There are travels that leave you richer in your catalogue of reasons why the world is wonderful, and then there are travels that change you.
My trip to Sulu earlier this March fell could be filed under the latter. My purpose for that trip was to witness the turnover of new classrooms in Hadji Hassiman Elementary School in Jolo, Sulu. While I understood that my role for the trip was to share the story of this TEN Moves beneficiary community, little did I know that the kids I met are making me tell more stories about them—and how they have profoundly impacted upon me.
I admit to jumping at the thought of traveling to a place where social conflict is real and tangible. I admit to mentally freaking out upon landing at the Jolo airport (simply an uneven runway and a shack with an arch that welcomes travellers), with the sight of a battalion of Marines waiting. I admit to silently praying the most number of Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes since grade school, while I was sitting on the flatbed of a Marines truck, praying that nothing involving bullets would occur.
Beyond these initial fears and apprehensions, I once again understood what it meant to open up oneself to life experiences—and I had been reminded of this through the kids of Sulu.
My first memorable encounter of these kids was during a medical mission in Indanan, a town next to Jolo, where one had to ride through dense forest areas before reaching Pasil Elementary School (and yes, we were wearing bright yellow shirts—moving targets, anyone?). Since I didn’t really have a role in the medical mission (Lord knows that while I take my medicines liberally, giving them to other people is a different story altogether!), I did what I knew best—take photos of and with the kids, and play with them.
The perspective does change when you see these kids getting curious over commonplace gadgets like a camera, or a tablet, or an iPhone. The simple act of teaching them how to use these devices is quite a magical experience—it was as if you were witnessing their worlds open up. They were very good at framing their subjects. I told one of the girls that was fascinated with the camera to study hard, so she can study Film in UP—and I meant it. I don’t know if I will ever see that little girl again, but I do hope that she could create magic, somehow, someday.
As we were about to leave the school and head back to Camp Bud Datu, I was surprised by the affection that the girls showed, giving me hugs and kisses. I don’t know if I will ever see them again, but if anything, I have hopes and dreams for them. How could one ever forget those smiles?
Then there were the kids of Hadji Hassiman Elementary School, whose school burned down back in August 2012. Five classrooms were rebuilt through TEN Moves, but this is simply the start of their rebuilding process.
In a town where many adults look at you with suspicion, since they know you are an outsider, it was refreshing to see the kids smile and treat you with so much warmth. It was a Sunday morning, when we were jointly conducting Help-Portrait sessions and having the kids write Thank You notes to the donors. I see them gamely smiling for the camera and taking turns at the limited number of crayons I bought—they were grateful, even if what they have was next to none compared to the schools in Metro Manila.
I spoke with Principal Bakil, and he said that the next thing to be built would be the school library. Even the kids were looking forward to it, as I could read that many of them had asked for books in their Thank You cards.
This is my next project. I don’t know how soon I can go back to Sulu, but I will find a way to get books through to Hadji Hassiman Elementary School. I’ll be collecting books throughout April 2013, so if anyone has anything to share with these kids, please do let me know.
I wrote in my Manila Bulletin article that no child gets left behind, and I sincerely mean it. Let’s not forget these kids who live in a place where there is so much volatility and yes, violence. They deserve so much more.
Coming to Sulu, I had no expectations, just a bit of faith that I’ll be safe and secure. If anything, this trip made me understand that there was so much to the place than just security. There’s so much that needs to be done, to bridge social divides.