ICRC documents stories of survival, hope; rise amid conflict in the Philippines

COTABATO CITY – Protracted armed conflicts in Mindanao forced thousands of people fleeing from their homes for decades and their displacement has resulted in lost livelihood opportunities for many residents. Thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for always being there to help rebuild lives of Mindanaoans who suffered from instability because of the conflicts.
A few have also set up their own successful businesses through the microeconomic initiative (MEI) programme of the ICRC. The programme provides vocational training, grants and microcredit support to people affected by conflict and disabled people. 
A microeconomic grant can be used to either start or expand a business venture. It also places beneficiaries at the heart of the decision-making process, giving them greater ownership of the income-generating project.

Here are a few stories documented by the ICRC from Maguindanao that give us a peek at the hope and courage that people affected by conflict muster every day to deal with their challenges. 

“The sweet taste of success”
Maisola makes better pastries in her new oven. B.Sultan/ICRC

When 58-year-old Maisola walked ten kilometres to flee the fighting that erupted in her community in 2020, she was gripped with fear. She vividly remembers the sound of gunfire and explosions ringing in the background as her family grabbed their few belongings and left their home in their small village in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. 

Maisola recalls feeling an odd combination of relief and anxiety at that moment.
“The first time I had to leave my home because of armed conflict I was only around eight years old. As I grew up, displacement became a constant reality for my family. I even gave birth to my firstborn in an evacuation centre,” says Maisola.

Convinced that returning to their former residence would be almost impossible, Maisola sought refuge in the home of a relative in a nearby village. She set up a small store and sold coffee, local delicacies and mamon (sponge cakes) to make ends meet. To create mamon, she used an old oven (pugon), but soon realized that it wasn’t good enough to make the kind of loaves of bread she had in mind.

A passionate baker, Maisola shares that she had learned the skill from her in-laws who used to own a bakery. It was one way for her family to become self-sufficient, but she needed a better oven to grow the business. 

“Around that time, I came across the ICRC’s income-generating programme to help families that are displaced by conflict. I shared my life story and my desire to buy an oven with the ICRC staff and was eventually given a cash grant,” she says. 
Maisola used the first instalment of the cash grant to buy a new oven and some ingredients to make bread. With the second instalment, she set up a small stall just outside her current home.

In less than two months, Maisola earned back the capital spent on the eatery just by selling mamon. She also ensured that her children continued their education (one child is in high school and one is about to graduate from college). She shares that she was not able to finish school because of the protracted conflict, but is determined to do everything she can to make sure that her children do not suffer in the same way. 

Maisola has learned a lot from her journey as an entrepreneur. However, the most important life lesson she has learned is about giving back to the community. She allocates a portion of her income to sponsoring public events, where she serves mamon for free. 
“If you won’t give back, you won’t receive anything,” says Maisola.
Looking to the future, Maisola says she wants to expand her business further, baking and selling other types of breads such as pan de coco (coconut bread) and pandesal (salt bread), which are favourites in her community.

Another inspiring story that depicts courage and resiliency is also from Maguinanao town of Ampatuan. “A resilient spirit pays off”

Parida’s financial independence has enabled her to help her relatives. B. Sultan/ICRC

Giving up is an unfamiliar word for Parida. It is simply not an option.
For years, Parida has been working as a farmer in a small village in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. She spent her days cultivating her own farmland, where she planted vegetables like bitter gourd, cucumber and squash. It should have been an idyllic life, except for the protracted armed conflict in her village

Parida and her family would occasionally flee the fighting, only to return home later. When a fresh round of fighting erupted in 2020, Parida and her family were once again forced to leave their home and farm. This time, Parida had a sense of foreboding that they may not be able to return.

Without means to support themselves in their new home in another sitio, Parida and her husband Jory were forced to borrow money and sell their calf, a prized possession that they had taken with them while escaping the violence. 

“My husband did not want to sell the calf. We had planned to sell it at a later date to pay for our daughter’s education as she will soon go to college. But I cried and told him we did not have a choice because we did not have enough resources to even feed our children,” says Parida.

Determined to make life better, the couple leased a piece of land and grew watermelons and corn. But a combination of bad weather and market forces led to crop failure. Instead of paying off their debt, Parida and Jory incurred even more debts. Undeterred, they decided to grow squash, hoping to bounce back. But when harvest time came, the market value of vegetables dropped dramatically.

“I cried so hard. No one wanted to buy our harvest. It was Ramadan and we couldn’t feed our children anything other than the vegetables we had,” says Parida.
The family suffered in various ways from the multiple setbacks. Her children lost weight and Jory got sick from the mental and physical exhaustion of farming. They almost began to lose hope of things changing. Then a buyer from Cagayan de Oro dropped by their roadside stall one day and bought all their produce. They paid off some of their debts from the money they earned from the sale.

Sometime later, the ICRC chose Parida as one of the people from Salman to be given a cash grant to restart their livelihoods. She leased two hectares of land, bought high-quality squash seeds, fertilizers and several farm tools with the money. The grant also enabled Parida to help two other people from Maguindanao who needed capital to start their own farm. She agreed to finance their farm and divide the proceeds among the three of them.

But Parida did not stop there. She also helped her siblings and relatives by letting them sell their produce in her stall. With hard work, keen business acumen and the ICRC’s grant, Parida and Jory can now provide a better quality of life for their children, all of whom are pursuing their education.

“It doesn’t matter if I am very tired. What is important is that I see my children getting closer to their dreams and graduate. I pray that we can help them reach their goals while we are still alive,” says Parida. 

She adds that they want their children to enjoy a good life, especially when they are gone. “We do not want them to experience the hardships that we have had to endure in this life. I want them to live happy lives and provide for themselves,” she says.
But Parida also confesses that despite the success in vegetable farming, she still worries about the future. 

“I always fear displacement. I wish everyone who has been displaced can find stability, provide for their families and live with dignity. If we pray wholeheartedly and our deeds are good, we will get through it,” she says.