How two women are using love as a transformative tool in the face of humanity’s biggest heartbreaker

A lot has been said about Filipinos’ resiliency, friendliness and ability – maybe penchant, even – to laugh and make jokes even when faced with the utmost adversity. We are constantly in the list of top countries when it comes to disasters, corruption and vulnerable sectors. And yet we are also in the top lists when it comes to social media, wiring money home and connecting to friends and loved ones in general. We have the largest and most extended of families. We’re a people who grow our nests rather than leave them.

And so I think the defining characteristic of Filipinos is not exactly resiliency, but rather something deeper – our capacity to love. This is the thing that has kept us going and eventually smiling through the worst challenges as a people.

The writer Sherwin Nuland, once said: If you want to talk about what motivates people to keep existing as a community, you’ve got to talk about love.

A mother’s love

This is true for Ate* Elma, 42, who has lived her whole life in the idyllic coastal municipality of Alabat, Quezon, but has had to relocate because of climate change impacts on her livelihood.

It was in the town of Villa Norte that Ate Elma fell in love and got married. She describes herself as a ‘simpleng mamamayan’, (humble citizen) subsisting on selling vegetables and fish from their farm and fishing grounds. It was a happy, simple life for her, her husband and their growing family: two young children, 9 and 7 years old, and another baby on the way.

In recent years, however, she recounts how the fish catch greatly declined in Villa Norte. This affected their livelihood, and — climate change being a threat multiplier — also affected her children’s health and education. Heartbroken but resolute, she and her husband decided to pack up and move to a nearby island.

“Hindi madali yung desisyon, pero para naman ito sa kinabukasan ng mga bata. Dumadali yun desisyon kapag iniisip ko na para sa kinabukasan nila ito,” Elma tells me.

(“The decision wasn’t easy, but it was for our children. It became easier when I thought about giving them a better future.”)

This love for her children extended to her community. Having seen firsthand the effects of climate change not only on her neighbors, but on her own children, she stood up to be a voice for the people around her and for future generations. She takes part in leading community mobilizations which propel the people to fight for climate justice. People can get into all the different arguments about approaches on how to deal with climate change, but sometimes it just boils down to your love for the children and the generations to come.

A daughter comes home

Identified as the deadliest storm on record to ever make landfall anywhere, Typhoon Haiyan (locally, “Yolanda”) left a trail of broken hearts in its wake. It certainly did not spare Joanna Sustento, 25, who lost her parents, her eldest brother and sister-in- law, and her dear nephew, Tarin, who was just three years old when the typhoon struck.

Kuya* Duke, Joanna’s brother, also survived Haiyan, and she admits that she feels much, much closer to him now.

“We used to fight all the time, but after losing our entire family, our instinct to protect each other and to be there for each other came about so naturally. Tragedy and loss has a way of reminding you of what’s important in the end,” reflects Joanna.

Such clarity and self-regard did not come easy though. For a time after the tragedy, she avoided seeing relatives and friends because she did not want to be pitied. “I was placed in this awkward position where they didn’t know what to say or how to act around me,” she muses.

Dealing with incredible feelings of pain and guilt, with most of her family gone, she turned to writing for solace. There, she found catharsis. Writing became a conduit for healing, and gave her the chance to organize all her thoughts and feelings amidst the whirlpools of sorrow.

When the opportunity came to share her story to the public, she said yes, not yet realizing how much it would change her.

She explains, “I realized that the more I opened myself up to people, the more I told my story, the braver I became.” Storytelling became her home. Whether it tested her strength, or made her smile, she continues to embrace it to this day.

Her love story has also broadened to include those outside of her immediate circle. A mindset, which, she admits, was not present pre-Haiyan.

“Before, my ambitions were just limited to putting up and operating my own business. I was only thinking of myself, and what I wanted. I didn’t really think of myself as someone who could contribute to the community. My ambitions were limited to only what I thought I could possibly achieve, it was focused on me, and my family’s security alone.

“But when Haiyan happened, I realized that we should dream for something bigger than ourselves. We should remember that we are all connected. Race, religion, culture and tradition may separate us, but all of us cry over the same things. When the tragedy happened, it left my community broken but I came to love it even more.

“I realized that if all of us could have this passion and love for our own communities, we would strive to do what’s best for our home,” Joanna added.

I have not been the same since meeting Ate Elma and Joanna - a mother and a daughter whose biggest heartbreaks were caused by climate impacts, but whose love for community was brought to the fore. Theirs are stories of love that need to be retold, as these are beautiful reminders of finding strength and hope. Theirs is a story of rising above the challenge of climate impacts.

*Ate = “Big sister”; Kuya=”Big brother”


Desiree Llanos Dee is Climate Justice campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia