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Stories from the field

My First Month in the Philippines as EU Aid Volunteer for the German Red Cross by Janina Jasper

Suomen Punainen Risti (Finnish Red Cross)

EU Aid Volunteer (EUAV) – What is this? The first time I heard about the EAUV program was on a trip backpacking with a friend through Argentina and Chile in 2018. On our way we bumped into a former employee of the British Council who inspired me to take a closer look at the program. Back home in Europe, I found out: EUAV is an initiative which aims to bring EU volunteers and organizations from different countries together in joint humanitarian projects as an expression of solidarity. I reviewed various job postings of the EUAV program and was enthusiastic about one offered by German Red Cross; I immediately applied with the aim to support resilience of vulnerable communities and capacity building and to learn more about the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – and now I am part of it.

With my background in inclusive education and work experiences with German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and international organizations (UNHCR, Save the Children), I started my deployment with the German Red Cross in disaster risk reduction in the Philippines in May 2019. With more than 7.600 islands, the Philippines are particularly exposed to natural  (hydrometeorological) disasters such as typhoons, floods that affect people’s lives and livelihoods; but also human-induced disasters such as armed conflicts (in relation to GRC’s conflict sensitivity program in Lanao and Iligan) increasingly challenge Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines.

In the next 11 months, I will support the German Red Cross as well as the Disaster Preparedness and Risk Reduction Unit of the Disaster Management Service of the Philippine Red Cross. Engaging in disaster management work, I am particularly interested in learning about and supporting the process of resilience building - or how people in Asia would say: studying the pathway of a ‘bamboo’ that makes its way into adverse conditions and keeps on growing at full speed! Because to me, resilience is not only a coping strategy in disasters, but  key to the development and capacity building of any future organization or society in the sense that it enables transformation and solid leadership. During my deployment, my assignment is to develop a toolbox of disaster risk reduction (DRR) related (extra-)curricular activities in schools and communities; the activities aim to help youth to understand climate change and adapt their behavior in communities to reduce the impact of severe weather events. Example activities include climate change challenges, hazard mappings, forecast- based decision-making games, simulations and drills as well as poster contests and art workshops. I will also support the Philippine Red Cross in its development of the DRR road map with regard to public awareness campaigns. Overall, I will deal intensively with the conflict-sensitive approach of disaster risk management. As the island Mindanao is affected by a most complex and longstanding armed conflict, the consideration of different perspectives is a prerequisite to achieve peaceful disaster preparedness.

My office and desk in the Philippines is located in the Red Cross Tower in Mandaluyong City, the national headquarters of the Philippines Red Cross. The tower has ten floors and offers from the upper terrace a great view of the city and crowded main street through Manila. Every day in the tower I meet delegates from various National Societies of Red Cross, all working in the tower. Our German Red Cross team is also multicultural: the employees come from the Philippines, India, France, Spain, Estonia and Germany. In the first few weeks I shared an office with delegates of the Finnish Red Cross. This was a great opportunity to both refresh old memories of my Erasmus study period in Finland and make new contacts with delegates. When a Finnish delegate prepared to return to her home country from her assignment in the Philippines, she handed me her coffee cup from Finland – what a nice welcome gift for my new job.

After work, I meet Florence from France in the elevator: "I like your shirt with the EU! I had an EU flag on my bike when working in London.” Florence is working in the Red Cross Tower in Manila only for short-term; she is an ODI Research Associate based in Yangon, working on a feasibility study for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in Myanmar and the Philippines. It is so interesting to learn about everyone’s role in Red Cross. Down the road I say goodbye to Florence and head back to our residence along the Pasig river; while walking through the local streets of the ‚barangays‘ (lowest level of administrative structure) of Mandaluyong and buying fresh vegetables for dinner at the local shops, I reflect over my first four weeks here…

I have yet to send our EUAV Volunteer Coordinator in Berlin my monthly report on progress, work plan, challenges, highlights and ideas. Given the challenges I faced in the first few weeks, the role of EUAV is rich in experience: Adapting to a different workflow shows that some processes take time and require patience. The diverse work culture provides an ideal place to practice diplomacy. And I could go on… The next highlight that I am looking forward to is a three-week field visit to the ‘chapters’ (districts) of our seven project areas in Luzon, the northernmost of the three islands of the Philippines. On Monday I will have a meeting with the National Field Representative of the Red Cross Youth. I am already very excited to hear about their activities in the different regions of the Philippines.

Having arrived at the residence - ‘our new temporary home’ - I realize that we are actually lucky: From our residence, we have safe access to shopping malls and leisure facilities such as a fitness center and swimming pool. Since our residence is nearby the Red Cross Tower, we can walk to our office. Sometimes we have even more luck – namely, when Edwin, one of our drivers from German Red Cross, is not in the field and comes to pick us up in the morning. These mornings are usually the best as we can be sure we arrive ‘dry’ in the office.

Even on weekends or public holidays, we benefit from the Philippines hospitality. A special gift is Bianca, a local Red Cross volunteer from the Philippines who regularly provides us with information on leisure activities, Filipino literature and cultural experiences. On two weekends she guided us through the metropolis of Manila with great commitment and awakened our exploration spirit for the Filipino culture: With her, we drove in the women’s compartment of the city train across Manila, tasted the mango shake and tried some street food on the ‘turo turo’ from the hawker’s lane where small street vendors flock to provide various local meals at a very cheap (student) price, were surprised by heavy rains, found refuge in the National Museum of Anthropology, climbed the secret hotel viewpoint over the ‘Intramuros’ (oldest district of Manila), visited the historical-cultural festival party in Escolta (the first business district of Manila) and explored the campus of the University of Santo Tomas; especially the latter was an exploration out of tourist attractions since just entering the campus required strong persuasion without having to hand in our passports (after our intensive EUAV training an absolute no-go!). And if the weekend is more leisurely, in any case, there is the volunteer exchange on our WhatsApp group. Here we basically train our communication skills every day; because we are currently facing the rainy season and are preparing for the peak of the typhoon season from July to October. During this period at least 20 typhoons are expected each year in the Philippines. In order to work more closely with the Philippine Red Cross, my desk will be relocated to the sixth floor next month. I am looking forward to the challenges of the coming months.

Have you ever worked as a volunteer? I can tell you that being an EUAV is a great opportunity to explore another side of volunteerism: to meet new people with amazing experiences, to step out of your comfort zone and to stand up as an advocate for the idea of the EU – and human rights protection. As a EUAV in the Philippines, I come across the question “What does EU stand for” and I can take this opportunity to talk about the idea of the European Union.

You now got a taste of what an EUAV is? - Only to some extent? – Well, there are plenty of stories coming up to find out more about us: check out my future report from the field, exploring National Disaster Resilience Month in the Philippines coming up in July!