LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE LUMAD KID WHO ASKED FOR A PESO, DAVAO CITY, PHILIPPINES
BY TAMMY DANAN
You were playing outside while I spoke to your mother in broken Filipino. Our conversations consisted of her talking, me nodding, other Lumads passing around us quickly translating, and me nodding some more. Yet despite this, I marvel (still to this day) at how beautifully her indigenous language escaped from her mouth. I also marvel at the fact that I went to that refugee camp to volunteer, maybe donate. But because of your story, I came out a journalist.
When I first met your mother at the refugee camp in Davao City, Philippines, in 2015, I had to walk through a throng of shanties made of bamboo and tarpaulin. It was a hot summer but the children in the camp didn't give a damn—small feet to cracking ground. The place had a certain scent you only smell in refugee camps. When I got to her shanty, I was greeted by the most emotional smile I have ever seen.
Your mom sounded so matter-of-fact, like she wasn't talking about war. But she was talking about war. She told me she had brought four of her children with her to this camp. She told me how the war in the mountains had intensified yet again, and how more soldiers kept coming to harass them, burn their houses and schools, just so the multinational mining companies wouldn't have problems with indigenous people protecting their ancestral lands—which had gold dabbled under it. She told me how they had to flee at night because, during the day, anyone caught escaping would be shot to death, and how they burned their slippers to use as torches in the forests, which they'd long ago memorized like the back of their hands. For the first time, I understood why most refugees got to the city on bare feet.
And in between tales, shame surfaced in her eyes, though I'm not sure what she was ashamed of. Perhaps her disheveled hair, or her clothes that were starting to smell, or the fact that she was a refugee. She was trying to dance her crying baby with her left hand while scooping rice from a small pot into a basin with her right. Then she dusted off a part of her bamboo flooring and signaled for me to climb up. I did, and I offered to carry her baby, who by now had stopped crying. The baby's clothes smelled like a mixture of pee and baby sweat. I cradled her to sleep as your mom yelled for her other kids, who came so quickly, giddy about the rice and soup that they placed on the floor. A girl and a boy, both no more than ten years old, bathing in their own sweat and both wearing tattered clothes, sat beside me and dove into the basin of hot rice and soup with their unwashed hands. Your mother told me they had walked three nights and four days to get here—in small groups to lessen the suspicion of fleeing—and I wondered how these kids managed to walk for so long with so little food and water.
Tiny arms decorated with scars that healed at different times wrapped around my dangling legs and broke my deep thinking. It was you, kid. In an oversized t-shirt, you were there; with your small face and rough hands, standing barefoot on the ground, you were there, panting from long hours of playing and running around with your newfound pals. And you were looking straight at me with a glimmer in your eyes. You were trying to put your chin on my lap but you were still too small, kid, so you just smiled and asked me for a peso—our first conversation that I keep coming back to. In that moment, I couldn't hide my bewilderment at how small things—as small as a peso—could make people so happy.
That year, the Philippine military tortured three indigenous people until they admitted to being “communist rebels.” And then, as if not content with you—Lumads, the indigenous people of the Philippines—being displaced, they tried to burn you down alive, like how they burned your houses and schools in the mountains. You and thousands of other Lumads are part of these stories. I don't know how much of it your young mind has already grasped, but I do know that you have so much more in the future, and I’d like to believe you’ll never give into fear. They may continue to walk in your valleys, claiming to protect you when they don't even know how to keep you safe in the first place. They may continue to psychologically torture you with fear, but kid, please believe in your glowing ball of bravery. There are many of you displaced in other parts of the country and I hope you’ll remember why your ancestors fought so hard to protect your ancestral domain. Why your parents today continue to fight this undying battle.
Maybe in the future, we will meet again. Maybe I won’t remember you and you probably won’t remember me. But somewhere along the line, I hope you get to read this and know that I owe you my career. As of this writing, I am but a budding journalist still with a lot to learn, but know that I won’t stop telling your story, and the story of many others like you, until the Philippine government can’t ignore it anymore.
Later that night, in the summer of 2015, I was all prepped for work with a mug of hot coffee and a list of lousy articles to write. I was at home and didn't smell like refugee camp anymore. But your smile kept on flashing back and your mother's stories kept playing on repeat. I found myself hammering the keyboard for a pitch I didn't know the rules about, and quickly hitting send before I even re-read it, then I prayed to all the gods I know and don't know that whoever would receive it would say yes. She did, kid: and this piece was born.
The moment you tried to place your face on my lap, tiny feet tiptoeing real hard, I realized there is so much more; and since then, I never stopped writing about the oppressed, the silenced, and the refugees. Though I won't deny it… this scares the heck out of me, kid. I know talking about you in the global media is a risk for the both of us. Our government is ruthless in killing journalists, and they can use this story to know more about you, or worse, find you. But your tiny feet walked three nights and four days in the forest to get to safety. And now, three years later, you're still in the same refugee camp. You're still safe and so full of joy. I'm going to hold on to that. I'm going to continue being grateful that every time I visit the camp, you will still latch on my legs whenever you see them dangling from whoever's shanty I'm at.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Part-poet, part-writer, and full-blooded human megaphone of the oppressed, Tammy Danan is a freelance writer whose words have appeared in Ozy, Momentist, VICE, GO Magazine, and a few more. She is an introverted queer who gets by with unhealthy amounts of coffee, the sound of tattoo machines and the smell of a newly cleaned typewriter. And oh, she's curious as hell about a lot of things. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Header photo by Eldon Vince Isidro.