To the Vietnamese, #PHthankyou

Audrey N. Carpio (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - As the chopper curved along the coast, I could see the outline of a town already made familiar from many images seen before: satellite photos showing the devastating aftermath of a super typhoon that caused the ocean to surge inland and smite down everything in its path. But two months had already passed, and the scenery had changed: felled trees were still scattered like matchsticks, but broken and exposed structures were now covered with blue patches — the tarps of temporary shelter. Above all was the striking incongruity of how serene the water looked, the irony of what an incredibly beautiful view the coastal dwellers have on a sunny day, when they look out to the sea. We descended further inland, and the damage came out in sharper relief as we landed onto the oval track of a school-turned-command center. The Philippine Red Cross had arrived, and with them the goodwill of the Vietnamese diaspora who have given $340,000 to the agency’s Yolanda relief operations.

After the super typhoon struck the Visayas, many nations pledged money and might, as universal compassion drew the world together. But it struck a special chord in the Vietnamese who live in the United States: they never forgot how the Philippines was one of the few countries that welcomed the refugees, also known as the boat people, of the Vietnam War. Other nations, like Singapore and Malaysia, turned them away by pushing their boats back out to sea, where some 250,000 refugees perished. They were fellow sufferers who had lost everything, and they wanted to reach out.

Through a telethon held by the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, a Vietnamese-language channel based in California, close to US$800,000 or P36 million was raised for the Haiyan survivors in the Philippines. Habitat for Humanity and the US-Philippines Society were also given US$200,000 each. The donors were either former refugees themselves, or related to one of the 400,000 Vietnamese who were brought in to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan, or the Philippine First Asylum Center in Palawan. Many settled in the Philippines permanently after the processing centers closed in 1996.

Representatives from SBTN, Dieu Quyen Nguyen, the director and news anchor, and Trinity Pham, their marketing consultant, came to the Philippines early this year to personally hand over the donations as well as document the relief efforts for their network. Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon took the group on a day trip to Tacloban to visit school building sites and a distribution center, and I, as a partial-Vietnamese person of interest, came along. After hearing and reading and watching everything that could be said about Tacloban, I expected some pretty bad things. But what I saw wasn’t bad at all: the roads were cleared, with debris swept to the side, people were working towards recovery. The city had the bustle of life, even though it was death that defined Tacloban only a couple of months back.

Seeing Richard Gordon in action is like watching a bulldozer. He shares a lot of motivational, art-of-war type aphorisms that actually define what he does. The Chinese Red Cross originally intended to build shelters around Leyte, but Gordon convinced them to build transitional schools instead.  He hashed out the problems the international agencies encountered right then and there, even if he had to get a little angry, or make several phone calls, or push and prod, under the blistering sun. At Barangay Libertad, Palo, Leyte, Gordon orchestrated the distribution process in a manner that was novel to me, as I was used to ad-hoc repacking methods. In the middle of a courtyard, empty sacks were spaced out evenly on the ground while outside, people lined up with Red Cross cards, which family members had to register for. Once they were scanned in, they took their places in front of each sack, while Gordon gave evacuation drills and barked advice. Then came the assembly-line passing of the goods: food, water filters, blankets, tarp and shelter repair kits. “The hand that receives is always lower than the hand that gives,” Gordon would say, indicating that this was not a handout—you had to work for your relief bags, and you had to work together. Again, this all happened under an intense sun, and a few persons might have fainted; I certainly thought I would. Gordon, drenched in sweat, stood there until the last bag was filled, and 798 families were helped that day.

I hope that the Vietnamese-American community, those who have been so generous to the Filipinos, are able to see that their kindness is not simply paid back or forward, but circles around, spinning outward until it affects everyone in its path. Compassion and empathy are what fuels the volunteers, the builders, the teachers, those who labor alongside the people and camp out in less-than-five-star comfort, whose great reward is seeing the smiles of children and mothers who get a chance to start again, even if they didn’t have much to begin with. Because you don’t just turn people away.

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