the Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) affected areas all over the Philippines. This year, she was assigned in Tacloban City – one of the most heavily damaged cities by the super typhoon—to assist in its rebuilding activities.