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Never going home again

Gerardo Amantillo, Philippines

Gerardo Amantillo (74) from Basey, close to Tacloban on Leyte island. Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas

When you arrive back into Ireland from the scene of one of the world’s worst natural disasters, it is difficult not to think of the people you have left behind.

Sitting in traffic jams or queuing for a coffee, your mind wanders back to the people you met; people who have far bigger problems than a delay on the road or the price of a hot drink.

I met Gerardo (pictured) and Jovita, both 74 years old, at the pier on Leyte island in southern Philippines. Thousands of people were queuing amongst the rubble in the hope of escaping the island that bore the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan.

Gerardo and Jovita’s entire lives were packed into two small bags. It was all they had left. Their house and everything in it had been destroyed.

But yet they were thankful because they were alive. When the waves that accompanied the typhoon crashed into their house, Gerardo and Jovita were swept three metres into the air and survived by grabbing onto the roof of a neighbour’s house. They clung to the roof for two hours until the storm eased.

When I met them, they were queuing for a boat to take them to a neighbouring island where their son lives. Christmas is a time for visiting family, but unlike most people travelling at this time of year Gerardo and Jovita have no idea when – or even if – they will ever return to the place they call home.

The scale of the devastation in the Philippines means that this response will not end in days, weeks or months. It will take years for the worst affected areas to rebuild.

Areas likes Bassey, where Gerardo and Jovita once happily lived, are completely destroyed. Houses, shops, businesses, apartments, farms – everything is now rubble. I drove for hours and saw nothing but flattened buildings.

On Leyte island alone, the damage goes on for 200 kilometres. That would be like every building from Dublin to Galway being destroyed; every person left homeless, penniless and searching for enough food to survive another day.

Every day that goes by sees more tents, food, water and medicine arrive into affected areas. It is an incredible thing to see the smile on somebody’s face when they are handed a tent in which to live. It’s not much but it will keep them dry and make them feel safe. It’s something. A start.

It’s a reminder that for the poorest people in the world it often is the smallest things that make the biggest impact. At Christmas, many people in Ireland buy Trócaire Gifts for people in the developing world.

You won’t find iPads or other gadgets on this list of gifts – what you will find are chickens, goats, water supply and school lunches. The simple things.

A simple way to enjoy Christmas while also sparing a thought for people like Gerardo and Jovita.

This article first appeared in The Sun on December 1st, 2014.

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