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Only Love
[Date Created: August 25, 2015]

by Issa Cuevas-Santos

They say the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn't even think to ask.  Our milestone mission trip to Camp Abubakar was one such journey.  And it began with this: 
“Bakit po ganun?  Ang tingin nila sa amin ay nakakatakot.”
Ani, a young girl who joined our session posed this question to Maymay, one of the members of our mission team.  And she asked it so innocently, with a genuine confusion that pained my heart because I had just asked myself that same question as we were watching the beautiful presentation they had prepared for our arrival.

Beautiful Muslim presentation

The words, "dangerous," or "scary" just seemed to be so inappropriate and irrelevant, as we were welcomed so warmly, like we were long lost-kin.  It was hard to describe the flurry of events, as kids rushed to our side to greet us with their bright smiles.  In that moment, everything we felt could be captured in one word - FAMILY.  Everything that they did made us feel that we were brothers and sisters, even if we had just met. 
And I knew in that moment that this mission trip would forever change the lens through which we viewed the world.  That first encounter told me that Camp Abubakar would give us new eyes and a new heart – if we would allow it.  
Love-filled welcome from the children of Camp Abubakar
"Ito ay laban para sa aming mga pangarap.  Puso at tapang ang sandata."
This is one of the most unforgettable quotes I've ever heard in all my years as a mission worker, and it was uttered by Principal Sally, who founded the Camp Abubakar Siddique School with nothing but her heart and courage.  Camp Abubakar used to be the former headquarters and training camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but was overtaken by military forces when the government launched an all-out war against the MILF in early 2000.  This caused massive and forced evacuations of many families and civilians, and after weeks of heavy artillery bombardment and assaults, all that were left were a few torn down structures, lost lives and deep wounds.
But the roots of the people living there run deep, and they slowly began to return.  Principal Sally's family was one of the first ones who came back but soon realized it would be a long journey to recovery and normalcy.  The most immediate need she saw was for children to be educated, but there was no school nearby for them to go. She then took it upon herself to set up a "school" built only with a makeshift tent held to the ground by a bamboo stick, and with parents serving as volunteer teachers, sharing whatever stock knowledge they had, from the few books they could gather. 
When GK met them in 2005, they shared the dream of having a peaceful and productive community and together with many partners (LGU of Barira under the leadership of late Mayor Alex Tomawis, Smart Communications, Petron, DSWD and the AFP), we helped build almost 200 homes and the school buildings that are now used by over 400 students of the school. 
The reason we were back on this mission trip was again because of a dream that they shared with us - to be able to be K+12 ready with computers and with teachers who were equipped to create excellent learning materials through the use of technology.  What we saw in them was not a request for donation.  From the beginning, we sensed something deeper.  They were fighting for their future - with their stories and with their courage.  They were fighting for their dreams with all their heart. 

Principal Sally shows us that age is just a number

Principal Sally must be at least 75 years old (they do not know their birthdays and ages), but her heart is ageless as she champions the hopes of her community.  As requested, we taught them technology-based teaching methods and she was right there in the front row, proving yet again that one never stops learning, and that we can never be too old to learn new skills and new ways of doing things.  And they are not done dreaming just yet.  They want to be the best school in their district and they want to expand the school to offer college degrees so their high school graduates can finish their education and pursue their chosen careersJust as we started many years ago, it is vision and dreams that we hold on to, and it is what we build and fight for.  And we believe many others will come if we simply share our story and continue planting seeds of hope, everyday.

Love with vision and action transforms.
"Nandito kami dahil gusto naming ipakita at iparamdam na kami ay kakampi
at hindi kalaban." 
Kuya Ken of the AFP's CMO is a favorite of the kids!
On this trip, we were joined by the CMO (Civil Military Operations) and they helped us conduct the sessions with the kids.  Sam and Ken wore plainclothes while interacting with the youth, and it was refreshing to see our military not holding guns but hands of young people who were just learning how to use computers and a mouse.  Peace talks may happen on a different level, but on-ground, we build peace by building friendship to heal wounds and bridge the gaps that war may have created.
Here, the battle is not won by debates or by arms.  It is won by kind words, genuine acts of caring and sharing and a hand reaching out in brotherhood.  And it works.  In the three days we were there, Sam and Ken were not the military.  They were our comrades, and to the young people we taught, they were Kuya Sam and Kuya Ken, ever-ready to answer a question or to lend a hand, or even just to offer a pat in the back or a little encouragement when they were having a hard time. 
Beyond being just peace keepers, we were all peace-builders and I know the seeds we planted will bear fruit that will remain.

