Student stirs volunteer spirit in storm-ravaged Philippines


He knows he can’t afford to feed all the displaced victims of Tropical Storm Washi that hit the southern Philippines in December.

Nor can he match the strength of local construction workers whom he and his fellow volunteers from outside the Philippines have helped recently at relocation sites.

But 20-year-old Issey Tanaka, a second-year student at Keio University in Tokyo, believes he can motivate victims to help themselves, and encourage local residents to help them as well, by visiting the disaster area and engaging in various volunteer assistance jobs.

Since the tragedy struck the northern part of Mindanao Island on Dec. 16, killing more than 1,200 people and injuring more than 6,000, Tanaka has made three trips to volunteer his efforts, mainly in Cagayan de Oro City, the worst-hit area.

“Our objective really is to make this a symbolic visit. We are foreigners who came all the way to the tragedy site. We wanted the victims to know that they are not alone, and we want local students to be conscious and aware and do volunteer work as well,” Tanaka said in late March after wrapping up his third visit.

The first trip, which lasted about three weeks beginning Christmas Day, saw him packing, sorting and distributing relief goods, including food items and used clothes, on a local university campus.

It also brought him to nearby Iligan City, another ravaged area.

Tanaka said that even though he was in the middle of his studies at the time, information he obtained from a Filipino friend about the tragedy spurred him to engage in volunteer assistance jobs.

“I did research about Sendong (the local name for Tropical Storm Washi) on the Internet, but there wasn’t much information. So I was shocked and ashamed that nobody seems to be doing anything about it. I decided to skip school and go directly to Cagayan de Oro,” he said.

Going to the devastated sites and interacting with the victims affirmed Tanaka’s earlier impression of how serious the situation was.

What he found particularly wanting was the amount of help from outside compared with what Thailand received for the severe floods in 2011. Tanaka said he spent all of October doing volunteer work in Bangkok.

Thus, on his return to Japan by the second half of January, Tanaka “decided to start some campaign” from his homeland for the victims in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.

He reached out to nongovernmental organizations and the media in Japan, but his efforts were futile.

A bank account that was opened for monetary donations, as suggested by one of the NGOs, didn’t receive much, while one newspaper told him the disaster didn’t really have the same international impact as the Thai floods or the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

“I was shocked at how the mass media care only about the economy, rather than the humanitarian aspect. I realized we just can’t trust adults. So I should just focus on my fellow students. That’s when I started a campaign on Facebook and thought of sending Japanese students to Cagayan de Oro to do volunteer work,” Tanaka said.

For 20 days in February, Tanaka was in Cagayan de Oro with four other students.

Using their own money, they bought kitchen materials, toilet paper, shoes and other items to distribute in the evacuation centers.

But seeing the more pressing need for either temporary or permanent shelters two months after the tragedy, Tanaka and his friends decided to divert their efforts to construction activities.

According to Philippine social welfare officials, around 5,000 families who lost their homes to Washi are housed temporarily in evacuation centers and tent cities. The government aims to move 80 percent of them to permanent settlements by the middle of this year.

For a more organized “work camp” during his third trip, Tanaka, joined by more than a dozen students, hooked up with Habitat for Humanity to help build housing. That visit lasted from March 10 to 22.

“When we think about what we gained from this experience as volunteers, we realized it was such a cheap trip. When you say ‘volunteer,’ it sounds like giving something like time and effort. But you really gain more than what you give,” Tanaka said.

Charles Joseph Chin, a 20-year-old volunteer from Iligan City, praised Tanaka’s group for their passion to help, saying, “They don’t complain even if it’s very hot, or the job is heavy, or if it’s dirty.

“Our guest volunteers lifted the spirits of the victims in the tent city, especially the kids. They feel they are not alone in fighting their situation,” Chin said.

For Tanaka, what makes Filipino victims different are their smiles during harrowing times. “It’s nice to see some victims regenerating their lives,” he said.

Tanaka has also participated in reconstructing castles in Europe and has helped in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.