Situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines is used to facing typhoons and earthquakes.
After tackling them head on for many years, we know what we need to do. We have weather monitoring systems and public service announcements. We have evacuation plans.
But when buildings are set ablaze, people are kidnapped, and residents hear continuous firefights outside their homes – nowhere is safe. The whole city becomes the disaster zone.
This was the reality for children and families in the city of Marawi when in May violence erupted between government forces and a local armed group.
No amount of planning could fully prepare anyone for this.
Almost half a million
Around 470,000 people have been forced from their homes.
I remember when we first reached the area to help people who had fled the fighting. The closer we got to Marawi, the more checkpoints and visible military personnel we encountered.
At every checkpoint long security queues moved at a snail’s pace, before each vehicle screeched off towards freedom.
A freedom that stretches only as far as Marawi’s neighbouring city, Iligan, where we are based.
Writing this now, my work is punctuated by regular breaks – as regular as the sounds of helicopters I hear flying overhead and the blasts of bombs and guns that echo from Marawi.
No looking back
It’s now weeks since children and their families were forced to flee their homes and stay with relatives or in overcrowded evacuation centres.
Many of these children haven’t been able to go to school since they fled because they don’t have basic school supplies.
I listen to painful stories about how the sudden escalation of the conflict forced families to make their escape bringing nothing with them.
There was no looking back.
Too crowded for learning
While they may have made it to safety, the education of some 33,000 children is currently at risk – and with it their chances of the futures they deserve.
In schools, classrooms have become too crowded for learning, following the surge in enrolment.
Almost two months on, children are starting to realize things may never be the same again. Their battle to face the realities of life forced from their homes has just started.
Abdul and Sathia
Eleven year-old Abdul tells us, “We were happy in Marawi because we could play all we want. We felt happy there because we had our own house and our parents sold eggs and vegetables in the market to earn money.”
Another 11-year old Sathia* is in an evacuation center just next to the border with Marawi. “Though we would rather attend school in Marawi… what is important is that we continue our schooling so we will be educated when we grow up,” she says.
Next to the center is an open gymnasium where local ball games should be held, but a temporary classroom has been set up. Instead of the usual brightly painted artwork and posters, there are no colours. There aren’t even walls, or enough chairs.
What we’re doing
We’re supporting government partners and children displaced from Marawi City to continue their education in the midst of this crisis. Our team has distributed and set up 25 temporary learning spaces coupled with teachers learning kits in schools that are hosting huge numbers of displaced children.
We also distributed schooling supplies with hygiene kits to 3,000 children to ensure they are equipped with materials when they go back to school; and provided three sets of early childhood care and development kits for children under 5 years old.
We have also partnered with local civil society organizations in Mindanao to provide psychosocial support services to displaced children.
We all hope for the end of the conflict. But when it comes, unfortunately that will not be the end of the struggle.
Displaced families will have to face what is left of their city after it was bombarded by bullets and overtaken by armed groups and soldiers.
It might be a matter of days or weeks before residents can return to what’s left of their homes, however it will be years before they will be able to truly reclaim it.
*Names changed to protect identities