Badjaos take shelter in Legazpi amid Covid-19

Paulin Imperial-Dy, a Filipino Chinese philanthropist in Legazpi City gives food ration to 31 Badjao families from Mindanao. (Photo by Rhaydz B. Barcia)

LEGAZPI CITY --- Along the muddy alley covered with coconut husks and dotted by nipa shanties, a community of Badjaos displaced in a war-torn area in Mindanao is taking refuge in putrefying quarters situated at Barangay Bitano in this city as the country faces the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

Couple Abdul Hamid and Ortina Tagnasa from Jolo, Sulu along with their three children are living along with 31 other Badjao families in congested quarters and dirty environment without water, comfort rooms, and electricity.

Abdul and his family escaped from Jolo, Sulu due to the never-ending fighting between government troops and their enemies, which displaced thousands of families.

The Tagnasa family set foot in Legazpi City barely two month before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.

The 31 other Badjao families, consisting of a total of 62 individuals, mostly came from Jolo, Sulu, Zambaonga City, Cebu, and Leyte.

They are presently living in temporary shelters since the government implemented the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) on March 17, 2020 up to the present.

When asked how they reached and lived in Legazpi City, the nomadic sea faring tribesmen said, through their interpreter Marlito Arabe Sobrane, 25, a Badjao from Bato, Leyte, that they fled Mindanao and headed to Luzon to live peacefully and earn a living without fear of being caught in the cross fire between the military and rebel and terrorist groups in Mindanao.

Badjao or Bajau means man of the seas or sea gypsies, because they move with the wind and the tide on their small houseboats called vintas.

As marine resources are being depleted and aggravated by the war in Mindanao, many Badjaos have migrated in cities and towns in Luzon and the Visayas for livelihood through begging alms on the streets.

Periodically, these sea gypsies flock to Legazpi City in the months of October to December. Over time, their numbers have increased in the city, Bicol’s regional government center.

In March when the city was placed under ECQ and Mayor Noel Rosal implemented the curfew to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the badjaos were prohibited to roam around for their safety.

On Saturday, May 9, Joel Dy and Paulin Imperial-Dy, a Chinese Filipino couple, who are known philanthropists, visited the Badjaos where they handed over food rations consisting of several kilos of rice, canned goods, coffee, and milk for their children.

The couple’s donations to the Badjaos, despite of heavy rainfall, brought happiness to the nomadic families. Paulin, a Legazpi City Host Lions Club member, and Joel are constantly helping the Badjaos’ food needs even before Covid-19. They also help other poor villages in the city.

The Tagnasas expressed their gratitude to the Dy couple. We can now give our children milk, they said.

Bitano village chief Bernard Pacardo told Bicol Mail that they are not neglecting the Badjaos currently taking shelter in his barangay.

“We are providing food for the Badjao to prevent them from going out on the streets. We also provided them with facemasks,” Pacardo said.

Retired Police Supt. Rolly Esguera, now Legazpi City Public Safety Office (PSO) chief, said that they are also looking after the needs of Badjaos for them to be protected from possible Covid-19 infections. He said they also educate them to follow the quarantine measures and hygienic practices.

“We are closely watching the Badjaos in Legazpi City as they are living together in open quarters, no ceiling, no walls, however, they have a lot of babies. Social distancing is not possible in the crowded sleeping quarters. Let’s pray to God to spare them from Covid-19,” Esguera said.

According to Esguera, recently, Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda also provided one sack of rice and washable face masks to all the Badjao families in Bitano.

Esguera also lauded the Dy’s donation to the Badjaos as it will stop them from going out to beg alms on the streets.

“Thanks Joel and Pauline Dy for your support. This will help them stop from going out and begging alms in Legazpi down town,” Esguera said.

The Badjaos,Esquera said, are receiving more aid from Legazpeños while the country is experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said that even a retired World Health Organization physician, Dr. Allan Schapira, currently staying in Legazpi City, also extended assistance to the Badjaos and a group of tricycle drivers in the city.

Esguera said that Schapira spent P250,000 from his personal pocket to provide assistance to the Badjaos including tricycle drivers affected by the lockdown.