Ship’s maiden voyage reunites students with families in Mindanao
MANILA, Philippines — Almejedin Sakilan Jaudinez, a master’s student at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman who hails from Tawi-Tawi province, had been stranded at his dormitory since Metro Manila was locked down in mid-March to control the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The 24-year-old Master of Arts in Education-Mathematics student attempted to fly back to the province in vain after multiple rebookings as the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) imposed in Metro Manila, and later on the whole of Luzon, disrupted the operation of airlines.
“I had rebooked for three times already, so I felt so hopeless … I felt could no longer fly back home,” Jaudinez said in an interview with the Inquirer.
Merissa Masdal, a 22-year-old medical technology graduate from Universidad de Zamboanga, had been staying in Sampaloc, Manila, since November 2019 to review for and take the board exam, which was, however, canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. She traveled to Clark Freeport in Pampanga province for her flight to Zamboanga City but all flights were canceled when the government put Luzon under ECQ.
“We were stranded for more than two months in Pampanga,” Masdal said.
Fresh from the shipyard
Jaudinez and Masdal are among the 80 students and board reviewees who finally found a way back home for free onboard MV Alfrazan, a new roll-on, roll-off passenger vessel bought by Tawi-Tawi-based Alfrazan Shipping Corp.
Fresh from the Navotas shipyard of its builder, Hulltech Shipbuilding, MV Alfrazan started its maiden voyage from Manila South Harbor with 181 passengers on board. Aside from the 80 students and board reviewees scrambling to go home to Mindanao, returning overseas Filipino workers and military personnel were among the passengers.
The new vessel, the largest in Alfrazan’s fleet, left Manila on Sunday at 12:44 p.m. and will sail for 944.71 kilometers to the Zamboanga City port. It is expected to arrive in Zamboanga on Tuesday morning, offload some passengers and pick up new ones, before cruising another 394.48 km to its homeport of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. All in all, the voyage to Tawi-Tawi is expected to take around 36 hours.
Jet Lim, the 40-year-old chief executive officer of Alfrazan Shipping, volunteered the company’s flagship vessel for the government’s “Hatid Estudyante” program. He picked up the vessel and accompanied the students during the maiden voyage. His company shouldered all the cost of the long voyage: fuel, crew, as well as food and drinks for all passengers.
‘Blessing in disguise’
“They started building the ship last year and it was really scheduled to sail to Mindanao but the lockdown happened. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because now, it will help bring home students in our maiden voyage,” Lim said in an interview shortly before the vessel sailed. “It is historical for us.”The Department of Education earlier estimated that about 9,000 students from various provinces had been stranded in dorms and schools in the capital region during the ECQ.
When Lim, who also serves as Tawi-Tawi provincial board member, heard news about the Hatid Estudyante program, he immediately called up the Department of Transportation and coordinated with local governments with the help of Tawi-Tawi Gov. Ysmael Sali to identify students who needed a ride back home.
“We have a database on where the stranded residents are in Metro Manila and all over the Philippines because during this COVID-19 crisis, we have been sending relief goods to our people,” said Lim, whose family has long been in the fishing and shipping business in southern Philippines.
MV Alfrazan will be used for his company’s Zamboanga to Tawi-Tawi route. The vessel has a capacity of 800 passengers, but Lim said the company would ferry only 400 passengers to ensure physical distancing. INQ
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