Friday, July 17, 2015

The Philippines: haven for refugees

Note: This photo-essay appeared in the 10-16 July 2015 issue of the FilAm Star, the weekly 'newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America' published in San Franciso, CA. This author/blogger is the Manila-based special news/photo correspondent of the paper.

UNHCR’s Bernard Kerblat spoke highly of our 
“strong humanitarian tradition.”
Sometime in May this year, the Philippine government announced openness to accept thousands of Bangladeshi and Rohingya people on small boats adrift in the Andaman Sea if ever they reach our territory.  This was met, of course, with positive and adverse reactions from the public through the social media.

Bernard Kerblat, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) submitted that, yes, the Philippines would have given them refuge if they landed on Philippine shores, recalling the country’s “strong humanitarian tradition.”

He said that eleven years before the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, we already had Commonwealth Act 613 or the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940, which authorized the president to allow aliens to come here “for humanitarian reasons.” But even before its enactment, President Manuel Quezon already gave asylum to some 1,300 European Jews in the country.   

 “We discovered that very few people are aware of what your ancestors did to welcome refugees,’’ Kerblat revealed in his lecture on “The Philippines and asylum – a historical perspective” at the National Museum, which coincided with the celebration of World Refugee Day.

About 6,000 “White Russian Refugees” evacuated from Shanghai
 to Tubabao Island, Guiuan, Eastern Samar in 1949. (Photo courtesy
 of the Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation)
“Our ancestors” were the Filipino generations from 1923 to 2000 who gave asylum to nine waves of refugees from Asia and Europe: first wave of White Russians (1923), Jews (1934-1940), Spanish Republicans (1939), Chinese (1940), the second wave of White Russians (1949-1953), Vietnamese (1975-1992), Iranians (1979), Indochinese (1980-1989), and East Timorese (2000).

The lectures was part of a series that the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation has scheduled for the year to commemorate Quirino’s 125th birthday.

Kerblat toured us into the nine waves, and focused on the second wave of White Russians who came during the watch of President Quirino. Taking them in was a challenge to the new republic because it was then in the process of recovery and reconstruction from the ravages of World War II.

Refugee children enjoying their snacks and soda. (Photo by 
Nikolai Hidchenko. Courtesy of the Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation).
“Tiempo Ruso” was the theme of the parallel commemorative exhibit, which was set up by the Qurino Foundation based on the research of Kinna Gonzalez Kwan for her graduate program at the University of Sto. Tomas. 

Kinna Kwan hails from Guiuan, Eastern Samar, and her mother is the mayor of that town. “Tiempo Ruso” is the term that Guiuan people fondly call the four years when the White Russians stayed in Tubabao Island, which belongs to the town.  The Kwan mother and daughter have started connecting with the former refugees who settled in different countries around the world.

“White Russians” has no racial connotation. It refers to those who opposed the Socialist Revolution of 1917. Those who supported were the “Reds”.

Many White Russians sought refuge in Europe and America. Many also fled to China and settled in Peking (Beijing), Tientsin (Tianjin), Harbin, and Shanghai. They were safely ensconced there until Mao Tse Tung and his liberation army started to rule over China.

Young men and women enjoying their good times at the 
Tubabao camp. (Photo by Val Sushkoff. Courtesy of the 
Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation).
The White Russians feared that they may be persecuted and possibly repatriated to the USSR. Thus, in December 1948, in their desire to flee China, the Russian Emigrants’ Association, through the International Refugee Organization (IRO), predecessor of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), sent circular letters to all the free countries seeking help and protection of their governments, relocation of White Russian employees in their firms in China to safer regions, and temporary asylum for 6,000 people.

Many countries expressed sympathies. The only country that was willing to accept them was the Philippines, the young republic under President Elpidio Quirino.

The country opened Tubabao Island for them.  The island was the receiving station for the US Naval Base in Guiuan during the Second World War.

President Quirino visited the refugee camp in October 1949. (Photo by 
Nikolai Hidchenko. Courtesy of the Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation)
When the White Russians arrived in the Tubabao aboard rusty ships crewed by Chinese prisoners, the island had turned into a jungle, and what remained were dilapidated Quonset huts of the Americans. They found some fishing families living along the beach.

The White Russians were composed of 12 national groups: Russian, Armenian, Estonian, Germans and Austrians, Turko Tatar, Romanian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Czechs and Yugoslav, Polish, Latvian, and Hungarian.  There were teachers, doctors, engineers, architects, ex-military officers, lawyers, artists, performers, and priests, among others.

With the help of Filipinos, the refugees were able to transform the jungle into a “little Russian city” comprising 14 districts with democratically-elected leaders. They had communal kitchens, power stations, Russian schools, hospital and dental clinic, arbitration court, police force and a little jail, and churches for different faiths.  They transformed the church left by the Americans into a wooden Russian Orthodox church.

As their life improved and acquired normalcy, they improvised an open air movie theater, held dance parties, poetry readings, art exhibitions, lectures and performances by acrobats and dancers; they also formed an amateur theater company and an orchestra.

Pres. Quirino was a hero to the refugees. (Photo by Nikolai 
Hidchenko. Courtesy of the Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation)
They also had to earn a living.  Some taught piano and ballet to the children of Guiuan. Thus, they became friends of local families. Through these encounters, they left a legacy in Guiuan: piano playing and dancing like ballerinas.

President Quirino visited the camp on 28 October 1949. There was something that he did that former refugees remember: he ordered the barbed-wire fence around the camp removed. To them, that was an act of acceptance, goodwill and trust.

A religious stayed with them for several months: Vladyka (Bishop) John Maximovitch, who served as their spiritual leader from Shanghai to Tubabao. People of Guiuan recall stories about him as the holy man who blessed the camp from four directions every night to ward off typhoons and other dangers. He was canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in July 1994.

The White Russians were to stay only for four months. The country extended its hospitality until 1953 because of delays in the resettlement.  

A streamer of gratitude to the Philippines. (Photo by Larissa 
Krassovsky. Courtesy of Pres. Elpidio Quirino Foundation)
Living a free and contented life in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Uruguay, Surinam, USA, France and Belgium today, former refugees continue to remember Tubabao Island, and with gratefulness, the benevolent and timely response of our country to the Philippines to their plight.

From former refugee Contantine Koloboff: “Philippines did a fantastic job of being friends with us, accepting us ... to me, it was a very special time of my life. I appreciate that period, it shaped the rest of my life.”

When typhoon Yolanda struck Samar and Leyte in 2013, the White Russians sent help to the devastated town of Guiuan.

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