Children play at a UNICEF shelter for typhoon survivors in the village of Abucay in Tacloban (Photo by Vincent Go)
The village of San Joaquin sits a kilometer inland from the sea, but it wasn’t far enough to spare Ryan Requiez’s family. When Typhoon Haiyan hit this part of the Philippines a year ago, the huge waves crashed into his village and swept his parents away.
Of the 12 members of his family, only he, his 17-year-old brother and an aunt survived. Requiez, now 13, could only watch as the waves tore his parents away.
“I saw them reaching out as they were carried away by the water. But I didn’t have enough strength to grab them,” he recalled this week. “The current was too strong.”
Haiyan is the most powerful typhoon on record to ever hit the Philippines, and it was here in Leyte province that it struck the hardest. Requiez’s parents, Maria Luisa and Elizalde, were among an estimated 7,500 killed or still missing in the provinces of Leyte and Samar alone.
The remains of his father and other relatives were found days after the storm. His mother's body was only retrieved a month later. At least 2,000 others remain missing up to this day.
“They were wonderful parents to me,” Requiez said. “They gave me everything I wanted.”
A year after Typhoon Haiyan, survivors are continuing to build back their lives. For orphans like Requiez and his brother, the task is that much more magnified.
Nestor Ramos, director of the social welfare office in the region, told ucanews.com that his office only counts 111 orphans, or "unaccompanied children”. Requiez and his brother were among that number, until their aunt built a hut in their village and took them in. But Ramos admits the figure represents only those children who have received direct help from his office.
“The figure is unbelievable. It’s not accurate,” said Paul Escalona, a spokesman for People’s Surge, an alliance of typhoon survivors. “At least 2,000 people are still missing, and many of them have children who are now living with relatives.”
The elderly, too, have struggled in the storm’s aftermath. Data from the National Statistics Office show that the typhoon impacted about 1.27 million people over the age of 60 — or eight percent of the reported 16 million people who lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones.
Despite the loss, however, survivors like 71-year-old Erlinda Yabao are trying to maintain a positive outlook.
“It’s a new life and a new beginning,” Yabao said, perched outside a makeshift store she set up on the outskirts of Tacloban City.
After the typhoon hit, Yabao received help from the non-governmental organization HelpAge International to open a small store and food outlet.
“Now we make sure we have some savings from these businesses,” she said.
Another recipient of the aid, Virgilio Virola, 60, said projects that involved the elderly have given them "reason to continue living".
The rebuilding of schools and other structures continues a year after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the province of Leyte (Photo by Vincent Go)
'It will never bring my parents back'
Of the 4.1 million people uprooted by Haiyan, most have returned home or have relocated in the last 12 months.
The government, however, estimates that 5,000 families — about 20,000 people — remain in 56 formal displacement sites across the typhoon-affected areas. They continue to live in tented camps, transitional shelters, and evacuation centers.
"One year on, the country has made impressive achievements in recovery," said Bernard Kerblat, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, although he expressed concern over the situation of those who are still in temporary shelters.
A recent UNHCR protection assessment noted that survivors in these temporary shelters remain vulnerable.
Nila Gacuno, 58, who lost her husband and five other family members, said living in a temporary bunker house, instead of inside a tent, is a blessing in itself. But what she really needs in order to rebuild her life is a permanent home.
"When my husband was still alive, he worked hard for our house," Gacuno said. “Now that it is destroyed, my only prayer is that I can have a home to move on.”
Rechell Oquino, 32, is in a similar position.
“My family needs to have a place we can call our own,” she said.
As the anniversary of Haiyan’s landfall comes to pass November 8, some survivors have had time for introspection.
“There are lots of lessons we have to realize from Haiyan,” said Joyce Yongque, a schoolteacher. “Maybe God has reasons [why] it happened. For me, I have realized the value of the people around you.”
Yongque, who lost two of her students during the typhoon, says the challenge now is to nurture a “seed of hope” amid all the loss.
Ryan Requiez, the 13-year-old orphaned by the storm, says he is ready to move past grief.
“I am already tired of crying,” he said. “It will never bring my parents back.”
Weeks after the typhoon’s waves had retreated back to the sea, Requiez sifted through the pile of debris that used to be his family’s home. He dug out a small plastic bag. Inside it was an old picture: Requiez, dressed in the white robes and mortarboard cap of a grade school graduate, his mother, wearing light make-up and jewelry, clutching his hand.
Every day, Requiez tucks the picture into his notebook and brings it to class with him. On Haiyan’s anniversary, Requiez will walk to the grave of his parents, light a candle and offer a prayer.
What he wants his parents to know is that he has his eyes on the future. His father always wanted him to be a lawyer.
“I want to tell them that I am not losing hope and I want to fulfill my dreams,” he said. “I will do my best to make my father’s wish come true.”
Ryan Requiez with his mother during his graduation from grade school (Photo courtesy of Ryan Requiez)