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Typhoon Haiyan: A Plea for Help

6 Dec

The plane bumped again. The turbulence was getting worse and so was the pain in my legs. We’d had a brief respite in Tokyo, but after spending over half a day traversing the Pacific Ocean, it hadn’t been enough. I was eager to deplane and the weather was getting in the way. Closing my eyes, I prayed for relief.

Typhoon Ofel, a relatively small storm, was making its way through Manila and our pilots were doing their best to skirt around the edges. I admit that I experienced a certain thrill at the word “typhoon”. Living in the landlocked intermountain west, I’d rarely experienced any natural phenomena more severe than an occasional tremor caused by the geologic activity in Yellowstone National Park. Even tornadoes are rare. The thought of a genuine storm was invigorating.

It was raining when we landed and I breathed a sigh of relief as the pilot announced, “Welcome to Manila!” The passengers (most of them Filipino) applauded. I did too, simply happy to be on the ground. Eagerly, I grabbed my bag and several minutes later made my way through the maze towards customs. Outside, the rain continued to fall in sheets as palms waved in the breeze. We were at the edge of the storm and in no real danger.

The next few days were wet. The pool outside the visitor’s center where I was staying overflowed and I watched with interest as the chlorinated haven took on a distinctly fishy smell. The streets were flooded too, though mostly at the corners and caused little difficulty for our drivers. I commemorated the event with a photograph of myself dancing in the rain. Two days later, we heard the news that 24 had died in the storm. I didn’t feel like dancing anymore.

Disasters are not infrequent in our world… yet something changes inside of you when you feel a connection to those affected. There is something transformative about having been to a place – having held a hand or seen a smile, listened to a story or tasted a carefully prepared meal. You begin to feel a connection not to people as part of the human race, but as individuals. You begin to process news about their misfortune with deeper love and greater understanding.

Fortunately, having actually visited a place is not the only way to experience a meaningful connection. Our willingness to hear the stories of the individuals affected by a disaster can help us develop a comprehension that statistics alone can never give. Numbers may show us immensity, but people show us intensity. As we listen to a father weep for his lost son or hear the story of a woman searching for her missing parents, we begin to connect in a very intimate way. Faceless people groups don’t have stories; individuals do. Though the circumstances of their losses differ from our own, the tales of grief are not so foreign. Each of us has also wept for those we love or experienced the depth of great personal loss. In this, we can feel their pain.

While not all of us will ever have the opportunity to travel to the places affected by disasters, each of us can make a difference. 7,250 islands make up the Philippine archipelago. Of these, over 700 are inhabited, home to nearly 98 million people and 181 different language groups. Nearly all were affected in some way by Typhoon Hiayan and many now need our help. The question is: will we respond to that need? Will we see not a faceless nation, but grieving individuals? Will we be the ones to make a difference?

Click here to read stories of Typhoon Haiyan’s victims and make a difference in their lives.

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Typhoon Haiyan: Do You Really See?

29 Nov

A trickle of water ran down the mountainside: the collective sewage from the squatter community. The smell was not what I had expected. Piles of rotting garbage (mostly rags and inedible kitchen scraps) lined the muddy road, home to large colonies of roaches. Dogs roamed freely, emerging unexpectedly from amidst the stalks of the banana trees. Mangy tan beasts, it was difficult to tell one from another. It was as if a single mongrel had sired a thousand offspring, then sent them to multiply throughout the island.

Houses stood on either side of the trail. Each one a feat of ingenuity, assembled from scraps of metal and often no larger than a couple of phone booths set side by side. Built to shelter as many as eight people, it was a wonder that anyone found room to lie down at night. I stopped for a moment, watching as a young girl, perhaps no older than four, crouched beside the runoff, doing her best to scrub a slightly rusted frying pan.

It was not the first or the last time I would see such a site in the Philippines. I would soon visit other places, passing the rice fields of subsistence farmers – their only hope for continued survival. I would watch as a men and women carrying their entire inventory of goods pounded on the windows of our vans, hoping to sell enough to afford a decent meal. And I would watch as a trash-collector floated his home-made raft down the Pasig River, removing recyclable material from the tangled water lilies to earn enough to feed his family.

These were the poor. And everywhere I went, I was treated as though I were wealthy. Indeed, with an income exceeding $11,456 a year, I was well aware that I was among the richest 16% of the world population. It was a lesson in poverty which begged the question, “Do you see? Do you really see?” It wasn’t merely about recognizing that poverty existed, or even about feeling sympathy for those trapped within its unyielding grasp, but about empathy. It was about feeling the need so deeply that without a thought, I felt compelled to act.

In this nation of nearly 98 million people, over 33 million live in poverty – making less than $385 a year. The figure is staggering. So what happens when the poor become even poorer? When everything they have gets blown away and there remains not even an opportunity to replace what was lost? Do we understand what it means to have a year’s crop fully destroyed without any hope of recovery? Do we recognize just how deeply the loss of a “few trinkets” is felt by a street vendor?

Perhaps the question is not one of wealth, but of responsibility. When our fellow humans are suffering, do we turn away? Do we feel pity, but do nothing to come to their aide? Do we throw a few dollars in their direction as a salve to our conscience? Or do we see? Do we really see?

Do we grieve with a mother who has lost her child? Do we experience the helplessness of those who have lost their homes? Do our stomachs ache with those who are starving? In the wake of disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, do we see? Do we really see? Do we recognize our own ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering? And more importantly, will we embrace the challenge to do just that?

Click here to read more about the needs of Typhoon Haiyan’s victims and make a difference in their lives.

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