Reaching out in love, beyond our borders, brings unity and healing.
“Walang imposible pag walang iwanan.”
Just a month ago, Gawad Kalinga held its first-ever Bangsamoro Youth Conference in Cotabato, with most of the Muslim tribes represented.  It was a special gathering because it was the first time that these young people from various communities around Mindanao met each other and saw the power of their joint conviction to build a peaceful future for Bangsamoro youth.
Maimana Mohiden proudly wears her Walang Iwanan baller band. 
Some of the youth who attended that conference were from Camp Abubakar, and we were thrilled to see them again when we came back.  Their favorite song (and a principle GK holds dearly) goes, “Walang imposible pag walang iwanan.” (Nothing is impossible if we leave no one behind.)  They even shared a word, "DABAGAKWA," which is the Iranon translation for "walang iwanan."  It seems this resonated deeply with them, because we saw it lived out while we were there. 
We had an almost impossible mission – to split the team so we could teach almost 200 youth to code and build their own game, and train 21 teachers on technology-based teaching methods.  All this with only 13 laptops and 3 desktops, a small mission team and only a handful of our participants (including the teachers!) had ever touched a computer before.  We were there to use technology to build bridges of peace!
But GK is no stranger to the seemingly impossible, so we just lifted it up to Him and decided to give it our all.  As the day progressed, we found that the task became easier and the burden lighter, as more and more people began to help.  The first batch, composed of older students, began to teach the younger ones as they did game brainstorming and the hands-on with the laptops.  The teachers who knew a bit more than the others helped us mentor their fellow teachers, while learning new features of Excel and Powerpoint for their grading and their lecture materials.  And despite their own initial fears (as well as ours, too!), we found that EVERY SINGLE team of youth were able to design and build their own Kodu game, and every teacher learned the lessons that we shared. 

Kuya's and their mentees engrossed in game building 
All this became possible not because we had a superhuman mission team, but because we had extraordinary people who went out of their way to make sure no one was left behind.  Anyone who was more advanced was assisting the others, and we all crossed the finish line, TOGETHER.  And it was such sweet, shared success that almost left us in tears as we completed the third day.  
But what touched us the most was their gesture to include and invite students and teachers from other schools so that they too could share in the knowledge and experience.  They could have kept it exclusive, and we had more than enough participants from their school alone, but they were so clear that this blessing was meant to be shared with others.  And it doubled the joy and the feeling of fulfillment knowing that walang iwanan wasn’t just a tagline – it was lived out in every aspect of their daily community life.

Love means dabagakwa.  Love means walang iwanan.
The Ates mentoring the little ones
But as with all mission trips, the day came for us to leave.  One of the most difficult things to do is to say goodbye, especially when your organization's inspiration and principle is "Walang iwanan."  We held back tears as we bid farewell, for now, to the beautiful people who shared a lifetime of life-changing lessons in only three days.  But we were blessed to spend our last night with the Grinos, and to hear from Tito Oscar and Tita Norma how life was when Mindanao knew peace, how they witnessed that peace destroyed and how they have spent their whole lifetime trying to heal the wounds and build peace.
Always a blessing to hear the Grino story first-hand 
The story of the Grinos reads like an epic love story, filled with the tears of war, defining moments and courageous decisions that led them (and all of us) to our work with Muslim brethren in Mindanao.  But after spending more than half their lifetime trying to bring back peace, I was most struck by Tito Oscar's parting words that night.  He told us,

"It may not happen in my lifetime.  Maybe in yours, maybe not even.  Perhaps it will only happen in the lifetime of your children.  But just because it takes us a long time doesn't mean we should stop or give up.  It is a long journey ahead and we have to be patient, but we must not stop.  We will not stop, even if we are the only ones left doing it."
At 35 years old and the halfway mark of my life, I ask myself, what is the one thing in my life that has been worth fighting for?  What is it that is worth living for, and dying for? 
Since we got back from Camp Abubakar, I've been looking at the faces of my children.  In particular, I look at my daughter Calliya as she sleeps and smiles, and her face transforms into the face of little Elila, a girl who just stole my heart while I was there.  From the first moment she smiled at me, to her first hug and the Iranon song she sang when we arrived, to the very last time that I held her before we said goodbye - Elila reminded me that all children are the same. 
Muslim, Christian, rich, poor, born in Manila or Mindanao, my very own children or the ones I meet in GK communities - these children deserve to live in a kinder, more peaceful world than the one we have today.  They deserve to know that there is more to Mindanao than war or conflict.  And they all deserve an equal chance to dream and fulfill that dream.
Elila (left-most) and the kids who captured our hearts 
This can only happen if we have the courage to love, to go beyond our boundaries and comfort zones - to speak for those with no voice, or whose voices are still too faint to be heard.  I am haunted by Ani's question of why we are so afraid, and I know that the first step is to show people that there is nothing to fear. Hopefully, sharing this story can help change that.
On our last day, I had a text exchange with my best friend, Bai Linda Eman, who is a Muslim and is the god-mother of my dearest Calliya.  We made a pact that day that we would go back another time, when it's safe to go with our own children - because this is a story that MUST be experienced, not just told.  Because bridges of peace and friendship are built with presence, and we must simply go.
And if I cannot bring my own family to see what I have seen, then how will I get many others to see it too?  So it begins today.  By finding the courage to tell this story with tears in my eyes and the hope that this story will reach the hearts and hands who can help us build dreams.  Or can help us change their story.
I don't have the answers to the HOW, but the WHY is so clear. Because He loved us first.  Because perfect love drives out all fear. And so we forge ahead  for that which is worth fighting for, living for and dying for.   


Thanks Team for this milestone mission trip!
Special thanks goes out to our friends from Microsoft, Thomson Reuters and the AFP whose support made this all possible, the mission team from Manila who worked so hard to make it happen, the ACT of Kuya Noel and Ate Deanna whose work before, during and after the mission trip is our inspiration, and the teachers, students and the community of Camp Abubakar who so warmly welcomed us and whose dreams and dedication taught us many life lessons. Maraming, maraming salamat po at magkikita pa tayo muli.  Inshal
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