How to belong

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 3, 2019 - 12:00am

Several years ago I was invited by a friend of my sister’s (Hello Alison!) to speak at the British School of Manila for the graduation ceremony of a cohort of students that had been through a difficult time in the school’s community with reference also to the difficult time that had been suffered by the victims of Typhoon Yolanda because the school had been active in the relief, recovery and rebuilding in Leyte and Samar.

I spoke about the odd sense of belonging and yet not belonging: like many of the students I was born in the Philippines and raised by Philippine parents, also like many of them I grew up and was educated in a different country or culture than the one in which I was born or in which my parents were born.

I chose to talk about being part of a community: of what brings us together because, whatever challenges, small and big, life throws up, it is the idea of togetherness as humans that is one of the most important lessons that I think we can learn, both in and out of school.

“Wherever I am in the world and however desperate the circumstances, I have found that I come back to this. It informs the way we all act as individuals and together, shaping our futures, indeed the way we shape the world.

We were in London when martial law was declared on September 21st 1972 and that’s why I talk like this but still carry a Philippine passport.

When I finally came back and lived in Manila for a few years it was to be to lay the foundations of my career in journalism, and boy what a ride it was!

I went straight from a posh English public school education at St Paul’s Girls School in London and Newnham College at the University of Cambridge to the graveyard shift on the police beat for ABS-CBN news.?For years I had to put up with everyone in the newsroom in Quezon City teasing me because of my accent and my strange British ways and with people saying I wasn’t really a Filipina (whatever that means!).

After three years I joined CNN in Atlanta, where I became a news anchor, reading the news live to millions of viewers around the world. I met my husband and moved back to London where I worked at the BBC. With my then one year old son we moved again to Hong Kong where I re-joined CNN and where my daughter was born before moving to Kuala Lumpur and joining Al Jazeera English 10 years ago.??

I’m now based in London but since then lived in Thailand but continue to work as a journalist and communications consultant there and around south and south east Asia.

In early November 2013 the world’s strongest recorded typhoon barrelled across the central Philippines devastating an area very close to my heart. Palo, Leyte is where my grandparents were born and I was assigned by Al Jazeera to cover the disaster.

For me it was a kind of epiphany, I mean a sudden striking experience that showed me something beyond what was visible and physical.

I arrived at San Joaquin, the neighborhood where my grandfather was born in 1900, the son of a carpenter. He loved to tell the story of how he would walk barefoot for an hour to get to school in Palo, carrying his shoes, then put them on once he got there because he didn’t want to wear them out. Makeshift crosses garlanded with small flowers and messages scrawled in pen were scattered over the area. Then I saw one with my own name Pedrosa, then another and another.

It was as if the intervening generations, history and geography fell away like the leaves on a lotus, and the realisation whirled around me that this was my community too.

It didn’t matter where I’d been or where I was going, how I talk, how I look, how educated I am or how great or awful of a journalist I am!

So what DOES matter?

Sadly it’s often only when terrible things happen that we realize this: “When you’ve lost everything, all you have is each other.”

I think one of the most important things I do as a journalist is to bear witness – to be there, to be present – tell the stories of the people we cover and give voice to the voiceless. This was a moment that tested the complexities of being a journalist, but first of all a human, experiencing along with survivors what was probably for most of them the worst time of their lives.

One thing that I have witnessed over and over again in disasters and even conflicts is that it’s not so much about money but about pulling together and acting according to principles of decency and humanity.

There is something about great loss that empowers people no matter where they are.?I made friends in Palo that are still close to me now. In particular a young boy called John Jesrelle Flores and his family stay in my heart. He was only 10 years old when Yolanda destroyed his home and school but he came to church smiling and joking every day, helping everyone else pick up all the debris and distribute food.

He reminded me of my grandfather, walking barefoot to school on the same soil. Well, my grandfather eventually went on to become Finance Secretary and Governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines and what happened to him brought me to where I am today.

Perhaps I am an idealist but I have also seen with my own eyes that there is no real reason why John or any of the kids there, here or anywhere – in fact YOU – cannot make something of your lives beyond what you experience and feel now and at any given moment. The only thing we all need is to remember we have each other and to be there for each other.

Having lived and worked in three continents and seen the best and worst in them all, it is my sincere hope that you will remember this as you forge ahead.

We have each other and we must put human dignity at the heart of everything we do, for each other’s sake, to shape our world the way it ought to be, no matter what storms may cross our paths.”

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