At 78, Taralbi Ombos is hard at work in a small corner at an evacuation center in Lanao del Sur. Like a tiny beacon of hope, her tiny sari-sari store is brimming with people buying packets of snacks, biscuits, candies, and other food items.
Taralbi's story is one filled with loss, sadness, as well as resilience and hope.
In May 2017, fearing for her life and for her grandchildren’s lives, Taralbi and her family were forced to flee from their home due to the armed conflict that started to devastate many communities in Marawi City. The fighting would last for several months ending only in October 2017.
She was initially hesitant to flee because it would mean leaving everything behind—her livelihood, her belongings, and her home. But in the end, she realized that her life and the lives of her grandchildren were more important than any material things.
"Noong time na marinig namin ang balita, hind kami agad nagbakwit," Taralbi said. At that time, only parts of the city were reportedly occupied by armed groups. “Malayo kami diyan," she recalled thinking, "kasi nasa Wawalayan Marinaut (barangay in Marawi City) kami.”
“Bakwit,” or “to evacuate,” is a grim reality for the families living in conflict-ridden areas in the Philippines, including Marawi City.
Before the conflict, Taralbi made a living selling fruits and crops in the city. Her small business allowed her to take care of herself and her family for decades. She was hesitant to leave it behind because it was her only source of income. "Iyon ang hanapbuhay ko, ang bumubuhay sa aking mga apo,” she explained.
“Sinabi ko na hindi na ako magbabakwit. Magbabakwit pa ba ako para ‘di ako mamatay? Mamamatay din naman ako dahil wala akong hanapbuhay na madadala,” she said.
But the fear of the ongoing conflict overwhelmed her as the days passed by. Guns were fired near her home, terrifying her grandchildren. She realized then that her family had no choice left but to flee in search of safety.
Saadodin Riga, 19, Taralbi’s grandchild, shared that he had to carry his 9-year-old brother, who was suffering from seizures, on his back when they left their home. “Sa paglalakad namin ay nagsimula na rin ang pagbomba,” he narrated. “‘Di namin alam ang gagawin namin sa oras na iyon, kung papaano makakatakas.”
They escaped the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs. "Wala akong nadala sa lahat ng aking mga kagamitan,” Taralbi said. “Kaya ako naiiyak ‘pag may nagtatanong sa akin dahil naalala ko ‘yong hanapbuhay ko na sapilitang naiwan.”
Today, Taralbi and her family are temporarily staying at the Saguiaran evacuation center in Lanao del Sur, around 10 kilometers away from Marawi. Despite their unimaginable circumstances, they remain hopeful that there will come a day when they can go back home. “Sana makauwi kami ng Marawi,” Saadodin said. “Sa Marawi ay kabisado na namin ang hanapbuhay.”
Taralbi and her family are currently working hard to get back on their feet. To earn a living to support her family, she has set up a sari-sari store in the evacuation center they're staying in. While the income from her store is barely enough for her and her family's daily needs, Taralbi sees it as a way for them to get their spirits up.
“Magtinda-tinda. Iyan lang yong naiisip ko. Iyan lang din ang kaya ko,” she explained. Through her small store, Taralbi has taken a step to restoring her and her family's hopes for a better future.
Women and children are among the most vulnerable in armed conflicts that have devastated communities in many parts of the world. Displaced families often have difficulty accessing basic services. Taralbi and her grandchildren are among the more than 353,000 who had fled Marawi City in 2017. Most of them are until now reeling from the ravages of the conflict, and are continuing to hope for a better life. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or the UN Refugee Agency, has been on the ground since May 2017 to protect and assist the displaced families of Marawi City. UNHCR has given emergency aid and implemented low-cost, quick-impact projects to the most vulnerable communities. Presently, UNHCR is assisting the displaced families and the communities that host them in obtaining vital civil documentation.
UNHCR is dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for people who seek refuge from the violence, disasters, persecution, and war that afflict their homes. This is to help people—like Taralbi and her family—recover from these kinds of challenges with a renewed sense of dignity and hope.
Get to know the stories of people like Taralbi Ombos by visiting the UNHCR website. To lend a helping hand in rebuilding the lives of forcibly displaced people like her, visit this link and follow UNHCR Philippines on Facebook.