When Marawi is our only hope
At two in the morning, a time when even angels are fast asleep, ping! goes a digital beep. My eyes escape from sleep while the screen lights up to deliver a message — one that bears the heavy Mindanawon accent of the one who sent it: “Salamat ole sa tolong nyo, Kuya.” Thank you again for your help.
It is Fatah, a child from Marawi, and no sooner is the message read than a heart string is pulled (no, grabbed). But I can’t help but ask: Meron ba talaga kaming nagawa? Have we really done something?
At two in the morning days earlier, I was on the other end of the phone line, texting: “See you all, the bus leaves at three.” It was for 25 teachers (11 from Junior High and 14 from Senior High) gearing for a mission to help Marawi: to go where there is greater need — in this case a soup kitchen in Saguiaran, a town near the besieged city — and assist the evacuees in whatever way we could, be it preparing food or lending an ear to their stories.
In Saguiaran we saw something that we thought we could only see in the movies — evacuees in tent cities, all there since May 23, 2017, the day when the siege of Marawi began. Kusina ng Kalinga, our partner in this endeavor, was set up in Saguiaran a mere two or three weeks after the start of the siege, catering to 1,000 children that by November — when we arrived — had grown to 4,500.
As we brought out some frisbees preparatory to making friends with the children, a friend caught sight of a naked boy whom he asked: “Nasaan ang damit mo, paano tayo maglalaro?” To the question of where his clothes were, the boy responded with a sheepish smile. I was relieved to see him clothed the next day, but the day after that he was naked again. “Wala ka na naman damit,” my friend teasingly said. The child said his clothes were being washed. And it was six months since he last saw home.
There was another boy who, after falling in line for food, rushed to finish his meal and, without washing his plate, handed it to his brother so that the latter could line up and get something to eat. Such were the daily stories. According to Kuya Jun, the head of operations, some of the evacuees had barely an hour to pack the necessities before the siege began. That’s why they barely had clothes to wear, he said.
Four teachers volunteered to travel closer to the besieged city—to Bito Elementary School in a nearby sitio, to join some coaches and to teach the teachers and soldiers how to play rugby. When we got to Bito, there were children all over the place. There was something beautiful and painful about it—that beauty still remains despite the fighting and the bloodshed, and that a spark of peace still smolders in the children at play. While the coaches provided a crash course on rugby, it was up to three teachers — Mr. Hernando, Ms. Fernando and Mr. Boone — and myself to play with the kids.
This was where I met Fatah and his friend Mohammed. This was where Raine (Ms. Fernando) sat down to listen to some of those who had first-hand experience of the war, and those with relatives who had encountered Omar Maute himself. In all their storytelling, their faces were the same — serene.
Life must continue—the faces of the adults seem to tell us—not for ourselves but for the children. And with each passing day, we continued to see, not the darkness that extremist ideologies wanted to spread, but the light of hope that the darkness will never overcome. The children of Marawi seemed to see this hope far clearly than we did.
They asked us to come back so we could all play together again, while school was still out: Balik kayo bukas, kuya, ha? Laro uli tayo. Hangga’t wala pang pasok. But this did not mean that the extended suspension of classes made them hate school. When Ms. Fernando handed out books, the boys and girls left the playground and rushed to get their copies. Bilisan mo, they told each other. Hurry up. I’m next.
That struck me hard: They were so hungry for books.
Three days later, we were preparing to go back to Manila.
After the ceremonial goodbye, the sharing of anecdotes with friends, I sat in silence and told myself: Meron be talaga akong nagawa? Have I really done something? It seems I received much more than I gave.
The children of Marawi taught me hope — the kind that, Gabriel Marcel says, helps us turn to a light that is not yet there. Yet hope is a child, as the French poet Charles Peguy describes her. And she is in need of her sisters, faith and charity.
At two in the morning, a time when even angels are fast asleep, I find the answer: Meron namang nagawa. Binigyan ng kaunting ginhawa ang pag-asa, pero marami pang magagawa. Huwag nating patayin ang pag-asa.
Something was done. Hope was given some relief, but much more can still be done. Let us keep hope alive. (Those who want to help may course their donation through the Ateneo Center for Educational Development, 4266001 local 4026.)
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Karlo Valladores, 24, is from Angono, Rizal.
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