By Michael Aaron Gomez

Upon receiving the highest grade in English together with two classmates, a fifteen-year-old Grade 10 student from the Gani L. Abpi Colleges, Inc. in Datu Piang, Maguindanao said that their Madaris Volunteer teacher “gave [them] a piece of paper with a short but inspirational message with matching Mentos candy.” One can only guess what that anonymous message could have been, but here is how the student finishes the story:


“Until now, I’m still keeping that piece of orange paper.”



 

Many of the students in the Bangsamoro live in poverty. Worse still, they are also victims of the decades-long armed struggle in Mindanao, a struggle rooted in deep-seated historical injustice (violent robbery of hectares and hectares of ancestral land to satisfy the gruesome appetites of Euro-American imperialism, institutional neglect, and nearly all manner of discrimination). A number of these students have been orphaned by this struggle. Victims of bombs and bullets, weapons that do not distinguish between good and evil, innocent or guilty. Victims whose very birthright seems to be to take up the rifles of their grandfathers and their fathers—warriors embarking on a war eternal.

One way to start breaking this wave of violence is education. To teach the students the value of picking up a book and putting down the gun. To share with them the worth of coloring within the lines so they could learn to color outside them. To open minds to the brightness and multiplicity of the world, to the possibility of a world where Moro and Christian share peaceful lives in one country.

This is where the Madaris Volunteers come in.

The Madaris Volunteer Program (MVP) is an initiative of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) that is implemented by the Ateneo de Davao University in partnership with the Bureau of Madaris Education (BME), National Association for Bangsamoro Education, Inc. (NABEi), and the Regional Government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Every year since its inception in 2015, the program sends able-bodied volunteers to help teach DepEd-mandated subjects at the MVP’s 11 partner madaris. These madaris, located at Cotabato City, Maguindanao, and Lamitan City, are privately run schools that teach the traditional madrasah curriculum (Arabic, the Qur’an, Islamic values), supplemented by secular subjects, such as Math, English, Science.

Realizing that the place to start building peace is the classroom, the MVP has set as its goal the creation of a collaborative space between and among Islamic schools and Catholic schools, where they could share ideas and personnel to improve the quality of education in the Bangsamoro. A teaching program, the MVP deploys its volunteers to the madaris for ten months, or one academic year, ending with the madrasah’s commencement exercises and the program’s culmination activities.

But the mission is not simply teaching work.

These volunteers do not simply clock in and out each day at the madaris, go back to their host families, and tune out the thrum of the community around them. They also try to connect with the rest of the community—as fellow citizens of the world who share their frailties, strengths, passions, and anxieties—even though the people they try to bond with may be wary of any non-Moro stepping foot in their historically despoiled and institutionally underserved area.

The Madaris Volunteer Program deployed the first batch of volunteers in 2015. These volunteers came from a diverse set of backgrounds, from as far north as La Union and as far south as Sulu. Seven of them are non-Muslims from La Union, Naga City, Iloilo City, Davao City, and Cagayan de Oro City; the remaining four are Muslims from South Cotabato, Maguindanao, and Sulu. Notably, most of the volunteers came from reputable universities in the country, such as the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, Ateneo de Manila University, Xavier University, and Notre Dame University of Cotabato.

Results came quickly for the program: enrollment in the partner madaris increased in its second year. Citing the presence of volunteers from Manila in their madrasah, the principal of Al-Dahirie in Guindulungan, Maguindanao, said, “Nung nalaman ng mga parents na may volunteers kami na galing sa Manila at nalaman nila ang mga ginagawa ng mga volunteers, inenroll nila ang mga anak nila dito.”

Meanwhile, the school administrator of Markaz Al-Huzaim in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, reported that the volunteers helped keep the students interested in school, minimizing dropout cases. He said, “Mula sa 100 to 200 enrollees, may mga 30 na nagdrop, madalas lagpas ng midyear. Kumaunti ang nagdrop. Mas gusto na nila dito kaysa sa public school.”

 

The MVP has also helped address the shortage of teachers in the Bangsamoro. Through the program’s Capability Enhancement Training, the MVP has helped build the organic madaris teachers’ capacities. The teachers shared their experiences learning and applying classroom management techniques in their respective classes. The teachers’ time with the MVP opened up their perspectives on becoming better educators, pushing them from the traditional paradigm toward the 21st Century mode.

The challenging aspects of teaching a group of children become apparent in this account of a female teacher at Dar Al-Uloom Wal Hikmah. She says, “Dati kulang ang tingin ko sa sarili ko at sa skills ko. Nagkaroon lang ako ng malaking improvement sa sarili dahil nauunawaan ko na ang iba’t ibang ugali ng mga bata.”

She also recounts an improvement on her communication and interpersonal skills. “Dati, I needed improvement in communication with my co-workers. Ngayon, nakikisali na ako sa pwedeng salihan, especially ‘pag merong katanungan,” she said. “I think I needed more patience to deal with co-workers, especially because I am a new teacher and a Balik Islam. Now, nagkaroon na ng improvement dahil nachallenge ako sa aking sarili.”

