Skip to main content

Toronto resident Carla Suralta’s childhood home in the Philippines was severely damaged by Typhoon Haiyan. Because of the destruction, she can no longer wire money to her parents.

The corrugated steel roof of her childhood home in the Philippines has been ripped off and a towering palm tree has crashed into the living room, but Carla Suralta's parents managed to survive Typhoon Haiyan's devastating first assault.

However they, like many others in the Philippines, are now faced with a landscape of broken buildings, emptied or shuttered grocery stores, toppled cellphone towers and wreckage-clogged roads.

Ms. Suralta, a 31-year-old Filipino caregiver in Toronto who lives here with her two-year-old son, is confronting a different problem. The remittance network she has used to send money to her homeland since she arrived in Canada three years ago has been completely disrupted. Instead of simply travelling electronically, her money now has to be traded for goods, loaded on a small boat for a six-hour trip to the small island town where her family lives, and hand-delivered by relatives.

Before the typhoon struck, the World Bank estimated that Filipino workers overseas would send back about $26-billion (U.S.) this year, an amount that is roughly one-tenth of the country's GDP. The Philippines is Canada's largest source of immigrants – and they send roughly $2-billion of that each year. The surging typhoon severed links between the workers and their families back home. With some bank branches closed or destroyed, the sophisticated remittance system has buckled just when the people of the Philippines need it the most – but some people are finding ingenious ways of getting help to their relatives.

Normally, Ms. Suralta sends her hard-earned cash straight to her 69-year-old mother, Visitacion, and her 74-year-old father, Dominador, in Palompon, a small town across the island of Leyte from Tacloban, where looters have roamed the streets and crowds of thousands have gathered at the airport, desperate to leave.

But communication networks have been severed to the payout centres in more remote areas like Palompon. Ms. Suralta lost contact with her parents last week as Haiyan was barrelling toward the Philippines. She didn't discover they had survived until relatives from nearby Cebu island visited her parents and returned to Cebu City, where telecommunications services still worked.

On Cebu, the payout centres are still working, Ms. Suralta learned. So on Tuesday, around lunchtime, she walked into the Toronto office of a remittance firm at Bathurst St. and Wilson Ave. and arranged to send nearly $500 to relatives on Cebu who could then deliver relief to her parents.

"They need food and water," Ms. Suralta said. "That's where I grew up. I lived there my entire life."

The money has already been received, and on Thursday her relatives will take the six-hour boat ride from Cebu to her hometown, weighed down by food and medicine purchased with money she earned as a caregiver in North York. "And not only for my family," Ms. Suralta said, "but also to our neighbours. Because like I said to them, 'We're not the only ones who need it. Everyone needs it.'"

Her money flowed through International Remittance (Canada) Ltd., a division of a publicly listed company in the Philippines that caters to a global Filipino work force with offices across the Asia Pacific, Europe, North America and the Middle East. Belinda Lim Herrera, the firm's country director in Canada, said many provincial payout centres remain disconnected and many large banks in the Philippines have not re-opened branches in typhoon-affected areas because of the worsening security situation.

"Those areas rely heavily on remittances," said Ms. Herrera, who, as part of an Ateneo de Manila University alumni group, has been raising funds herself. "It's actually heartbreaking … Some of our customers here would ask us if we had any way of communicating in those areas, because they have relatives they have not heard from."

Although it is charging for ordinary transfers such as Ms. Suralta's, the firm has waived fees for remittances that go straight to designated charities on the ground in the Philippines.

Mabini Express Inc., a Philippines-based remittance company with a Toronto office, has also waived fees if people donate to registered charities operating in the Philippines. Jojo Mallari, its vice-president of sales, said that since many of the banks, offices and retail outlets that distributed remitted cash to individuals are badly damaged or gone, the charities can reach those in need.

Others are encouraging people to donate to charities in Canada. Erlinda Insigne of the Filipino-Canadian Association of Vaughan said she hopes people rush to take advantage of the Canadian government's offer to match all donations between Nov. 9 and Dec. 8. "We cannot wait," she said. "People are dying and asking for food and water and medicine."

Dilip Ratha, head of the World Bank's migration and remittances unit, said that during natural disasters access to cash via traditional channels such as ATMs and banks dries up and remittances tend to soar. "Remittance services are one of the fastest form of relief," he said. "It is a lifeline."

At the same time, Mr. Ratha points to their flexibility: In some cases, distribution networks on the ground can send motorcycle couriers to deliver cash by hand. He also said governments need to collaborate more with remittance firms collecting donations and noted large companies such as Western Union, Moneygram and some major banks temporarily suspended transfer fees after pleas from U.S. senators during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – something he suggested should happen now.

With a report from Eric Atkins

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct