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Lessons worth more than ¥1 million

FILIPINO STUDENTS manning the ‘Bayanihan Haiyan Aid’ booth at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University cafeteria from Nov. 12-22

There are times in life when we doubt if any good can come out of a tragedy.  Other times, those doubts are erased, and a series of fortunate events leads to great and wondrous things. Six months after a terrible typhoon devastated Eastern Visayas, I look back and know I have been very blessed to be a witness to the latter—learning lessons that will sustain me through life’s unpredictable ups and downs.

I have been living in Japan for the past three years as an undergraduate student in a tiny city called Beppu located on Japan’s southern island, Kyushu (Oita Prefecture). I had just started my fourth year taking up Sustainable Development at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), an international university in Japan, when Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) struck.

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The magnitude of the disaster slowly revealed itself on news and social media.  Feeling utterly helpless and far away, our Filipino community of 16 students and 4 faculty at APU felt this immense need to help our fellow Filipinos in Eastern Visayas who were affected.

Although our little community has had its share of conflicts, we really came together and set all of that aside to focus on raising funds for the typhoon victims. There were even a few of us who had family members that were affected in Tacloban.

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COMMON HUMANITY Encouraging messages of many languages written by the students, guests and faculty

It was the first time for our community to have a fund-raising project and also for me to become the head of one.

Although it was the most exhausting project I have ever worked on, it has been the most rewarding experience so far, and this story is something that I will continue telling for as long as I live.  Little did our community know that this fund-raising project would end up becoming much bigger and greater than anything we ever dreamed of.

On the second week of November, we started to gather all the Filipinos and other students who volunteered to help out so we could plan what to do. We decided on six projects slated in the months of November and December last year, among them setting up a donation booth on campus and at a mall, calling for clothes and toys, setting up a food stall, and organizing a charity concert.  The overall fund-raiser we christened “Bayanihan Haiyan Aid.”

Media attention

We started on Nov. 12, with a simple booth on campus where students could drop their extra change and coins.  A reporter from Oita Broadcasting System, a local TV station, visited our university,  saw our booth and interviewed us for a story. The broadcast of our tiny fund-raising effort on local television was the trigger for a series of other events: The very next day, Japan’s major news network, NHK, also came to our booth to interview us and ask about our fund-raising project. The video clip was broadcast throughout Japan and eventually on NHK World.

Every single day within those two months, we were constantly surprised by the generosity pouring in from the students, faculty, staff and even locals from our city of Beppu. Staffers from the APU’s student office, alumni office and even the president’s office were all going out of their way to help us organize the events.

Then the Oita Prefectural Office of Gov. Katsusada Hirose contacted us: The Prefectural Office’s International Policy Division wanted to help the Filipino people and had a project idea.  We were so excited. They invited us for a short ceremony to inaugurate three donation boxes which they placed in three distinct areas of Oita City. Several news crews again featured the project, and I was so touched to see that one of the cameramen immediately placed a donation inside the box.

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Plea heeded

Back on campus, we were preparing for our benefit concert “Band-Aid” with the theme, “Band together, Aid each other.”  We put out a plea on Facebook asking APU students to help us put together a major event within a month. That day, I got more than 70 responses  from students of various nationalities—Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Uzbekistani, American, Nepali, Pakistani, Tongan, Fijian, German, Japanese and many more. With many meetings, lots of preparation and sound-checks, we eventually held our event which raised more than 120,000 yen (P53,000) in one night.

Amid all these, there were so many random acts of kindness from strangers I can never forget:

After seeing our video clip on TV, one Beppu citizen saw an APU student who he did not personally know on the public bus. He handed money to her saying, “Please give this money to the disaster fund-raiser that you students have on campus.”

One of the cleaning staffers at our student cafeteria would pass by our booth every day during that whole week. He silently gave whatever he could.

A taxi driver asked me where I was from. After knowing I came from the Philippines and hearing about our fund-raiser, he handed me a little as well.

I’ll never forget one of our greatest supporters during the benefit concert. Her name is Distry, an Indonesian student and one of my friends in my batch. She had just spent a couple of sleepless nights helping to fix our merchandise and background decorations before the event. During the event, I saw Distry looking at our gallery of photos that showed pictures of the disaster and the people affected by Yolanda. I saw that she was crying. She looked at me, and we hugged each other feeling this common sense of helplessness and being completely overwhelmed by the devastation.

Reciprocation

An Oita citizen was one of the first people to call us up during our first week of operations. We did not know him at all, but he just went out of his way to help us out.  He offered to organize a fund-raising event in front of one of the major department stores in Oita City. He offered to reserve the area, to make sure all the permits were OK and  even to help us make posters.  Just by standing outside the department store, we were able to receive around 150,000 yen (P66,000) in just five hours!

One of the most touching memories is about a stranger that I met during a short trip to Nagasaki, where  I represented  our school in an educational TV show called “Nippon Jirenma.” During that whole event, I never mentioned our relief efforts. I only told them that I was a Filipino student who had an interest in disaster relief as a career. After the event, one person in the audience  came up to me and handed me 10,000 yen.

“Why?” I asked. “Why would you give so much to a stranger?”

“After seeing the news, I wanted to make sure I gave through a Filipino. I also never forgot how your country helped us after the  earthquake-and-tsunami  disaster of March 11, 2011,” was his heartfelt reply.

By the end of December, we were able to raise what for us was an astounding amount of 1,105,109 yen.  We were completely blown away. Words could not express how grateful we were for the trust, guidance and help APU and the Japanese people gave our fund-raising team.

 

Incredible humanity

Although a million yen may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the massive donations sent to help the victims of Yolanda by governments and big international institutions, I still believe that raising more than a million yen in a campaign initiated by mere students within two months was nothing less than  extraordinary. We gave the  funds to the Philippine Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity Philippines by January 2014.

There are many people out there who heard about the horrendous disaster of Yolanda, the survivors’ heart-wrenching ordeals and how they tried to cope, and these touched something within them. They might have never seen, met or known a Filipino, yet they chose to give something of themselves; whether that be time, effort or money. Japan’s Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, the city of Beppu, Oita Prefecture and the Japanese people have shown us that they care about the Philippines—and this incredible humanity that is shared by us all is something we should celebrate.

Always remembering the small but truly heartfelt efforts of Filipinos overseas and their friends all over the world to raise funds for victims of that devastating typhoon should spur government officials to speed up rehabilitation efforts.—Ed.

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TAGS: Disaster, Eastern Visayas, Haiyan, Yolanda
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