Students were also exposed to more learning opportunities, particularly through the novel approaches used by the Madaris Volunteers. Some students reported a renewed appreciation for learning languages such as Filipino or English. Some Grade 6 students also said that their volunteer teacher taught them how to make origami. There was also a student who said that her volunteer teacher opened her mind to the mysteries of the world after being asked to read Shakespeare, and that the teacher also challenged her and her classmates by tasking them to recite poems in front of class.

Students and teachers in the Bangsamoro share a common narrative that the Madaris Volunteers helped them look at Christians and non-Moro people, and allowed them to be more open to working with them. Students recounted how their volunteer teachers treated them like a member of the family, without the baggage of prejudice. The volunteers also told of their understanding of the importance of friendliness with other people and of openness to learn about Islam and Maguindanaoan culture. Faculty members and administrators from the partner madaris reported an appreciation of the female volunteers’ willingness to wear the hijab, as well as the rest of the volunteers’ expression of solidarity with the Muslim community by joining them to fast during Ramadan.

The deployment of Christian volunteers also helped students look beyond stereotypes and then, consequently, break them. Students from the Gani L. Abpi Colleges agreed without reservation that the MVP truly changed the way Moro students looked at Christian teachers, historical objects of their distrust and wariness, whom they could not help but judge.

“I realized that not all Christians from faraway cities like Manila sees us Bangsamoro as the worst and most violent people in the society,” a 17-year-old Grade 10 student says.

Students and pupils from the madaris also saw the first batch of Madaris Volunteers as positive role models, even after a year had passed and the volunteers had all returned home. The pupils remembered how the volunteers treated them more clearly than their actual lessons.

Grade 1 students from Al-Dahirie remembered clearly that the volunteer assigned to them liked to drink coffee, that he went to the mosque to pray every day, and that he had mapiya palangay—good manners. Generally, the pupils mentioned liking their volunteer teachers for their mapiya palangay: they never hit the pupils whenever they made mistakes. The students also learned to be more attentive in class, to throw their garbage properly, and to stop putting their feet up on the stools during class.

The MVP also gave the older students wonderful life experiences they were not likely to forget. These students went on field trips to the cities of Davao and General Santos, and participated in projects initiated by the volunteers. Students from Datu Ibrahim and Markaz Al-Huzaim recalled their field trip to Davao City and Samal Island, seeing the various attractions there, and even unexpectedly seeing a popular young actress from Manila.

Part of this batch of students was a student from Datu Ibrahim, who had the time of his life in their MVP field trip: “Ang hindi ko makakalimutan ay ang pagpunta ko sa Davao at sa Samal Island na lahat kami ay maliligo sa dagat na masayang-masaya dahil magkakasama kami lahat ng classmates ko.”

Sending a group of mostly non-Muslim volunteer teachers into the heart of the historically charged conflict in the Bangsamoro to teach the children universal values of kindness, respect, and love is most assuredly not an easy task. Numerous challenges abound every step of the way and from seemingly every angle—but the Madaris Volunteer Program presses on with the mission, having gradually proven that peacebuilding through education simply works.

The process is not quick: the roots of peace will take a long time to take hold. But eventually, with the help of organizations like the MVP, every peace-loving citizen of Mindanao—every peace-loving Filipino—will come to see a lasting and fruitful peace sprouting from the ground soaked with generations of blood and tears. Because as trite as this may sound, the cliché still holds true: nobody wins in war.

There is only the side that loses more slowly.

These students in the Bangsamoro have all lived through that blistering chaos imprecisely described in popular media, have heard the gunshots popping right outside their houses, have heard the bombs blasting apart markets and people, have heard all the slurs the ignorant have thrown at them because of ahistorical complacency and refusal to understand. They live too far away, after all. They wear different clothes. They speak different languages.

They can also look us dead in the collective Filipino eye and tell us that our complicity in their oppression is undeniable, and that the warped history we have told ourselves over the centuries has ensured it.

But it is organizations like the MVP that do more than their share of breaking the cycle of violence, while spreading empathy and compassion to people who may not know of the Bangsamoro struggle. The MVP too is not just teaching these kids numbers and language, it is also showing them that knowledge is a great tool at defusing misunderstandings and conflict, at starting conversation.

The hope of a conversation between true equals thus becomes closer to reality.

Imagine the student who until now still keeps that piece of orange paper. Maybe he keeps it tucked inside his English textbook. Or maybe he keeps it folded on his table, under the candle or lamp. Maybe he also takes that piece of paper out from time to time, just to look at it. Remind himself of his experience studying under a person who is different from him. He ponders this fact for a minute.

From here, several possibilities open.

But we trust that he eventually settles on this one: he looks at his teacher’s anonymous message one more time, smiles to himself, and then returns the orange paper to its hiding place. Folds it carefully so it doesn’t slip out or fall out. Then he smiles at himself again, nodding with gratitude and self-confidence—his teacher, a stranger, had recognized his efforts.

This piece of orange paper could kickstart the conversation we need.

Or maybe it will be other little meaningful things—but it is the MVP’s promise to keep trying, and to keep teaching. The next batches of Madaris Volunteers should be able to recognize the possibilities hiding within each Bangsamoro student they serve, so that the earlier conversation of guns answering guns could be stopped for good, and we could continue this new conversation of candies and little pieces of orange paper.