Changing the Odds through Madaris Volunteers

[for Pakighinabi, Manila Times, 29 June 2015]

The National Association of Bangsamoro Education, Inc. (NABEI) was launched on March 9, 2014 in the joy and optimism of the signed Framework Agreement Bangsamoro. In the rejoicing that the armed struggle may finally have been over, Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was quick to say, “Our jihad, our struggle, is not yet finished. We are elevated to another jihad that is more difficult.… The difficult path is now passed from freedom fighters to the educators. You educators are now on the frontline.” It was a stirring call to genuine education in a packed gathering that mixed madrasah educators with armed revolutionary warriors assenting to the insights of Ebrahim with the oft-repeated chant, Allahu akbar! Allah is great!

I was impressed by the deep desire of the MILF leadership to lead its Muslim peoples beyond the armed struggle towards peace and prosperity through education. Ebrahim pulled no punches in pointing out that the standards of Islamic education must not fall short of the standards of Catholic education such as offered by the Notre Dame schools or the Ateneos. But how do this when the quality of Islamic schools and the quality of their teachers were so dismally low?

Madaris Volunteer Program

 On Good Friday of 2014, it was my privilege to meet Chairman Ebrahim; I was accompanied by Dr. Ombra Imam, President of the NABEI. On that occasion, I asked the Chairman whether in the spirit of his “greater jihad” he would be willing to support the idea of volunteers from schools of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) to teach DepEd mandated courses like mathematics, science and history in Islamic schools or madaris (plural of madrasah). His warm and welcoming consent at that meeting led to the eventual organization of the CEAP-NABEi Volunteer Program. Today, it is referred to simply as the Madaris Volunteer Program (MVP).

After Mamasapano and the rough sailing the Bangsamoro Basic Law is encountering in the legislature, the optimism about peace and prosperity through the Bangsamoro in Muslim Mindanao is dampened. Frustration and uncertainty about the future is palpable in conversations, even as younger groups of MILF leaders have urged their Chairman not to accept a watered-down version of the BBL. But the commitment to “the greater jihad” lives, despite the uncertainties about the first.

It is in this context that the deployment of the first batch of the Madaris Volunteer Program last Thursday in Notre Dame University of Cotabato was specially significant. The twelve volunteers from the Ilocos, Manila, Bicol, Cebu, Samar, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Maguindanao and Zamboanga would contribute to the educational effort in ten selected madaris of Maguindanao, including the Ibn Talmiyah Foundation Academy in Sultan Kudarat, the Dar Al Uloom Wai Hikmah in Tamontaka, Cotabato City, the Markaz Al Husaim in Datu Piang, the Mahad Saada Al Arabie Integrated School in Nabawalag, Datu Salibo, and the Datu Ibrahim Pendatun Paglas III Foundation Inc. in Poblacion, Datu Piglas. They would assist in teaching non-religious courses and do their best to help raise the levels of learning in the madaris to those of quality schools. Their college degrees suggested they were qualified to work at a level of competence beyond the academic capability of the average basic education teachers in the ARMM. But they were aware the challenge required much more than academic degrees.

Teachers, but also Learners

The volunteers were not entering the communities just as assistant teachers, but as learners. For most of them, it would be their first experience of a community where the culture and the religion of the people were different from their own. Each of the volunteers would be welcomed into the home of Muslim family. They would experience family life in a Muslim home, their sources of joy, their concerns, their work, play, conversation and love among themselves. They would experience their manner of worship within the family and in the community. They would then experience the welcome and care not only of the family but of the whole local community. Over the ten-month volunteer period, the hope is that they would make deep and lasting make friends. Theirs would not only be “Peacebuilding through education,” as printed on their T-shirts, but “Peacebuilding through friendship,” as might be imprinted in their hearts. They would be changed by encountering a world not their own, but so changed, they would contribute in cultural sensitivity to a more peaceful world they must own.

It was in this context that Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Chair of the Coordination Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH-GPH), told me that the Madaris Volunteer Program was a truly great contribution to the peace process. One batch could lead to many batches. One friendship could lead to multiple relations of lasting peace.

DepEd Sec. Bro. Armin Luistro expressed similar thoughts in his missioning address, as he praised the volunteers for their generosity in desiring to teach and their willingness to risk learning from unknown cultural contexts. He took a dig at politicians who give themselves as experts in solving all the problems of the Muslim communities without ever having set foot on local Maguindanao soil. He urged the communities to take as good care of the Madaris volunteers as he had experienced Muslim communities take heroic care of their teachers in times of crisis. The gratitude for a teacher and the appreciation for a friend contribute to peace that is at the heart of both the Christian and the Muslim.

Volunteers Against the Odds

The great gift on this occasion, however, were the twelve volunteers themselves. Many others were attracted to the MVP, but did not decide for it. Some decided for it, yet backed out. The twelve remaining were not naïve to the tensions on the ground created by the political grandstanding in Manila. They were not unaware of conflicts, bloodshed and wars in the world context emanating from receptions of Islam different from those of peace-seeking Muslim Filipinos. Yet they were volunteering, now bonded to each other in shared purpose, to make a contribution to the greater jihad through teaching, excited about entering the Muslim communities, wanting somehow to make a difference – for no salary, but for reasons known only to each’s willing heart.

The mother, Leny Nerva, of one of the volunteers, Kareena Jana, addressed her daughter on social media: “At times it’s beyond my comprehension why you have to be a volunteer. This is one trip that you have taken that made me not afraid but apprehensive. Funny how I search for meanings and explanations of volunteerism or what volunteers are really meant for. I found this to be meaningful: ‘Volunteering is an act of heroism on a grand scale. And it matters profoundly. It does more than help people beat the odds. It changes the odds.’”

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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