Reggy Figer saw the news. A rapidly intensifying typhoon was heading towards his family in Tacloban. Concerned and nearly 3,000 km away in Nagoya, Figer sent a text message to his sister, Aileen Rose Figer-Peru, asking her to go to his parents’ home.
The next day, on Nov. 8 last year, Typhoon Haiyan wrought havoc to the Philippines, claiming over 6,000 lives and destroying an estimated 50,000 homes in Tacloban alone. It is said to have been one of the most powerful and destructive typhoons on record.
Anxious about his family, Figer had to wait two full days for news. He tried calling. The phone lines were down. He posted on Facebook. No one responded. Only after reaching out to contacts in Japan was he able to learn anything. A friend asked her brother in the Philippines to check on Figer’s parents and sister.
After coming home from church on Sunday, Nov. 10, Figer received a phone call: Aileen never returned to her parents’ home; she had stayed at her in-laws, where she was living at the time. Aileen, age 34, drowned in their basement. Figer’s elderly parents survived, but remained trapped inside their flood-damaged home, fearing rebel attacks, looters and violence outside, in what was becoming an increasingly unstable situation.
Worried for their safety, Figer persuaded his parents to relocate with family in Cebu where he would meet them. His parents were escorted to the airport, where they were forced to camp out for two days before catching a flight. Exactly one week after the typhoon struck, Figer was able to reunite with his parents in Cebu. Sadly, he was not able to take much time off from his teaching position at the Nagoya University of Commerce and Business. After a short visit, Figer returned to Japan and resumed teaching to support his parents.
“I set aside my emotions to be functional, because I need to earn money to build my parents a new house,” says Figer.
With spring break now in session, Figer is planning to visit his parents, who have returned to Tacloban, again in the coming weeks. While home he will hold a memorial for Aileen.
“I want us close to celebrate her life, her goodness, her greatness,” says Figer.
Figer and Aileen studied together at the University of Tsukuba. Figer earned his Ph.D. in Media Studies and Communication Research in 2011. In the same year, Aileen finished a Teacher Training Program in Special Education. Upon graduating and with thoughts of starting a family, Aileen returned to the Philippines to work and be with her husband.
“Tsukuba will always have a special place in my heart. Me and my sister have built very wonderful memories there. It deepened our ties together as siblings. My sister was my ally in all my undertakings. And she had me too as her morale booster. We were best friends,” says Figer.
While studying in Tsukuba, the two siblings were active members of the Association of Filipino Scholars in Tsukuba (FAST). The organization originated in the 1980s as an informal group through which Filipino students and scholars could meet and discuss their studies and life in Japan. The association now participates in cultural fairs at the university and organizes welcome parties for new students. Members include undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, teachers and researchers.
One week after the typhoon struck, FAST president Sakura Maezono learned of Aileen’s death. She quickly got busy networking to check on former members residing in the Visayas, the island group hardest hit by Haiyan. She learned of others who had lost family or whose homes had been badly damaged.
Eager to mobilize FAST in the relief efforts, Maezono says she approached the vice-president of the university to start a fund drive. Together with Japanese students, FAST collected a total of ¥830,521, which they donated to the Red Cross.
A separate donation of ¥107,263 was given, with the help of Figer, to two elementary schools in Tacloban. Maezono is now discussing with members ways to offer continued long-term assistance to other schools.
In addition to fundraising, FAST strategically mobilized its former members in the Philippines. A clothes drive was launched in Japan and the donations were sent to them. They in turn distributed the clothes to people in their communities.
Aid was also given to affected members. To help them in their trying moments, financial support was given to the Figer family. Maezono presented a video tribute to Aileen at a forum she organized in which both students and university staff discussed the typhoon.
“We didn’t spend a lot of time together, But Aileen was one of the nicest people I ever met in my life. When I heard of her passing away it was really painful for me. Whenever I needed advice or someone to talk to she was there for me,” says Maezono.
NGO started after 3/11 now aids Visayas region
Sagip Japan, a Nagoya-based NGO, has been aiding Filipinos in Tohoku affected by the 3/11 triple disaster since 2011.
Filipinos in the region are becoming all too familiar with catastrophic natural disasters. Not only is the tsunami undoubtedly haunting their consciousness as the third anniversary approaches, but their thoughts are also surely with loved ones affected by Typhoon Haiyan or, as Filipinos refer to it, Typhoon Yolanda.
“We came in contact with many Filipinos in Tohoku who have family and friends in the Visayas,” says Cesar Santoyo, executive director of the Center for Japanese Filipino Families, one of Sagip Japan’s partners.
Filipinos throughout Japan were impacted by Haiyan, in areas far from the disaster zone. Sagip Japan offered donations of cash and goods to some of these individuals to send to family back home. The organization has been more active in sending relief aid directly to the Philippines. According to Sagip Japan coordinator Nestor Puno, to date the group has collected ¥2 million, which was sent to the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center, an NGO in Manila.
The CDRC’s fundraising drive is still in progress, and the NGO is organizing a benefit concert and cultural performance for Haiyan victims. The event — featuring Filipino and Japanese singers and multicultural performances from the Philippines, Japan, Korea, China and Brazil — will take place in Nagoya at Higashi Betsuin Hall 3F in Sakae on Sunday, March 9 (3-6 p.m.). The admission fee is ¥1,500 and proceeds will be donated to the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. For further information and tickets, call 090-9224-0922.
Financial contributions to aid the relief and rebuilding efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda can be sent to the following account. All donations will be forwarded to the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. Account Name: SAGIP Japan. Account Number: 12100-25911311 (For banks other than JP Bank: 2591131/Branch: 218). Bank Name: Japan Postal Bank or JP Bank.