As Unicef UK Executive Director I have seen the physical destruction and the human consequences of many natural and man-made disasters all over the world - earthquakes, tsunamis, famine and war. Every one is different and you can never become accustomed to the suffering, especially of children. But the strongest impression is of the determination to survive and the resilient human spirit. Our task is to help the children and families hit by tragedy to survive, recover, rebuild and fulfil their potential - to ensure as far as possible that the damage is temporary and not permanent, and where we can to build back better. This impression is the overwhelming one I am left with after my visit to Tacloban and the areas of the Philippines devastated by the strongest storm ever to make landfall, 6000 died and millions have seen their lives transformed - lost family members, lost or damaged homes and schools and initial shortages of food, water, fuel and all the necessities of life.
But just six weeks later the overwhelming impression is of the determination of the people there to look forward rather than back. They call themselves survivors, not victims. . And from the worst imaginable chaos of the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, it is amazing to see that here has been so much progress. Tacloban is humming with energy, smiles are returning to the faces of the children (though not yet all), and the city and its people are imbued with an incredibly optimistic spirit. So much has been achieved already, though many challenges remain.
I even attended a children's Christmas party at a school that had been completely demolished by the typhoon. There were Christmas carols, songs, play and smiles in the two big Unicef tents that are now the school buildings of San Roque school, just along the coast from Tacloban. The school has received supplies from Unicef and the teachers have taken up their duties again despite their own suffering. Many of these children are living in tents, or in homes without roofs or windows. We arrived, after a journey through the destruction, amid torrential rain, and left in bright sunshine, as though the spirit of the children and their teachers had changed the weather in reality, as well as in our hearts.
Huge efforts have been made to ensure children don't miss out on their education. Since the typhoon struck, teachers have been working to help children resume learning even in the absence of books and classrooms. All over the islands, communities are working together to clean schools. Almost 200 classroom-sized tents have been erected for some 20,000 students, and over 50,000 children are benefitting from Unicef school supplies. The Philippines Government re-opened many schools in Tacloban and the surrounding areas earlier this month.
Attending class instils a much-needed sense of routine and normality amidst the aftermath of a natural disaster. For the 5.8million children affected by Haiyan, school offers a safe space to remember that they are children, to play and to begin the process of healing from the emotional damage of all they have experienced.
It also gives parents, struggling to cope at an incredibly stressful time, the opportunity to deal with other aspects of their lives - such as finding food, rebuilding homes and securing work - all in the knowledge their children are safe.
Along the beachfront road, enormous ships have been washed ashore, crushing people's homes. Here Unicef has provided toilets and water supplies, and distributed hygiene kits.. But amid the hammering of people rebuilding their homes, the things the children loved most were the Unicef blue balloons, which ran out very quickly. There is enterprise in this city too. One family had invested in a generator and were selling the chance for people to charge their mobile phones in a city without power. Cafes and restaurants are beginning to re-open and market stalls are setting up along the streets, in the shade of buildings that were flooded 6 weeks ago, up to their first or second floors, by the enormous tidal surge driven by the typhoon.
The typhoon's survivors are fighting, with every thread of strength and energy, determined to recover from the devastation. And Unicef is there on the ground, supporting them each step of the way.
While this is good news and immense progress has been made - much of which is thanks to the incredible generosity of the UK public - we must not forget the children of the Philippines. This is especially true at Christmas, as our own children break up for the festive holidays and prepare to be showered with love, celebration and gifts.
Looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, Unicef will support the people of the Philippines, working with the Government, to re-open schools, to re-construct the vaccine cold chain, to ensure that water, health, education and child protection systems are re-established and as resilient as possible to future natural disasters...This is a long-term task but just as vital as the immediate response that has achieved so much in recent weeks.
As we celebrate our own Christmas and New Year holidays, Unicef staff are responding to many emergencies, from Syria to the Central African Republic, and now in South Sudan, as well as continuing to work alongside the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. The generosity of millions of people has helped make our efforts possible and has brought hope to children who have had to face unimaginable suffering and hardship. We couldn't do it without you. As the card I was given as I left the Philippnes said - thank you to all those who have helped.
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