It all started with a simple Facebook post—” Can you share your Christmas with the children from Marawi?” The post did not go unnoticed and friends such as Senator Ralph Recto, and Marivic Espano blessed us with their generosity. Sam Rayala volunteered to be our Santa. Governor Josie de la Cruz sent a thousand hygiene kits. My former DOF colleagues, Malou Recente, and Annie de Leon chipped in and shared their 13th month pay. With their genuine care and concern, they paved the way for our Christmas in Marawi.
Work stopped in our office for days. There were toys and school supplies to buy and to wrap. Chingkel wanted the children to experience what it feels to unwrap presents on Christmas day. But with thousands of presents, wrapping them did not prove simple. They had to be color- coded based on gender, grade level and school. The staff headed by Minie volunteered to work overtime and during weekends.
Transporting them was another production number. We pretended to be blind to the dagger looks of passengers whom we totally inconvenienced because we checked-in loads and loads of boxes at the airport. It did not help any that the plane had engine trouble midway in the air and had to fly back. After hundreds of Hail Mary and Glory Be, the Synergeia mentors and staff landed safely in Laguindingan airport. To their relief, Ma’am Toting Potenciano and the vehicles lent by Mayor Oscar Moreno were patiently waiting.
The morning sun was up the following morning. The road to Sagonsongan Elementary School which houses the student–evacuees was unpaved, muddy and hilly. Its first victim was Mayor Diding Gamboa who bravely stood up after slipping. His clothes were covered with mud but he gamely took his place in the assembly line which was directed by Sunny Sevilla. Our unpaid laborers Dindo, Halil, Khalid, and Dino, lifted the boxes from the truck without a crane. Luigi Bernas, Mayor Rey Aquino, and Marvs Trinidad from Xavier were drenched with sweat. I tried to shield my face so as not to add more sun spots. But what the heck, the children were waiting. Muslim children do not celebrate Christmas, but they instantly recognized Santa Claus. They shrieked with delight as they received art sets, colored pens, fuzzy toys, water games, and muffins. The queues seemed to get longer as high school students, parents, and barangay residents joined the throng. Some children queued up more than once. Some others hid presents under their shirts so that they can “smuggle” extra toys for their siblings at home. But we did not mind. Like the miracle in Cana, the gifts seemed to multiply. We were so happy that there were more children who refused to take another gift because they have had their share.
We took time out to chat animatedly with the children. Their temporary shelters are still without water and they are totally dependent on rain. Their parents remain without jobs. They survive on relief goods and suffer hunger when help from government and the private sector does not come. But the hope that they can go home one day makes them smile.
We were warmly welcomed in all the schools we visited: Bae Inomba and Abdul Azis Elementary Schools. Their children are without books, and with inadequate and dilapidated classrooms and chairs. They are without toilets, and libraries. Even schools were not spared from looting. But the children had smiles on their faces and welcomed us with songs and dances. They had placards which said “Thank you.”. Many of them hugged Santa and tugged at his beard to see if they were real. We were so happy to be in the company of special children. They were physically challenged, but they looked so beautiful in our sight.
We were dead tired on the plane back to Manila. We were dehydrated and felt the discomfort of having no bathrooms during the day. But we had no right to complain. The children of Marawi go through these challenges every day. Like the Child who was born on Christmas day, they must be truly special.