She sat contentedly at the back of a room filled with ladies and young girls happily learning to cross-stitch. Her 5-year-old daughter gently combed her hair. For that small bit of time, she could relax. She wore a bright smile despite the difficult life she had led. Slight of build and non-assuming, at 28 years of age, she possessed a quiet inner strength.
Her hometown was the small city of Kawayan in the Philippines. Her husband was a fisherman, and they lived peacefully in a hut by the sea, with her mother, father, and children. Three years previously, and ten days after the birth of her third child, Typhoon Yolanda hit Kawayan. Her home was destroyed. Thankfully, all of her family survived; however, she suffered a stroke leaving her paralyzed. Her husband simply walked away.
Her mother and father carried her by stretcher, along with her two small children and infant son, to the slums of Bacolod city. They moved in with her grandmother and sought to eke out a life there. The road to recovery was a difficult one. She slowly, and at times with great agony, regained movement in her body. Over time she recovered. Her husband never returned. She was left to bear a heavy burden, to raise her three children as a single mother.
As we walked to her house, I carefully watched where I placed my feet. The uneven path of packed dirt contained a multitude of holes and rocks to stumble over. This part of the neighborhood was dark, with shacks at times built on top of each other, so close together they blocked out the sun. It was damp and dreary even though the sky was clear. It was mid-day. Looking through my first-world binoculars, everything appeared as gray, covered in a layer of soot from the wood and coal burning fires.
Entering her home, a strong smell of ammonia hit me. The community had no running water. Trash was strewn around and neighbors could be seen through the spaces in the bamboo constructed walls. Preparing to sit on the plastic chair she offered, a rat ran close to my foot. Inwardly, I shivered but tried not to react as I lowered myself onto the chair. Smoke drifted in from the wood burning fire just outside the front door.
Feeling saddened by the surroundings, there was a surreal familiarity to it all. It was a flashback to various places I’d been to in India and Mongolia. The physical appearance of poverty looks much the same. It is a dreadful reality for so many in our world. Witnessing these conditions is like a punch to the stomach. It often takes my breath away. I felt off-kilter and asked myself the question, as I’ve asked many times before, “How do they endure?” The answer is complicated, as well as deeply personal and unique for each one who suffers.
In spite of the surroundings, there was a kind of light that dwelt in this home. Sitting together with this young woman and her three precious children, including her parents and grandmother who hovered nearby, she wept as she recounted her story. As this family huddled together, the love that held them together felt like a warm and soothing presence. Their love was her source of strength.