FRENCH journalist Valerie Trierweiler (center), referred to as the godmother of Francebased
NGO Secours Populaire Français, insists that the welfare of children should be top
priority during disaster response. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
WITNESSES said Valerie Trierweiler’s escorts from the Philippine Navy panicked when she suddenly left her hotel in Busuanga, Palawan, to enjoy a short stroll around the vicinity some nights ago.
Trierweiler was not exactly an anonymous tourist.
She is former first lady of France and was in the island to witness the inauguration of two newly constructed buildings for the Concepcion National High School (CNHS), as well as the turnover of new school facilities.
Two years back, a CNHS building was among those destroyed by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Palawan. Secours Populaire Français (SPF), a nonprofit based in France, played a key role in making sure the school is rebuilt better.
Trierweiler is regarded as SPF’s “godmother.”
Still a high-profile personality in France even after her breakup with President Francois Hollande two years ago, the French journalist is using her star power to help SPF draw attention to the plight of the marginalized across the globe.
The children of Busuanga are now all too aware of Trierweiler’s success in convincing her countrymen to help them.
From nearby houses, they quickly gathered around Trierweiler and followed her once she stepped out of the Corto del Mar. Some reached out to grab her hand. Soon it became difficult to go farther so the children just walked her back to her hotel.
Though they spoke no French and her English was limited, that impromptu meet-up was the children’s way of saying “thank you” to the strange woman who made sure they would stay in school.
Busuanga managed to get SPF’s attention after Danny Rayos del Sol, vice president of the Quezon City chapter of the Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV), began a fund-raising activity to help “Yolanda” victims in Palawan via his social media account.
“Though Tacloban is the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about ‘Yolanda’ … Palawan was [also] badly hit … but [this] escaped the media’s attention,” he explained.
SPF, founded in 1945 to fight poverty and exclusion while promoting solidarity among nations, immediately proposed emergency relief operations.
Rayos del Sol set up the Philippine-based Mirasol Outreach Foundation Inc. (Mofi) to aid SFP’s efforts in Palawan.
Immediately, SPF national secretary Ismail Hassouneh flew to Busuanga to supervise an assessment and draw up a plan for the area’s “rehabilitation, recovery and development,” Rayos del Sol said.
Soon there were three “successful emergency operations” in selected barangays, and the effort shifted to recovery and rehabilitation by April the following year.
In CNHS specifically, two buildings housing eight classrooms were built with a 120-square-meter fully equipped library and toilets “through the assistance” of Mofi and SPF, Rayos del Sol said. Electricity and a water system were also provided.
Former Senator and Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery Panfilo Lacson, Busuanga Mayor Samuel de Jesus, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Cervantes, doctors Gilbert Sadsad and Servillano Arzaga of the Department of Education and Philippine Navy Commodore Jorge Amba were in attendance.
Rayos del Sol said the local guests “were all instrumental in facilitating the project locally.”
Aside from Trierweiler and Hassouneh, other SPF officers who attended the inauguration were its president Julien Laupretre, SPF Fed du Moselle president Marie Francoise Thull and SPF Fed du Lyon president Sebastian Thollot.
The SPF-Mofi partnership also resulted in the construction of a 200-sq-m Busuanga Multi-Purpose Hall and the creation of the Busuanga Weavers Cooperative Association.
But more than the CNHS facelift, Rayos del Sol said the SPF-Mofi’s “biggest achievement” would be the increase in the number of students who can now go to school.
“Enrolment in this school tripled in one year. I think this was because the new facilities and supplies made the school very conducive to learning,” Rayos del Sol noted.
“Before the start of our project, there were 128 students enrolled in CNHS. Today, the school has 332 high school students. This is expected to increase in the coming years,” he added.
Trierweiler sat down with Inquirer Lifestyle for an exclusive interview before returning to France.
Speaking through Filipino translator Amy Loste, she said her job as a political journalist and contributor for Paris Match magazine allowed her to cover catastrophes the world over.
From her exposures, Trierweiler noted that SPF school projects are especially important because these make a huge impact on the lives of children. Child welfare is also one of SPF’s main advocacies, she added.
SPF’s Hassouneh said the group’s main project following emergency operations was two-fold: set up livelihood programs and construct new school buildings.
When he arrived post-“Yolanda,” the children in the area had only a “very small school” that many could access only after walking eight kilometers.
SPF has done similar school projects in Haiti and Japan after violent earthquakes ravaged these countries in recent years.
Trierweiler said she is “very happy that the school is finished. The suffering of the children is alleviated.”
The school buildings have electricity, toilets and a steady water supply. Hassouneh said SPF also provided the children with books for a library and computers.
“SPF cannot resolve all the problems in the world. That is not our objective, but we [have] decided to stay in the Philippines and develop another project,” he added, without going into specifics.
SPF is regarded as the biggest humanitarian organization in France. It turned 70 years old this year and is visible in 60 countries.
It is particularly concerned with issues of poverty and exclusion. In emergencies, SPF delivers food, clothing and immediate housing. SPF also supports causes including access to housing, health, culture and leisure, sports and professional integration. As part of its commitment to international cooperation, SPF hosts an annual camp for children every August called Copain du Monde.
(Sophia Paez, daughter of broadcast journalist Patrick Paez and Daphne Oseña, met Trierweiler when she attended Copain’s annual event in France this year. Seventy thousand children from across the globe were there. Paez wrote a story that was published by Inquirer Lifestyle’s travel section.)
Trierweiler said SPF remains undaunted despite the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. In fact, SPF continues to operate in the periphery of Syria despite reports that the terrorist group ISIS staged the attacks in retaliation against the French air strikes in Syria and Iraq.
“The role of SPF is to continue normally, to always make sure that we do not leave anyone behind, especially the children regardless of ideology, religion, color … just any child in need. The best way to combat racism is to keep helping,” she stressed.
After the interview, Trierweiler shed off her serious look and tried her English.
“I’ve been on trips with the President (Hollande) but never to the Philippines. It’s a very beautiful place. I hope to be back,” she said.
Then she spoke in a near-whisper: “Have you been to Paris? It’s beautiful. Paris is not dangerous despite the attacks. It’s still like any other place.”