“Still Keeping That Piece of Orange Paper”

December 18, 2017

“Still Keeping That Piece of Orange Paper”: Teaching Peace with the Madaris Volunteer Program, One Student at a Time

The Madaris Volunteer Program (MVP) is an initiative of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and is implemented by the Ateneo de Davao University in partnership with the 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—what they call “Pilot-Madaris”—which are themselves privately run schools that teach the traditional madrasa curriculum (Arabic, the Qur’an, Islamic values), supplemented by the aforementioned DepEd subjects: Math, English, Science. These partner-madaris are located at Cotabato City, Maguindanao, and Lamitan, Basilan.


Many of the Bangsamoro students served by the MVP 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 through attempts at Euro-American colonization, institutional neglect, and nearly all manner of discrimination). Not a few 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 stanching 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.


Realizing that the place to start this process 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, beginning with their two-week pre-deployment training at the end of May and ending with the madrasah’s commencement exercises and the program’s culmination activities at the end of April. But the mission is not simply teaching work.


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


These connections are made through sending them (in pairs, if possible) to live for ten months with Muslim host families, who provide them with food and board and access to the schools. With this, the task of the Madaris Volunteer becomes twofold: they must teach well, and more significantly, they must be able to “share their personal experience of Muslim homes and communities in the Philippines to promote and increase insight into, understanding of, and solidarity with Filipino Muslim individuals, families, and communities.”


The Madaris Volunteer Program narrative begins with the first batch of 11 volunteers deployed in school year 2015-2016. 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.


School year 2016-2017 saw the selection of nine committed Madaris Volunteers from a pool of 75 applicants. These volunteers came from Manila, Caloocan City, Laguna, Albay, New Corella in Cotabato City, Marawi City, and Davao City. They are graduates of the Ateneo de Davao University, the Ateneo de Manila University, FEATI University, Mindanao State University, and Cotabato State Polytechnic College.


However, the selection process and subsequent deployment do not come without challenges. In 2016-2017, the 75 applicants were cut down to 51, then whittled down to 17 after initial interviews, then 15 after deliberation, until finally only nine accepted the call and showed willingness to spend ten months in the Bangsamoro. Majority of the applicants backed out for several reasons: either their parents or employers forbade them from joining the program, or their own personal uncertainties and reservations kept them from fully committing to the call.


And then, in the middle of deployment, three of these nine volunteers chose to terminate their contracts with the MVP. One quit in August, the next left in November, and the last one resigned in February.


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 what the student says next to finish the story:


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


Imagine the student who until now still keeps that piece of orange paper. Maybe he keeps it tucked inside his notebook. Maybe in 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. Maybe he takes it out whenever he is studying. Or before he goes to bed. Or before starting his day at school. Remind himself of his experience studying under a person who in most respects that matter is different from him. He considers this fact. Ponders it for a minute, maybe three.


From here, he imagines several possibilities.


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. And these volunteers should be able to promise to give the mission all they have, teach the kids all they could teach, 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.