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.