New skills for a new start: One family’s story of life after Marawi

Story and photo by Ariane Gijsenbergh

Noraida Poon is one of over 350,000 people who were displaced in 2017 due to the armed conflict between the Philippine army and Islamic State-inspired groups in Marawi City. With the support of GIZ, she is learning livelihood skills to build a new life.   

“When the war broke out on May 23rd, we did not want to go out of our house. We thought the shooting would stop eventually. But it didn’t stop.”

Noraida and her family lived in the most affected area of Marawi, in the same building where the Maute group reportedly held hostages. On the third day of the battle, Noraida’s family decided to flee. Thirteen family members, including five of Noraida’s children, her husband, and her mother-in-law, left the house on foot, amid a mass exodus of people trying to get out of the city. Noraida’s voice trembles. Tears well up in her eyes as she agitatedly recounts the ordeals of their escape:

“There were gunshots all around us. We didn’t know if they came from ISIS or from the military. Other people behind us got hit by snipers and died. I never expected we would make it out alive. I was so afraid, I thought my whole family was going to die.”

The Poon family made it safely to an evacuation center in Iligan, where they stayed for five days before continuing their journey to Butuan to move in with Noraida’s eldest son, Waway. During the first weeks, they lived off relief support. Government agencies distributed rice, medicines, and hygiene kits to the 300-plus displaced Marawi families throughout the city. But eventually, the support dwindled. Noraida’s husband started selling steel wool sponges on the streets to buy food and pay for their daughter’s school fees. “In a day he would earn 100 to 150 pesos, really not enough to feed 13 people. Sometimes, he got chased by the police, because sidewalk vending is not allowed.”

Committed to improving the well-being of internally displaced people and their host communities, GIZ partnered with the SMILES Foundation, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), and city and barangay local government units, to establish the ‘Work with SMILES’ project. This 11-month project provides skills trainings to displaced and host families in Butuan to improve their livelihood prospects and strengthen social cohesion. The initiative is part of the BMZ-funded program ‘Strengthening capacities for dealing with conflict-induced forced displacement in Mindanao (CAPID)’.

Through the project, Noraida attends a 10-day garment-making course. The trainings are held in the Ong Yiu Barangay Hall, a community meeting place that doubles as a basketball court. The atmosphere is convivial, the training participants work together, while children play in the background and neighborhood residents sit around for a chat. The trainees learn to draw patterns and operate a sewing machine to make curtains, bedsheets, pillowcases, and water dispenser covers, using colorful fabrics.

“I am very happy doing this; it is a lot of fun. Making garments helps me forget the terrors I felt in Marawi. It feels good to be busy with something.”

“I come to the barangay hall early in the morning so I can be the first to use the sewing machine. The training is important for me, because it can help me generate income to support my family.”

Noraida is an endearing person. She laughs and jokes a lot and constantly seeks interaction with her trainers and fellow trainees. “I made a lot of friends here; we have camaraderie. Even when there is no training, we see each other; they are my neighbors.”

Besides the garments trainings, Noraida also joined a course on urban gardening. With her new knowledge and skills, she transformed the empty plot of land next to her house into a small green oasis. Spring onion, pechay, and herbs grow from neatly kept pots, and long strands of alugbati, a type of spinach, dangle from hanging planters along the wall.

Noraida uses the harvest from her garden to feed her family. “I don’t want to sell my vegetables. Whenever we don’t have enough money to buy food, I can always turn to my garden.”

Most of Noraida’s family members have moved back to Marawi, including her son Waway. Noraida now lives with only her husband and 17-year-old daughter Janna. When the war broke out, Janna was in grade 8. Transferring to a new school was not easy; but over the past two years, she managed to make new friends, both Muslims and Christians. Today, the teens are getting ready to go to their acquaintance party, marking the start of a new school year.

Noraida feels settled in her host community. She knows a lot of people in the barangay and easily makes friends. Her niece Monisha lives next door and often drops by for some 'chika chika,' exchanging small talk and gossip by the window overlooking the garden.  

Noraida tried to return to her life in Marawi, but rumors about a new war made her so nervous she came back to Butuan. “I love it here, because I feel safe.” After the trainings, she plans to set up a garments business from home and display her products in the market, initially sharing a sewing machine with two other women until she can afford her own. “My dream is to save enough capital so that my children can start their own businesses. I want them to have a stable source of income one day.”


Johanna Sztucki