"Sometimes an outside organization with a big heart can act as a bridge to bring a divided community together to inspire the common good," says teacher Tarhata, who teaches 5th grade in the town of Jolo in an area of Muslim Mindanao historically known as "the islands of fear." Natural disasters and sudden communal violence are abundant in the Philippines, which is anchored by the southern Sulu island region, near the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Sulu, a school-aged population of close to 500,000 children and youths are mostly impoverished and malnourished. Sulu Province with a majority Muslim population remains at the bottom of the UN's worldwide Human Development Index. Few schools have books, clean water, adequate nutrition and lack basic tools for livelihood training. In 2017 martial law was declared across the province by the national government in Manila. However, violent crime and kidnapping for ransom has once again increased.
Unusual harsh weather, such as flooding caused by the recent out-of-season Typhoon Vinta has intensified the suffering of families caused by the ongoing conflict in the southern Midanao region. Many school aged children and their families have become displaced especially from outlying rural areas. Even though Sulu schools and public health services are already overburdened and underfunded by local goverments, there are no large international agengies engaged in providing support to tdesperate diplaced communities. It takes a small and maneuverable all-volunteer organization backed by modest international donors to come to the rescue and fill the gaps. Asia America Initiative has 16 years of experience in Jolo and surrounding rural areas. In addition, AAI Director Al Santoli has used lessons learned from community-based relief efforts in the Christian Visayas region to structure programs in Muslim Sulu such as the mass feeding of school childen and community teamwork.
"With financial contributions from GlobalGiving," says Santoli, " our voulunteers of all ages from grandparents to elementary school sudent nurses, have come to the rescue on numerous occasions." AAI Feeding and Reading programs are providing a nutritious meal each day, cooked and served by parents. The summer reading classes emphasize "child to child" mentoring to the displaced children whose schools have been closed or burned down. The teachers in the community have noticed many of the children are older in age and would normally already be working to help support their families rather than attending school. But education is a statement of hope that many families hold on to in a merciless environment.
An extra benefitof the program," says Principal Merhama in Jolo, "is it createas a rare opportunity for meeting and bonding with these children and their families. With help from AAI we can provide comfort through nutrition, washing facilities, clean drinking water and medical support. Of course, exposure to reading classes may open up an opportunity for the children to attend regular school year classes at least part time and keep them away from violent revenge activities. If not for AAI and their donor support, practically none of this could be possible."
Younger children who have been displaced can be identified and registered to attend the regular school year in the more urban Jolo region. "Often times, children from deeply rural areas, especially girls, do not attend school as they may be very far away and conditions may be too dangerous for them to travel alone," observes Teacher Tarhata. "AAI sponsored feeding programs offer an incentive for the families, especially mothers, aunts and grandmothers, to participate in the preparation of a daily meal during the regular school year."
Thanks to our experiences in Cuartero Capiz in Visayas, Asia America Inititative has learned how to empower elementary schools in regions where children are victims of natural and man-made disasters. Inter-faith community efforts teach students the value of cooperation. We provide clean water and hygiene tools. We support literacy, livelihood, gardening, and school lunches by parents to enhance health, economic progress and peace.
Using the schools as community mediation and planning centers, AAI encourages positive interaction through equal treatment of various cultural and religious groups. "AAI is a good listener and allows everyone to provide good ideas. This patient engagement transcends cultural differences,and fosters mutual respect and inspiration," says Principal Merhama, "This bond of communication is the foundation for building trust and long-term progress."
BUILDING BRIDGES TO PEACE THROUGH COMMUNITY COOPERATION
Principal Kauzar Ibrahim, Manilop Elementary School, Indanan, Sulu, Philippines
February 27, 2018
This school year of 2017-18 was full of more successes than we could imagine! How did this happen? Well, as the saying goes “Two or many heads are better than one.” We will never succeed if there is only one person willing to stand and do every little thing. It takes full community teamwork to build a bridge from poverty and violence to achieving peace and academic success.
