Ties to the Philippines Bring International Mindedness Home

Tashkent International School is truly a diverse, international community with nearly 500 students and another 115 staff members, all representing more than 45 countries around the world. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines on November 8, it also hit close to home. One of our staff members, although born and raised in the United States, has ties in the Philippines. Her parents and extended family are from the Philippines and many relatives and friends still live there. That staff member, school counselor Yvette Cuenco, shared her story about those first few days after the disaster and the hope she has found in the weeks that followed.

by Yvette Cuenco

One of our mission goals at Tashkent International School is to foster internationally-minded learners. To me, international-mindedness, involves exploring ones own identity and learning to be comfortable with who we are as individuals within the greater context of how we relate to others. Because of my upbringing and experience working as a school counselor, I am fully aware of the complexities of self-identity and what that can mean for children and young adults. As a Filipino American, I have personally grappled with my own cultural identity and it continues to shape who I am as an educator, working previously in Brooklyn, NY and now in an international school.

My parents emigrated from the Philippines to California’s San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s. I am the oldest of four and we were raised surrounded by a large, close-knit extended family heavily involved in the Filipino community in my suburban hometown of Concord, CA.

When preparations for UN Day were underway, my friend and colleague, Liz Ford, asked me if I would march for the Philippines even if I am an American citizen, born and raised in the United States. To me, the answer was, and always will be, an automatic “yes.”

On that rainy UN Day, I lined up with fellow TIS colleagues, parents, and students and carried the Philippine flag across the stage in the gym. I kept in mind that somewhere in California nearly 7,000 miles away, my parents and our relatives would be very proud. Just three weeks later, Typhoon Haiyan forced the Philippines onto the international stage.

About two weeks before Haiyan made landfall, news of the imminent typhoon was filtering in. Weather radar images filled my Facebook newsfeed as friends and family mentally prepared for the storm. I have grown accustomed to news about natural disasters and other tragedies in the Philippines. The Philippines is a developing country in a part of the world that sees its fair share of typhoons, earthquakes, political upheaval, and other geopolitical issues quite regularly. I honestly did not think the damage would be this immense.

I soon realized, like many Filipinos around the world, that nobody could possibly be physically or emotionally prepared for the devastation in Haiyan’s wake. Upon seeing the initial images, I was in a state of shock and then began feeling slightly helpless. I did the one thing I felt I could do – went to church and prayed for my beloved country. I was also comforted seeing other Filipinos – overseas foreign workers – and hearing that their families were okay. The rest of the day I spent reading various news reports online and glued to the CNN/BBC feeds. I was anticipating news about the relief efforts.

I knew that sharing information on where people could send donations, in addition to speaking to my parents, would help me cope with the overwhelming images and videos of Filipinos dealing with unimaginable loss. My parents are from different parts of the country and their home areas were not affected by the storm. This does not change the feeling of connection and empathy I have for those Filipinos who have now lost their homes and loved ones.

It would take some days for me to make sense of what this all means to me – a Filipino American living in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In the coming days many friends and colleagues would ask –  “How are you doing? How is your family?” We would all breathe some relief when I’d say that my family is not from the area hardest hit, but agreed that it did not make the news feel any less sad or frustrating as the country struggled to allocate relief and rescue resources early on. My friends and colleagues know how much the Philippines means to me and I’ve learned that the students do as well.

Bayanihan is a Filipino term that means “communal spirit” and it is embodied by the TIS
community. I’ve been very impressed by the outpouring of care, concern, and generosity from our students and some of our parents towards the Philippines. I’ve been moved by the words of kindness and humanitarian effort put forth across the whole school. The awareness that something terrible has happened, regardless of how far it is from Tashkent, truly exemplifies how our faculty and student body is internationally minded. Moreover, the willingness to raise money and send help – perhaps even to a place that they do not know much about — is comforting and breeds hope.

I cannot take credit for the action that the Girl Scout Cadettes took on with the recent bake sale to raise support for Typhoon Haiyan relief. This was an idea that they came up with their own. I know that I am not alone in saying that I’m very grateful for their work and inspired. Just as I came to terms with the amount of work that now has to go into typhoon recovery, I am encouraged by our students’ efforts. When you have roots in a country that has seen many natural disasters and other negative news, it is very easy to become cynical or passive as a way of shielding oneself. However, the support and hard work put in by our community has kept me from locking into that mindset.

As we say in Filipino – “Maraming-maraming salamat po sa inyong pagtulong sa Pilipinas.” Thank you all very much for helping the Philippines. Please stay tuned for more information in the coming months on the school-wide outreach efforts to the communities affected by the typhoon.


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