Defiance.

Defiance.

Defiance does not always equate to an armed struggle or to cause destruction to prove a point or rally support for an anti-establishmentarian cause. Defiance does not always equate to a state of conflict and terror.

The opposite is just as true.

In many ways, defiance is found in the quiet smiles of children, which break into gales of laughter when taught a funny dance or when shown what they look like in the LCD display of a camera.

Defiance is the rebuilding of classrooms, which were previously burned down by separatists rebels for no apparent reason (which illustrates a point: how dare they claim to be fighting for ideology when it is the future of their own children that they compromise?).

Defiance is found in the word for “peace” in the vernacular, painted brightly and boldly on the walls of the school. It is the silent roar of every child, that which they yearn for in this remote village.

Defiance is the handprint of each child in the school, pressed firmly on the walls, a sign of ownership on their future—a future marked with possibilities and opportunities, rooted firmly in education.

Defiance is a song of love, one that calls for the world to think of loving each other before anything else. It is the song from the mouths of the children, sang in unison, loudly and clearly.

Defiance is fighting for a life of peace and a future full of promise. These are what we fight for, together with the children of Tuup Elementary School in Patikul, Sulu.

Tuup

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Multiple Faces of Sulu, Multiple Dimensions of Peace

Peace.

It is such a simple word, the kind we take for granted. We take it for granted, because it is easy to define, yet our definitions are limited by own experiences and understanding.

People easily define peace as the state where there is no conflict. But really, how many of us truly understand what it means to achieve this—and the harder question of maintaining it.

My latest trip to Sulu did not come without more than a few concerns, particularly from my dad. “Haven’t you been reading the news? They just had an encounter with the Marines and people were killed!” he said.

I just shrugged, “My ticket has been booked already,” conveniently forgetting to mention to him that I was headed to Patikul.

I could be branded reckless and insane, but Sulu has a pull to me that I struggle to explain to those who could only see it for the conflicts reported in the news. Perhaps I can explain it through the kids that I’ve been privileged to meet in the province.

 

At the Start, Classrooms for Hope

The main reason why I have been traveling to Sulu is for TEN Moves, a public fundraising campaign for the construction of 10,000 classrooms nationwide. TEN Moves builds schools not only in areas were overcrowding persists, but also in areas that have been largely underserved.

Brgy. Buhanginan in Patikul, Sulu is one of these areas, and Kaunayan Elementary School is located about three kilometers from the recent fighting between the Marines and the Abu Sayyaf Group. The school was almost forced to close down in 2004 for one reason or another, and vestiges of being forgotten were evident in the old school building.

The school is getting a new lease on life, with the unveiling of five new classrooms and a library. Prior to the turnover ceremonies, I met up with some “old friends”—Kaunayan’s football team, who I met earlier in Manila when they participated in the Football for Peace tournament.

They were all eagerly waving Philippine flags and gamely posing for the camera, recounting their experience in Manila in between. Little did I know that the boys were to perform during the turnover ceremonies with a couple of dance numbers. Talk about being the darlings of the show.

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The teachers also told me the boys had been performing better in school, with at least three team members belonging to the top five of their classes.

This becomes an interesting counterpoint to the recent armed encounter—I’ve been told two of the Abu Sayyaf guys killed were dropouts of Kaunayan Elementary School itself.

I look at photos Nirhun Arbani and his teammates, and I really hope they have a brighter future, with football and new classrooms just being the start.

 

A Reminder of Sacrifices Made

We made a quick trip to Kan-Ague Elementary School, which could have well been a homecoming of sorts to my friends, Tops, who wrote the screenplay of “Patikul”, a movie that shares the story of Kan-Ague Elementary School’s beloved principal, Gabriel Canizares, who was beheaded by rebels in 2009.

A solitary marker sits in the middle of the school, to me a reminder of the great risks and sacrifices that teachers make just to provide kids in seemingly forgotten places with an education.

There was a little girl in the school with a smile I cannot forget. I hope she won’t be forgotten.

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What Little and What Overflows

Brgy. Danag sits high up in Patikul, and we went there to witness the graduation ceremonies of the community’s summer school, with the Marines doubling up as teachers.

As the vehicle approached the site of the ceremonies, the kids were lined up on the side of the road, waving flags that bore the words, “I ❤ MBLT-6”, in reference to Marine Battalion Landing Team 6, whose men serve as their teachers. I got out of the vehicle to take photos of the kids, but the next thing I knew, they started handing me freshly picked flowers—more than a load that I could possibly carry, but there was no way you could refuse.

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I honestly wanted to cry—perhaps the only time I’d ever consider crying over flowers given to me. There is no sweeter gesture than it. It becomes even sweeter when I learned that the kids had their parents help them pick out the best flowers.

It is humbling to realize what little they could offer, yet the offer what is possibly the best. The heart overflows.

 

The Little Team that Could

Indanan’s football teams from a couple of schools regularly visit Camp Bud Datu to play football, and their trek up the mountains where the camp is located is made easier by the Marine trucks that serve as school buses to ferry them between school and the best available football field.

These were boys that considered every game the biggest game of their lives, especially as they have seen what football could bring to them. The boys say that football has taught them discipline, friendship, and teamwork (they also like Phil Younghusband, “kasi magaling… at guapo!”). This, plus the honing of their skills, helped the boys finish third overall in the Football for Peace tournament.

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They asked me if I could visit their school, I smiled and said I would the next time I visit Sulu. They also also asked me where they could watch more football games, since the only channel they could view didn’t air such.

I said I’ll try and send them some football matches to watch—after all, there’s no harm in fueling aspirations of representing the country in the international stage. (Any help in supplying videos of must-watch football games is also welcome.)

 

Revisiting What Has Been Put Up

Hadji Hassiman Elementary School sits on a crowded and bustling neighborhood in Sulu, and if not for the vibrant peace mural on the school’s wall, its existence may be easily forgotten. I visited the place to give Principal Bakil the books that his students have requested for their library.

Unlike the first time I visited the school, there were only a few kids present, on account of the summer break, but one familiar face was there—Alyannah, the girl who wrote to the community elders about the school’s need for classrooms, the girl who graduated valedictorian of her batch. She is now set to attend a high school that is just separated from Hadji Hassiman ES by a cement wall. One thing hasn’t changed, however—that bright, bright face.

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One would be glad to know that Principal Bakil and the teachers have secured and maintained the new classrooms, even as these were used as voting centers during the recent elections.

There’s a newfound energy in Hadji Hassiman ES, and I felt it with the enthusiasm of the teachers geared up for the next school year.

It’s a brighter road ahead.

 

Postscripts

There is infinitely so much more to Sulu than what many people think it is. Yes, the reality is that it is not a safe place where you and I could roam freely (and this is probably the only time I get to have an armed security escort)—but if one dares, there are stories that need to be shared.

Someone once said I must love what I do to even dare do it—and I do. Not only that, I’ve learned to love Sulu and its people.

This is why the work is not yet done, and this is why I will return.

You can also read more about Sulu’s young football players here: In war-torn Sulu, football brings hope for peace and a better future.

The Kids of Sulu

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.