Thursday, July 4, 2019

Rooftop dreams

There used to be two ways to get to our home’s rooftop. One, you climb either of the two mango trees standing tall on both sides of the house. Second, you climb through the stairway-like metal leading

to the water tank at the back of the kitchen. April (my second sister) and I would always choose the first option, especially during summer, when the trees are bursting with fruits. We’d climb the one on the right side of the house, traversing from one branch to another as if God created each of those to accommodate our little hands and feet. At 4 in the afternoon, or 5, depending if there are still classes, we’d bring with us a knife, fish sauce, salt and water.
We would spend the first 15 minutes picking mango fruits. We’d watch people on their bikes pass through the once rugged, dusty highway, while the sun slowly dips over the horizon. We’d listen to our playmates looking for us. It’s time to catch dragonflies, they would say. Or play rubber band or chinese garter or patintero. 

On other days, we would immediately join them, but there will be days when sitting on the rooftop is way more appealing to us. Munching on the fruits, we would talk about our dreams and plans when we grow up. I’d tell her that I would support her when I get work. Then she would support our third sibling when she finishes her studies. We’d talk about not having boyfriends 'til we finish college so that the younger sisters will follow after us. I am not sure how we started those conversations. I can only give the credit to our parents who taught us to look after one another. 

At 6, we’d hear our house help (who also became our second parent) call our names. She would stand beside the mango tree, ready to catch whatever we brought with us on the rooftop. It’s time to shower and do your assignments, she would shout. By then, the sun has set. We could almost hear daddy in his owner-type jeep, arriving from work. We would then oblige. 
When we said our goodbyes after my 1-week vacation in Dubai last week, we had a good cry, just because there is no getting used to doing that. I am proud of the woman she’s become, the sister that our younger siblings can look up to. Everything we talked about during those afternoons is slowly coming to past. God has been faithful. There were plans that did not go according to our timeline but He showed us that His timing is always perfect. The world has become our rooftop, April and I. 
There are so much more we could have talked about - her life as a nurse in the desert of UAE, my latest deployment in Indonesia, our parents’ clamor for us to settle down soon, our sisters’ pursuit of their own dreams, but, like in the good old days, we heard the call. ‘It’s time to go down, you have assignments to do.’ 
Again, we had to oblige. There are dreams and plans we need to work on. For ourselves. For the family. So we hugged, said our I love yous, told each other to take care and that we’ll see each other soon. Like how our younger selves would anticipate the next afternoon, we took our separate ways looking forward to that next reunion, the next rooftop conversation, wherever in the world it may be.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

New year wishes

There are two things I try not to miss every December and January - celebrating Christmas with the family and writing myself a letter on new year’s day.

I failed to do the first one this 2017. When I was asked to support World Vision’s emergency response in Bangladesh, I knew I couldn’t come home for Christmas. The day came and passed with no Christmas carols, no family prayers and reunions, no Christmas lights dotting the shopping malls, houses and buildings. I have no regrets. More than one month since I arrived, I’ve been to a roller coaster ride of emotions. As a story teller, you cannot step in to the refugee camps without being challenged, without having questions, without feeling pain, tenderness, and rage and love all at the same time. Every time I go and leave the camp, I receive more than I give - smiles and songs from the children at World Vision’s child-friendly spaces, the trust of the refugees when they share their stories and the hospitality of my colleagues. Christmas away from home in the Philippines has not been as merry but it was as meaningful, perhaps even more.

The 3000 acre forest land is now a massive refugee camp, home to more than 860,000 refugees

I don’
t plan on missing my second tradition though. There’s something about new year notes that inspire me throughout the year.

So this new year, I wish us more time to spend with our family. I wish we can give more time for hugs, for more kisses, more catch up-over-a-cup-of-coffee with our loved ones. With all the busyness of this world, I hope we create more memories that we can look back to, especially when everything turns upside down. Brothers Faruk and Sharuk, two of the many refugee children are now deprived of that chance – no mother to lull them to sleep, no father to ride bicycle with. In a blink of an eye, they lost their parents to the violence. But the memory of their family keeps them going. The way Faruk was cared for by his parents is the way he is trying to love his younger brother. Theirs is an achingly tender story of survival but one that is a lovely reminder of how quality time with family can nurture a child, even in the hardest of times.

I wish us the generosity for affirmation, for kind and gentle words. In the camps, I’ve talked not just to the refugees, most who identify themselves as Rohingya, but also to host communities. With the outbreak of diseases and the sudden influx of more than 600,000 people since August 25, their lives have also drastically changed. It would have been easier to throw hurtful words, to be bitter. But some of the people I’ve talked to are now World Vision’s translators, women and child-friendly spaces facilitators. They are at the frontline, encouraging the refugees, sharing the spaces they used to call their own. Isn’t that the very essence of humanity, people caring for other people?

I hope we don’t stop dreaming. The roads may get bumpy but may we always hold on to the deepest hopes of our heart. I don’t know how children in the camps do it but there is something in them that is resolute and strong, unadulterated by the cruelty of their situation. 10-year old Rijuan, despite witnessing violence and losing his brother along the way is still determined to be a policeman someday. I will help keep all people safe, he shares. All people, not just his people. Shamima, despite losing everything in Myanmar, still hopes she could have at least saved her books. I want to teach other children to read and write. One day, I’ll be a head teacher. There is something about the refugee children’s eyes that make me pray hard at night, asking the Lord to show up, to make His presence felt to them.

More importantly, this new year, I wish we never get tired of loving. I wish us more love so we can give some more. This is a complex response with the refugees’ needs growing day by day. Interventions need to be scaled up lest we reach the tipping point, especially for children who comprise more than 50% of the refugee population.

As we welcome 2018 with fireworks and with the children in my home country blowing their party horns, Faruk, Sharuk, Rijuan, Shamima and the many more people affected by the violence face an uncertain future. I wish we find a way to get their stories told and retold. Even without going to the camps, even without hearing, seeing and even smelling their condition first hand, I hope the love in us will cause us to think of them, to pray for them, to give for them. If needed, I hope we get the courage to go, to temporarily leave our own families so we can be a family to them.

Perhaps through this, it will still be a happy new year for all of us.