Our community had been plagued by generations of instability and poor quality of health and education. In 2015 we began a remarkable transformation at Manilop Elementary School in Indanan District on Jolo island in the Philippines. From the very start, we emphasized that Manilop community is composed of hard work, cooperation and smiles. Teachers here are hard-working -- whether they’re paid or not. The majority of the teachers here are unpaid volunteers. Luckily we have a supportive and cooperative barangay [village] captain who is always there to understand what we really need. We also have a District Education Supervisor who stands with us.
How do we emphasize this so-called 'cooperation’? It started when the caring and fun loving President of Asia America Initiative Professor Albert Santoli sent us library books, games and artistic equipment for our young students to ease the trauma from what we called the violent Manilop Incident in July 2016. We immediately informed our Barangay Captain and he responded by giving pencils and crayons to make use of those fun books. WOW! That was a good start of our partnership!
Another issue was our Kindergarten Classroom. Without a budget for construction or repairs, our Kindergarten learners were suffering in a small, over-heated bamboo shack. We made a project proposal, solicitations, and contributions from PTCA [Parent – Teachers Cooperative Association] and Prof. AAl sent us 50,000 pesos [1,000 US dollars]. So with our cooperation, a government proposed hundred thousand-peso project was reduced to only half of that. The 50K from “Prof. Al” was matched by the community by our school donating hollow blocks. Ply wood, cements, sand and gravel were donated by concerned friends. Wood and construction materials came from Barangay Captain and what mattered most -- the FREE LABORERS’ FEE. Some women in the community prepared food and meals for the carpenters. That’s the least thing we can do because we could not be able to give money to the carpenters.
During the last quarter of School Year 2016-2017, AAI sponsored the Mass Feeding Program where all of our students were able to eat. That was also a 50-50 partnership program. But rather than letting the child or the parents provide eight pesos to make it 16 we agreed to let them bring veggies, spices, fire woods, water, and most of all, the time and effort they have spent with us during the feeding program.
Just recently, Manilop Primary School was elevated to a full Elementary School, grades Kinder through Six. We therefore needed to have a classroom to cater our Grades 5 and 6 enrollees. As usual, we informed our Barangay Captain, the PTCA and other stakeholders about it. Alhamdulillah we had an immediate positive response. Like before we knocked on our beloved supporter’s heart and “Prof Al” sent us funds for the classroom shack construction. Then, a few days later, Prof. Al sent us a number of armed chairs so that our new fifth and sixth graders can sit comfortably.
Indeed, teamwork really matters. For it is the key to success especially in a school or any other social organization. And now just like other schools in our Indanan South District, Manilop Elementary School, is a school which overcame violence and the lack of basic food and water. This was due to hard work, cooperation and smiles. We are now well-prepared to assist learners achieve their goals in life and serves as a bridges to peace to walk on the right path.
Thank you Asia America Initiative and your donors at GlobalGiving.
In October 2017, I was aboard an airplane to the Christian inhabited Panay Island, in the Philippines which is in the fourth year of recovery from massive destruction caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. I was accompanied by public school teachers, including Jamila from Sulu Province, a 5th grade teacher of Muslim heritage. She nervously cried and voiced her concerns. She feared that ethnic Ilongo Christian teachers and children would fear and consider her a "terrorist" or "bad person" because it would be the first such meeting and skills exchange between Christian and Muslim teachers who are connected through programs created by Asia America Initiative. I was confident that her fears would be unfounded because all of our schools -- whether Christian or Muslim -- shared a commitment to a better life for their children. The role of AAI members are peace builders who "bridge between cultures." The results of our first "bridge" meeting were truly inspiring.
Building peace and preventing hostility between neighbors of diverse cultures and religions in many countries often begins in the public schools, which can become de facto "zones of peace." Although teachers are targeted for murder or kidnapping by terror groups such as al Qaeda or ISIS, in many places the every day struggle is against dire poverty, hunger and lack of social justice. To create neutral environments we incorporate security, effective social progress and fun activities for kids, in order to lure kids away from violence, extremism and drugs.
