Buddhist charity aids storm-ravished Philippines

Despite the Philippines' long Christian tradition, the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity, is winning many thank yous in devastated Tacloban.

By , Correspondent

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    A giant Christmas star lantern is seen in a devastated area of Tacloban in the central Philippines in late December 2013. Super typhoon Haiyan swept ashore Nov. 8 killing at least 6,069 people and leaving 4 million either homeless or with damaged homes. A Buddhist charity from Taiwan has won the gratitude of many in Tacloban by providing funds to help clean up the area.
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Dotted around the storm-wrecked city of Tacloban in the central Philippines are notices thanking not the government, the United Nations, or the Roman Catholic Church. They give gratitude to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity that made its presence felt in the weeks after a devastating November typhoon.

"Maraming Salamat Po [thank you very much] Tzu Chi Foundation," reads one such cloth banner draped over a ruined shopfront on Tacloban's smashed-up waterfront, a half mile or so from the town's main Catholic church, Santo Niño.

The Philippines' 82 million Catholics comprise the third-biggest such population, behind Brazil and Mexico. It is a country known for public displays of devotion, taking in such elemental pageantry as annual voluntary and nonlethal crucifixions in memory of the death of Jesus.

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Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus, is a much more joyous celebration. But in this central Philippines town of 220,000, though churches were full and battered villages festooned with impromptu Christmas trees fashioned out of storm debris, Christmas in Tacloban was overshadowed by death and destruction.
 
Despite the overt Christianity that the Philippines is known for, a foreign Buddhist charity is winning most of the local plaudits after paying 500 pesos ($11) a day to cashless and sometimes jobless people whose homes or businesses were wrecked or put out of action by the storm.
 
Joey Ricote lives across the road from Tacloban's Buddhist temple, which faces the same water which rose so destructively on the morning of Nov. 8, 2013 – a storm surge whipped up by 200 m.p.h. winds in one of the strongest storms on record.
 
Mr. Ricote has already rebuilt his shack using bits of wood, plastic, and metal he says he took from the street – bits of shoreline houses that did not survive the storm.
 
He was one of those who took up Tzu Chi on its 500 pesos a day rate for cleaning up the city, and also received a 12,000 peso ($269) cash donation to rebuild his house.
 
"Yeah, I'm happy to have heard from Tzu Chi," he says.
 
Monica Sy, the Tzu Chi Foundation representative in Tacloban, says that the 19-day-long cash-for-work program included 280,000 paid working days, while 38,000 families benefited from the rebuilding donations.
 
"The assistance was not just financial," she says. "People were in shock, depressed. We wanted to inspire them to clean up and to get back to work," she says.
 
The lavish outlay seems to have come no-strings-attached, and local clergymen have welcomed the Buddhist group's generosity. Monsignor Alex Opiniano, a priest at Santo Niño church, said that Tzu Chi based itself on church grounds when it first arrived in Tacloban after the storm.
 
"The Tzu Chi style of extending assistance has been very direct, giving cash aid to the people," he says, adding that "it was motivated by love, a desire to help others."
 
Charlie Labarda, a Tacloban council member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, part of the 10 percent of Filipinos listed as non-Catholic Christians, says that Tzu Chi Foundation's assistance was timely.
 
Speaking in the upstairs of a half-ruined church building, Dr. Labarda explains that "they were the ones who planted themselves in the public imagination as they came in at a critical time when people didn't have anything."
 
Labarda's churchin Tacloban, a congregation of around 350 people, has been working since the storm with American and South Korean church groups to carry out shelter and classroom repair, as well as support foreign medical missions.
 
Discussing the Tzu Chi Foundation's assistance, he says "even the elderly could participate, as it wasn't heavy work, cleaning up the streets, and the town benefited from the clean-up. The city needed this kind of intervention."
 
Standing under a downtown Tacloban sign reading "Tzu Chi Foundation!! Thank you very much for your generosity!" Roquena Lerios says that her family did not have access to the cash for work program.
 
Living along the storm-battered coast 19 miles outside Tacloban, beyond the reach of the Tzu Chi Foundation's operations, Ms. Lerios says "I hope they will give to another town," referring to the assistance.
 
But some Tacloban business people took issue with the Tzu Chi Foundation's daily payment, which at 500 pesos paid twice as much as the government's own cash-for-work program and around the same as what a schoolteacher gets, according to Julita Cordero, a teacher at the ruined Panaloran School in Tacloban.
 
One of those angry about the distortions the payments brought to the local economy is Joseph Bonavitacola, an Italian-American restaurateur and businessman based in Tacloban, where he founded Guiseppe's, a well-known Italian eatery, in 1992.
 
Guiseppe's was badly damaged by the storm, but re-opened in time for Christmas.
 
"We've had a hard time," he says, discussing the losses not only to the restaurant but to plantations where he grew basil and other Italian food staples.

The losses have not been just material, but human, to Mr. Bonavitacola, who has had to make to do with new staff since some of the previous, more experienced employees took up the 500 pesos a day offer from the Tzu Chi Foundation.
 
"I will not accept people who did not come back to work" after the storm, Bonavitacola says, asked if former staff who want to return once the Tzu Chi Foundation payouts have stopped will find their old jobs waiting for them.
 
Ms. Sy, the Tzu Chi Foundation representative, says she is aware of concerns among local business owners that the cash-for-work program offered rates that employers could not compete with. However she feels that overall, the program benefited Tacloban's shattered economy after the storm.
 
"We injected money into the local economy, which we hope helped demand, and in turn helped businesses get going again," she says.

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