Volunteers at tents, makeshift shelters keep kids busy

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ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines —The white Philippine Air Force tent is in the middle of the city’s sports complex, ringed by rubber track and just a little off-center of the football pitch.

It is surrounded by smaller tents and makeshift shelters—blue and orange tarps, blankets slung over wooden bars held together by two poles driven to the ground on opposite sides.

It is 11:30 a.m. and scorchingly hot, but the athletic facility is filled with people evacuated from coastal villages where fighting between government troops and members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction led by Nur Misuari has been raging for seven days.

Inside the white tent are about 50 children sitting on bare earth, drawing with crayons on white bond paper.

Social workers and volunteers move around, coaxing a child to participate, complimenting a drawing, telling a group to stop horsing around.

Greta Martinez of the regional Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) program says the children are from six communities affected by the fighting.

The tent is not a day care center, she says, but something similar. And it is the only one at the Juan F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex where about 44,000 of the more than 62,000 evacuees have sought shelter.

“We set this up last Monday and so far 98 children come here every day,” Martinez says.

Aided by 16 volunteers—students from the Western Mindanao State University (WMSU) and various NGO personnel—social workers are organizing structured play and other activities for the children.

Martinez says it is a form of therapy and something to keep the children busy, all of whom have missed classes since the fighting began Monday.

“There are storytelling sessions, games, art activities for the children,” she says. The two-hour sessions begin at 8:30 a.m. every day and end at 5:30 p.m., with 30-minute breaks in between.

Parents are encouraged to participate by ensuring that their children stay during the sessions.

Junaida Maqueputin, 38, whose 5-year-old son Hussain, is among the children in the tent, says the center is a good idea.

Maqueputin has five children aged 8 months to 15 years. She fled Mariki village with her family at dawn on Tuesday after village officials urged residents to evacuate.

“It is better that the children go there to learn some things,” she says.

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