If you think traveling back in time is impossible, then you evidently haven’t traveled to the heritage city of Vigan just yet. A world-renowned wonder, Vigan City is, but what makes it different to our country’s most popular tourist destinations like Boracay, Palawan, and Bohol, is the exhibit of stories and proof of our long history showcased in the cobblestone streets, monuments, churches, and even delicacies.
It seemed like it was just yesterday, though it had been three years since my last visit, that I stepped out of the tricycle in front of the Ilocos Sur Provincial Capitol, and across the street was the giant “Ilocos Sur” signage beside the statue of Elpidio Quirino, the sixth President of the Philippines and a proud Bigueño. There it was, the dancing fountain, the old churches and buildings, the sound of townspeople chattering and charming tourists, and the smell of home. Truth be told, I’ve only gone to this beautiful place four times, the first time when I was only a year old so I don’t remember it, once for a two-day vacation during Christmastime, and twice over short Holy Week breaks, which are also appropriately the reunion of our relatives in our hometown, Bantay, the town just a tricycle’s ride north of Vigan. This was the place where I first witnessed the wondrous dramatic performances of the Panunuluyan, Senakulo, and my personal favorite, the Salubong.
Before my last visit, which was way back in 2019, if you asked me what comes to my mind at the mention of Vigan, my answer would only be the dozen bazaars lining up the streets during Semana Santa, the dancing fountain at night in Plaza Salcedo, aunts, uncles, and distant relatives doting on me and my cousins, and angels floating in mid-air when my parents brought five-year-old me to watch the Salubong for the first time. Since that day, naïve little me believed that angels existed, and I started associating Vigan with the concept of my personal heaven on Earth. However, on April 2019, this magical correlation changed. I saw Vigan City as the place that it truly was, not heaven on Earth, but the gist of the history of my country presented in front of me to remember, to appreciate, and to preserve. Somehow, that notion was far better and comforting than heaven.
Vigan began as a trading center and was popular among Chinese settlers, whom referred to the area as “bee gan” which directly translates to “beautiful shores” as the city is surrounded by bodies of water, such the Mestizo, Abra, and Govantes rivers, and most prominently, the South China Sea. The waterways provided the earlier settlers with food, trades, and even protection from territory invaders. This is the reason why there are a number of Chinese-descendant or Filipino-Chinese families in the city even to this day. The influence of the history of the maritime tradeswork can also be seen in the arts and crafts in the city, such as the presence of burnay jars that are sought-after by foreign and local visitors alike, and abel weaving. Of course, the one of the more nationally familiar Filipino culture is the abundance of souvenirs and “pasalubong” delicacies. The famous Calle Crisologo and the two grand plazas that are the center of Bigueño life would attest to how the city is still known as a thriving trading center.
"They started beating with him a stick. My brother died on the spot. We could not retrieve a body. The military burned down my house." (Arnold)
Despite its appearance, this quote reflects more than one account of the Rohingya refugee crisis. It demonstrates the decades-long, brutal repression that continues to shape the reality of countless Rohingya. Persecution by Myanmar’s militaristic regime and chauvinist citizens has led to the displacement of over 1.7 million Rohingya refugees into camps in neighboring Bangladesh (OCHA). Thousands more have been forcibly relocated into camps throughout South Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues in the long-term.
To say Rohingya camps were merely "poor" before the pandemic is wildly inaccurate. They lacked privacy and secure shelter, offered a scarce variety of foods (Hussam, 10:15), and unjustly denied basic human rights. And yet, as drastic as these issues were, they have been magnified a thousand fold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where there was formerly a lack of privacy, there is now invasive overcrowding. Where there was formerly a lack of comfort, there is now acute destitution. And most importantly, where there were formerly three meals a day, there is now a struggle for two.
Studies from the GAGE program report that inadequate food intake affects two out of three Rohingya households, and 40% of Rohingya adolescents are in need of food in comparison to 20% of Burmese adolescents. This is especially significant because malnutrition during such a key era has been shown to have long-term effects on not only growth and development, but also physical and mental health.
So, what can we do to help?
In a speech given this year, Harvard professor Reshmaan Hussam asked Rohingya women the same question. After much prodding, each woman timidly asked for two items: fish and vegetables (Hussam, 9:50). It almost seems ironic that these refugees have endured brutal persecution, have had their homes taken away from them, and have literally escaped death –– but their only request is for fish and vegetables. Not a house, and not money, but fish and vegetables. An ordinary request for such extraordinary circumstances.
Their request for a suitable meal highlights a fundamental unit missing from recent global efforts—humanity. In their quest to provide relief, global efforts have overlooked the basic right to decent food, depriving the Rohingya of natural human dignity. After all, isn't it a basic human right to eat food with taste?
Providing nutritious food for consumption is necessary for the survival of the Rohingya. However, doing so alone provides only a transitory solution. It is crucial for global efforts to also provide the means by which refugees can live purposeful lives. Simply put, Rohingya adolescents also need food for thought. Education is critical for “young Rohingya to one day voluntarily return…to Myanmar with the safety…they deserve'' (UNICEF). In Jordan, where many refugees fleeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently reside, education has recently been embraced as a means for self-sufficiency. One method for increasing self-reliance includes The Resilient Youth, Socially and Economically Empowered Project, a Jordinian educational initiative that has enabled almost 25,000 refugees to achieve economic independence and stable livelihoods through employment (Mercy Corps). Rohingya refugees could perform similarly if given these opportunities. Self-reliance, gained through education, may be the key to the establishment of a lasting Rohingya community built on human dignity.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, global efforts are doing what they can. However, “what they can” is not enough. The fact of the matter remains that the Rohingya are a forgotten people, chained by Myanmar but kept there by the rest of the world. In order for true change to occur, there must be a paradigm shift in public opinion for the Rohingya Refugee crisis, as there was for crises like the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ultimately, it is up to the media––from news channels to social media posts to online essay competitions––to make change a reality.