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Resiliency in the Philippines

As anyone who has participated in these kind of exchanges know, there is a typical flow to the days:  breakfast, followed by a formal courtesy call or two with a Mayor/Governor/Legislative Leader, some kind of early afternoon lunch with a mix of elected and civil society types, maybe another political meeting in the afternoon, followed by a cultural activity, then dinner with community leaders/friends of the host. 

I’ve done three overseas trips and hosted three groups, and the basic rule is pack as much in as you can.  For me, Friday was supposed to be a day like that:  Breakfast in the morning, a meeting with Joy Belmonte, the Vice Mayor of Quezon City (the largest city in Manila), lunch with a few local Mayors, afternoon meeting with a few more, and a dinner with several people I first met when I came to the Philippines in 2013.    Of all the days of the trip, this was one I really looked forward to, as it would be a chance to reconnect with some old acquaintances, including Vice Mayor Belmonte.  It was the “old home week” day of the trip.

Then the fire happened. 

A day or two earlier, a small electrical fire started in an urban home in the city, but since that home was in a tightly cramped informal settlement, by the time it was contained, it had wiped out 400 homes in the neighborhood, displacing between 1500-2000 people.  The fire destroyed everything – people who already had very little survived with nothing more than the clothes on their back.  So rather than meeting with me, the Vice Mayor said she would pick us up at the hotel, and we’d all head to the temporary camp housing the victims to help distribute relief supplies.

The temporary camp was set up in a local park with an amphitheater.  For Tallahassee residents, the park would remind you of Cascade Park, so imagine the amphitheater there being set up as temporary housing for 1500-2000 people, with the roof only providing moderate relief from the elements.   When we arrived, there was a very rudimentary health care tent, a pile of donated clothes people were wading through to find stuff that fit them, and a couple of hoses for personal cleaning and drinking water.  It’s the kind of place most of us couldn’t imagine calling home for more than a few hours, let alone for days or weeks.

Frankly, at first, I felt really out of place, completely overwhelmed and helpless, and almost exploitive being there.  I didn’t want to be the guy that just showed up because I should.  The local politicians offered to let me hang out bags, but that honestly made me feel worse – so I went in the back and helped move supplies from a truck.   In the midst of trying to be useful, I saw a woman and her kid with several bags of supplies sitting under a tree.  Assuming she might be waiting for help, I asked if I could carry her stuff to where they were sleeping – and ended up striking up a conversation.   Turns out, this woman, now homeless from what was basically a slum, was putting two children through college, literally sacrificing everything to give her kids a better life.   She was a good reminder to never judge a book by its cover.

The more I talked to people, the more I saw that despite the outward impressions of total misery, there was near universal joy among the people, and genuine kindness towards me for simply being there.  Instead of holding back tears or hiding in the back, I found myself fist-bumping with kids, and hugging grandmothers.  I left there bouyed by their optimism and spirit.

Before coming, I talked to several experts, and the words they kept using to define the Filipino people: happiness and resilience.   This is a place that has been the center of many wars, including one we fought to colonize the country, and another to free it from the Japanese.  Typhoons batter the islands many times each season.  Governance here is messy – from the Marcos years, to Duterte today, to the corruption that you hear about from nearly every one in civil society.  This is a place of survivors. 

After leaving the camp, I sat down with several mayors who are successfully taking on poverty, including Kauswagan Mayor Rommel Arnado, himself a Filipino-American who decided to renounce his American citizenship to go home and run for Mayor in his ancestral home.  Mayor Arnado developed a program called “arms to farms” to encourage separatist rebels on the island of Mindanao to give up the fight.  Basically, if you would volunteer to give up your arms, the city would help you get into organic farming.  The program is now being replicated in cities in other war-torn areas.    In another, Siayan Mayor Flora Villarosa has reduced the poverty rate from 97.5% to 60%. I asked her how, and after reeling off some deliverables, she said fundamentally it was about teaching people how to dream bigger than their next meal. 

The issues here are immense.  First, the geography of the country is almost unmanageable, and the infrastructure is woefully underprepared for a growing country of 100 million people.  Getting around here is slow, and so much productivity, and honestly, just hours of life here are lost sitting in traffic.  I’ve been in seven hotels in the last eight nights, and after hours every day in the car, I am beat – I can’t imagine doing this day in, day out.   And the poverty – it is every where you look.   But it is hard to not feel hopeful after spending a week with young leaders. 

I am writing this while traveling from my last speaking event, making the 60 mile, but nearly 3-hour journey to the airport, to fly to Manila, for my trip home.  When you drive this slowly, you can see life in slow motion.  Just as we left, we drove through a pretty significant storm, a rain that was broken by a rainbow that developed over a nearby volcano.  As the rain subsided, people came back to the streets, kids started playing basketball, road side markets got busy again, and life returned to normal.  The history of this country has been one storm after another, followed by a resilient people recovering.

This is a place that is important to America for a lot of reasons.  The strategic location of the country is an obvious reason, but so is the relationship of Filipinos to America – this place is western, and nearly everyone you meet here has family in the US.   There are a lot of reasons to be engaged here, with one of the strongest being the countless young Filipino leaders committed to getting it right – and that is the whole point of the Young Southeast Leaders Initiative, to create relationships between rising young leaders in the ASEAN region and young Americans who share common goals.  I’d argue this program, and the similar ones that operate in other regions, are some of the most important tools in our forward-facing diplomatic toolbox.

I am truly grateful for ACYPL, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and the State Department for the opportunity to come back.  I am indebted to my brother for life, L.A. Ruanto, who took a more than a week from his family to take me around the country.  The place has been kinder to me than I deserve.   Someone once said of travel that when you travel, you never feel completely home again, because you leave a piece of your heart behind.   That is certainly the case for me and the Philippines.  Nonetheless, I leave this place renewed by the inspiring leaders I’ve met, and hopeful that life won’t make me wait another 4.5 years before returning.

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