LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines – Around 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in February, a cloud of black smoke began to permeate the sky in a densely populated settlement called Victory Village near the city’s seaport. Cracks and pops filled the air, broadcasting the sounds of faulty electrical wires and petroleum gas tanks erupting into flames. Word spread through the crowded barangay, or community, that flimsy homes constructed of rotting wood and bamboo were burning — quickly.
Eight-year-old Viel, a sponsored child, was at a first communion rehearsal with his mother, Annie, when they heard the news. They raced home only to find a pile of rubble where there was once a one-room structure made of plywood and corrugated metal.
Viel’s youngest brother was walking toward them barefoot and wide-eyed, saying, “Our house is gone. It’s burnt.”
Life in Victory Village has never been easy for Viel and his family. Located within the boundaries of Legazpi City, nearly all of the barangay’s 3,600 inhabitants are informal settlers, including 195 sponsored children. According to the latest World Bank report, 38% of the urban Filipino population was living in similar slums or informal settlements as of 2014.
Watch this video to get a closer look inside Victory Village.
Viel’s family, like other settlers in the barangay, make do with very little, and they’re all too familiar with disasters and the resulting destruction of property and homes. In addition to recurring electrical fires (this was the third in recent years), the village also deals with natural disasters, including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoons.
Abysmal living conditions and limited access to running water or electricity add to the instability of Viel’s life. Homes made of scrap lumber hover on stilts over open, contaminated water. Every day, Viel and other children make their way around the village, teetering across narrow boards that serve as rickety makeshift bridges. Other problems include the transmission of illnesses and contagious diseases because of poor sanitation and waste management, high crime rates and drug-related incidences, according to Maria Lourdes, agency director for Children International Bicol.
Work opportunities are also limited. Viel’s father is a construction worker, making about $38 a week when he can find work, while others work as day laborers or fisherman. Household incomes average $6 to $7 per day, according to Mariel Deblois, mother of a sponsored child and a Children International volunteer. Because many residents cannot afford basic necessities, illegally tapping into other households for access to clean water and electricity is a common practice, she explains. One that puts the entire village at risk.
Over time, all of these issues take a heavy and lasting toll on children like Viel. Growing up in an unstable environment can negatively impact a child’s brain development, which can follow them well into adulthood and limit their future choices.
“They are unusually silent,” Annie notes, having observed a change in her children’s behavior. “They’re also easily alarmed by stimulus, anything that reminds them of the smell of the fire.”
Traumatic events like a fire, combined with the daily stresses of living in poverty, leave children like Viel in constant fear of the next disaster.
For months now, families whose homes were destroyed by the fire have been crammed into overflowing shelters at the Victory Village Elementary School and Barangay Hall, a local community center. As for Viel and Annie, their family of seven is staying in a single room at a neighbor’s already crowded house.
It’s hard for Annie, who just gave birth to her fifth child, to imagine a future for her family now that their home is gone. Her husband is a construction worker, but jobs are tough to come by. With an average daily income of 300 pesos, or $6 US, the family cannot afford to rebuild without government assistance. “We don’t know what we’ll prioritize,” Annie explains through tears. “Is it my delivery*, or is it rebuilding the house?”
The stability, security and medical support you provide through your Children International sponsorship is critical for Viel.
Currently squeezed into a tiny home with 12 people, Annie and Viel’s family of seven eats and sleeps in a single cramped room. Food is becoming scarce. The rice they were given by the Department of Social Welfare and Development is beginning to run out. School is out for the summer, but when it starts back up, the family’s budget will get even tighter, Annie says. Soon, the family will be evicted again when the neighbor’s house is demolished to make way for the new dike.
While the family waits for financial assistance to come through, Viel wishes for a stable home of their own. “I want a house that is made of cement … that has a bathroom, a kitchen and bedrooms,” he says.
Annie continues to emphasize the importance of staying positive and focusing on what matters.
“Even though life is tiring … even though sometimes we have nothing to eat,” she says, “at least we [will] … have a home to live in. That’s what a home is for me — it is where we are complete.”
In the Bicol region of the Philippines, Victory Village (originally built over a swamp) is now home to 3,600 informal settlers. According to residents, it’s been an informal settlement since World War II, when American forces first visited the area and gave the community its name.
Today, most Victory Village residents have migrated from vulnerable, rural, coastal areas such as Rapu-Rapu Island and Manito. The village has its own school and is close to the city center, so families continue to come — hoping to find consistent work, education for their children and a better quality of life.