In AAI partner schools, as part of the public school system, children of all factions and economic sectors of a community sit in the same classrooms to develop tools that will improve their future. Parents, teachers and students work together to grow school gardens. And Moms cook daily lunches made of nutritious local fresh foods to strengthen the childen's health and learning capacity. In addition, we purchase water tanks that catch rain to provide clean water for hygiene, including hand washing and tooth brushing.
We have chosen the Philippines as a model because it is a nation of 7,000 islands and numerous cultures with more than 100 languages spoken. The vast archipelago has pervasive poverty and other social and health issues that create tension among the country's 100 million people. During the past ten years, these picturesque islands have also been among the hardest hit areas of world by massive natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and powerful typhoon rains and wind. In addition, the southern Mindanao region has the longest standing civil conflict in the world between native Muslim tribes and the mostly Christian national government.
Beginning in 2002, Asia America Initiative has worked to deter prejudice and violence by demonstrating equal amounts of humanitarian and educational support to storm devastated Christian and Muslim communities and areas terrorized by lawlessness, armed conflct and martial law in the central Visayas Region and in the southern Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. We use innovative approaches that involve feeding the hungry, providing hygiene where clean water is difficult to access and modernizing classrooms with shipments of textbooks and school supplies. The children in these areas come from large families with parents earning less than $2 or $3 per day.
AAI has relied upon electronic communication and social media to share and discuss the various techniques and methodologies of full community support in our elementary and high school programs. This brings various families and clans together for the common good of their children's success. This October 2017 in the midst of heavy typhoon rains AAI Director Albert Santoli had the opportunity to bring a small group of school teachers from Sulu in Muslim Mindanao from the Tausug tribe and language to Cuartero, Capiz in Visayas to exchange views and observe programs with ethnic Ilongo teachers and pupils. The results have been inspiring and wonderful.
Things that I've learned in creating school and church recovery programs after the Great Typhoon have been applied successfully been applied in Christian and also Muslim communities in Sulu at schools and mosques. As we walked into the school yardof Cuartero National High School, a nervous Teacher Jamilla and our Muslim delegation from Jolo was pleasantly greeted by traditional Ilongo music and folk dances. Following the colorful folk dances we first created a structured question and answer session for the hosts and visitors to "break the ice" and get to know each other.
All of us - Christian and Muslim -- discovered that our mutual concerns as teachers are universal, as in any place in the world. In 2018, Asia America Initiative seeks to expand the interaction between teachers of diverse faiths and cultures to be a foundation for peace building that can be replicated in other areas of the Philippines and other regions of the world.
We hope that our loyal donors in the GlobalGiving community and new partners who discover the benefits of our holistic educational programs will extend your support to empower our noble educators. They deserve our support to buiild peace in frontline areas and to overcome poverty, hunger and armed conflict.
In June and July 2017, in the midst of a fierce “war on drugs” across the country and Martial Law declared in the Christian region of Visayas and Muslim Mindanao region of the Philippines, Asia America Initiative Director Albert Santoli made a working visit to AAI-supported communities. The atmosphere of peace and order is being maintained by continuous support of the local schools through extensive community cooperation. AAI programs are largely funded by donations from the GlobalGiving worldwide community and the willingness of local residents, school parents and security officials to work together to ensure a “Child Friendly” and safe “Peace Zone” around every school.
On July 4, a touching and courageous event took place in an elementary school courtyrard on the island of Jolo where ISIS agents are seeking to gain control in Southeast Asia by recruiting children as young as 10 years old into their ranks of terror. Some 200 children representing 20 local schools, their teachers and parents ignored posted threats by militants and conducted an outdoor celebration of music and dance to express their commitment to a better life without violence and fear. AAI Director Santoli joined them to celebrate new daily feeding and clean water programs, as well as expanding a Mini-Nurses program designed for children to learn the values of volunteerism and community action.
