It’s a funny feeling to know you’re in a situation that will change your life forever.
Today I found myself in such a situation, when another volunteer and I went to a different primary school not far from the one we’d been assisting at for the last 2 weeks. I’d thought the previous school had extensive damage from Cyclone Winston, but that was nothing in comparison to the site we visited at Teidamu Primary School.
Like the other school, Teidamu Primary School sits on top of a hill in one of the most wildly scenic educational settings I’ve ever seen, surrounded by panoramic views of sugar cane fields and the Pacific Ocean, with the city of Lautoka visible in the distance.
Over half the school’s main buildings and classrooms were completely destroyed, with roofs blown off and heaps of rubble sitting among the ruins. Two large white tents from UNICEF, a children’s rights and emergency relief organization, currently serve as makeshift classrooms.
As we arrived, children peeked out from zipper-enclosed “windows,” giggling before quickly zipping themselves in after noticing they’d caught our attention.
“At least there is a breeze today,” one teacher commented, “the tents can get very hot”.
I could see why; with the exception of the entranceways and a few open side-slits, the tarps barely had any ventilation.
Even though this school experienced significantly more devastation and wreckage, the children had an essence of joy about them – I spent some time conversing with the 7th and 8th graders, who at just 12 or 13 years old, exuded a loveliness and intelligence far exceeding their age.
After asking how the cyclone had affected them, one girl admitted her mother had died during the storm.
“She’s embarrassed to talk about her mum,” a boy said as the girl immediately repositioned herself to the back of the group, looking down.
This nearly drove me to tears on the spot. I know the pain of losing one’s mother all too well, but learning this mother was a victim of Cyclone Winston was almost too much for me to handle. Even more striking was this 13-year-old girl’s immense strength, despite the fact her mother passed – on her birthday.
“It is a part of life,” the girl sighed, when I had a chance to chat with her later in private. Apparently her mom had been the manager of the school, and she died while trying to recover belongings during the cyclone from their house not far away.
She asked to see pictures of my home. Unfortunately I’d cleared off most of the photos on my iPhone, so all I had were a few airplane shots flying over the Rocky Mountains, taken on the flight to Los Angeles from Denver.
“Wow,” she exclaimed when I showed her the photos I’d snapped out the window, as well as a few pics of the food and entertainment on my overnight Fiji Airways flight to Nadi. “Is it scary to fly?”
“No,” I laughed. “It can certainly seem scary, sure, but once you’re up in the sky everything feels normal.”
“So it’s like a home?” she asked.
“Yeah. Just like a home.”