By Thomas Nybo
TACLOBAN, Philippines, 18 February 2014 – UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham spent his Valentine’s Day visiting young survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.
For two days, Mr. Beckham toured Tacloban and the surrounding areas, which were among the hardest hit when the powerful storm ripped through the central Philippines 98 days ago.
“As a father, it was deeply moving to meet children as young as 2 who were left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing when sea and storm water swept through their villages during the typhoon,” said Mr. Beckham, who helped launch a UNICEF emergency appeal for funding just days after the storm.
While in the Tacloban area the past two days, he visited a number of UNICEF-supported sites, including the Santo Niño Elementary School, which sits on the coast and was leveled by Haiyan. The school’s principal, Marlon Tangpuz, said four of the school’s students died in the storm, and about nine out of ten children lost their homes. On the school grounds, UNICEF has installed three large tents, which are being used for classrooms and child-friendly play areas.
“Children who were caught up in Haiyan are still traumatized by their experience and need ongoing assistance,” said Mr. Beckham. “UNICEF delivered life-saving supplies when the typhoon hit, and they will now stay as long as they are needed and won’t let children down.”
Mr. Beckham visited dozens of children in their temporary classrooms at Santo Niño. In Edgie Mesias’ Grade 4 class, Mr. Beckham sat in the front of the sand-floored room and encouraged the 9-year-old boy to read aloud to the class – an act Edgie carried out with enthusiasm.
“Perfect,” Mr. Beckham said.
In a new UNICEF tent, assembled a week ago on the site of a destroyed classroom, Mr. Beckham handed out bags of school supplies to the young students. After helping them paint a colorful mural encouraging hand-washing, he led them to a nearby field for a rousing game of football.
UNICEF and its partners, through the distribution of school tents and learning supplies, have helped return some 420,000 children to the classroom. Recreation kits, and the creation of child-friendly spaces in weather-proof tents, are helping provide crucial psychosocial support, which is needed for children in difficult emergencies, like Haiyan.
Other stops on Mr. Beckham’s visit included a health centre, where UNICEF has supplied a special refrigerator that keeps polio vaccine properly chilled, even during frequent power outages. Mr. Beckham had the privilege of administering polio drops to Mary Kimberly Batis, a girl born one month after the typhoon.
At a mass grave, sitting on the grounds of a Catholic church just south of Palo, Mr. Beckham heard the story of a man who lost most of his family, including a total of 15 children and grandchildren. The makeshift wooden cross marking their gravesite was covered with hand-written Valentine’s Day cards and letters written to his daughter, who was a teacher.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Ma’am Arleen,” read the words written by a young child on a heart cut out of yellow paper. “We love you. We miss you.”
Before flying out of Tacloban, Mr. Beckham made one last stop. He visited the neighbourhood of Anibong, which sits at water’s edge. Few structures survived the typhoon and the storm surge, and the first thing a visitor notices upon arrival is the three massive ships that were washed ashore and remain on land. In the shadow of one of the ships, Mr. Beckham joined a water and sanitation team and helped distribute water kits earmarked for each of the 440 households living nearby. Because of the high presence of bacteria in many of the available water sources, says UNICEF WASH Specialist Tai Ring Teh, the chlorine tablets and 20-litre containers in the kits will help protect vulnerable children from such illnesses as diarrhoea and typhoid.
“Here in the Philippines, I have seen how public donations can have an incredible effect on children’s lives in an emergency,” said Mr. Beckham.