"Our humble pride is represented by the Munting Mini-Nurses – boys and girls -- who cheerfully serve their classmates in their schools. Life-long friendships will develop with their partners in service to share a lifetime of service together, building stronger and more peaceful communities,” states Jolo elementary school principal Merhama P.
“Peace and Progress are a community effort,” she continues. “Transformation of a society begins in the heart of each child. Their good character has its roots in basic education in the home and in the primary schools. Even during a difficult period like martial law and threats of kidnap by the criminal groups, we can persevere with the help of AAI and other friends from outside of our home area. Teachers and parents are very grateful for your support to these wonderful children who already value their joy in serving others.”
AAI's clean water and nutrition programs have doubled in three years to serve close to 60 schools in Muslim Mindanao and Christian Visayas with a population of more than 50,000 pupils. We are providing books and school supplies for classroom success as well as nutritious food, clean water and basic health needs for thousands of pre-school, elementary and high school students. By keeping children in school past the age of ten, we prevent them from joining drug gangs, violent communist insurgencies or extremist Muslims who have pledged allegiance to ISIS terrorists.
With your support, we are transforming these communities by being consistent with our presence and providing just enough funding to motivate a "bayanihan" or "communal barn raising" spirit of mutual cooperation. Each model of success encourages people to believe in their own ability and to take action to transform their communities, no matter if they are Christian or Muslim. Two trusted leaders of the AAI family, Sulu Dept. of Education Head Nurse Hja. Shareen L. in Jolo and Senior School Administrator Dr. Luz R. in Cuartero, Capiz in Visayas call this process: Peace-building in Action.
During International Youth Week 2017, please remember our AAI programs and the brave children and their teachers in our communities, who hold the key to defeating the spread of terrorism, with your prayers and your generosity.
In mid-March 2017, the children of Langpas and Commander Bara Elementary Schools in Sulu Province in war zones of Muslim Mindanao, Philippines are showing marked improvement in their attendance, health conditions and classroom performances. "They are still benefitting from the Asia America initiative daily MASS FEEDING PROGRAM," says Indanan South School District Supervisor Samoore L. "It has been six months since Professor Albert M. Santoli Asia America initiative president began generously to expand funds for the program's continuous implementation in all 18 of our District's Elementary schools. The positive results of the partnership between our school administrators and faculties, volunteer parents and the humble but hard working AAI have been far beyond what anyone could have hoped for. This cooperation is an extension of our Tausug tribal cultural tradition of communities working together for the common good." After 50 years of armed conflict and dire poverty, cooperative efforts between peoples of various religious beliefs and cultures is making a profound difference to make education a fun component of peace building.
The Sulu water, nutrtition and academic excellence program was a direct product of AAI's rebuilding experience in areas detroyed by mega storms in the central Visayas region. The process of integrating clean water, school gardens, daily lunches cooked by voilunteer Moms and Dads and the rebuilding of libraries in dozens of schools n Christian Visayas and Muslim Visayas remains the program's hallmark. "The AAI inter-disciplinary strategy began in mid-2014 in areas of Panay Island in Visayas region that were destroyed by the Super Typhoon Haiyan," recalls AAI Visayas coordinator Nurse Faith. At the height of program in 2016 we have fed 2,000 children 4 meals per week -- or 8,000 meals per week -- at 5 pesos per child [10 cents US] of fresh foods locally grown in big pots of soups and stewsd plus rice or noodles for less than $1,000 US total per week, largely from donors through GlobalGiving. Parents, who consdidered it a matter of dignity to not take charity added the other half of the cost." Within one school year the rate of post-typhoon malutrition decreased from close to 80 percent to under 10 percent in AAI served communities. Daily school attendance has increased to close to 100 percent due to the dxel,icious home-cooked meals, and classroom performance and test scores improved off-the-charts. Elmentary school principal, Luz R. observes, "Out of tragedy we found new hope and built our confidence for success."
We look towartd the 2017-18 School year as a time of hope and progress in both Christian and Muslim communities that had once lost their most basic human needs. We are grateful to all GlobalGiving donors whose kindness has been the fuel for our success.
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