MANILA, Philippines – Sharifamae Jamuh stammered between silence and pauses, struggling to construct a simple sentence in English. About 5 minutes into the phone interview, she gave up her attempt to form at least a phrase. She uttered a word instead.
“Choose!” the 14-year-old Muslim scholar at the West Mindanao State University confidently exclaimed.
She could not elaborate why the word crossed her mind. What was clear to her was the difference between her old school in war-torn Sulu and where she continued her studies.
“Maganda, madami kang matututunan. Malaki ang pinagkaiba [ng dati kong school at yung ngayon]. Natutunan kong mag-English,” Sharifamae said. (It's beautiful here. You learn a lot. There is a huge difference between my school now and the previous one.)
The change was more pronounced for 11-year-old Alnajer Asirul, Sharifamae’s friend who also transferred to Zamboanga this school year.
“Iba ang pagtuturo. Halos isang araw nagtuturo. Isang oras lang [sa Sulu].” (How they teach is different. They teach us the whole day. In Sulu, classes last for only an hour.)
Unlike Sharifamae, Alnajer enjoys attending his class in Filipino, his favorite subject at Sta Maria Elementary School. He boasted he could read now.
Language of football
But there is another language that Sharifamae and Alnajer speak so eloquently now -- the language of football.
It's a language that soldiers introduced as a tool to win the hearts of villagers who have grown witnessing a long-standing war, clan feuds, and chronic poverty.
Kids were particularly drawn to the game. At 13, Sharifamae was determined to join the Football for Peace trainings conducted by the Marines in her village in Tiptipon, Panglima Estino, Sulu.
“She would always watch the games of the young boys we were training. She was determined to be part of the team,” Lt Caesar Ryan Gandeza, commanding officer of the 23d Marine Company, said.
Sharifamae started as a "ball boy," retrieving loose balls for the boys. She now plays forward.
The only girl in her team, Sharifamae takes pride in the 8 goals that she scored since she started playing football 8 months ago.
Alnajer was another kid who was inspired to join one of the football teams formed by the Marines in Sulu. He was only 10 years old then, but his trainors already saw the potential in him to become a great football player.
Alnajer, who plays forward in his team, wants to be like Phil Younghusband one day.
He joked he will also be as handsome as the celebrity Azkals striker when he grows up.
But he has another dream which he shares with Sharifamae -- to study at the Philippine Millitary Academy.
Lowest literacy rate
Gandeza and his fellow Marines felt that Sharifamae and Alnajer have to be academically prepared for them to achieve their dream.
“PMA is very competitive. Out of the thousands who take the entrance examination, only 200 are accepted. Out of the 200, only about 30 females make it,” Gandeza stressed.
Gandeza said the chances of the kids entering the PMA are dim if they stay in Sulu.
Sharifamae and Alnajer come from a poor Tausug community where about 300 high school and 700 elementary students struggle to learn from only 11 teachers in cramped classrooms.
The number of persons who could read, write, compute and comprehend in conflict areas in Mindanao is the lowest in the country. In the 2008 Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao lagged behind all regions with its 71.6 % literacy rate. The National Capital Region topped the survey at 94%.
The government of Sulu reported that the province registered the lowest literacy rate at 42.36 % during the school year 2002-2003.
Children of farmers
Sharifamae and Alnajer are children of farm workers in coconut plantations. They could not afford to study in good schools that would prepare them to obtain the education they are aspiring for.
Moved by the determination of the kids, Gandeza, his troops, and the village mobilized resources to help the parents send their kids to schools in Zamboanga City this schoolyear.
“It is very rare for kids in Sulu to have dreams. You ask them what their dreams are, and you will hear nothing,” Gandeza said, explaining why the soldiers helped Sharifamae and Alnajer.
Last summer, the Marines and the Tausug community raised nearly P16,000, almost equivalent to the salary of most of the soldiers who contributed. The amount covered the two kids' tuition for the schoolyear. It also partially shouldered allowances, books, uniforms, and projects.
A generous Marine officer and his wife who teaches at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University provided the kids home and served as their guardians while in the city.
The librarian at Alnajer’s school gives him catch-up lessons almost every day for free so that he could keep up in his new school.
Though enrolled as Grade 5, Alnajer’s academic competence is equivalent to that of a Grade 3 pupil's.
Meanwhile, Sharifamae struggles to define the first English term she found fascinating. But the dream she is pursuing with Alnajer and the difference it is making in her life explain clearly what the word "choose" means to her. – Rappler.com
Erratum: A photo of another boy also named Alnajer Asirul was earlier uploaded. The correct photo is now published. We regret the error.
[Those interested in providing assistance to the program may contact PMC Special Services Officer Major Stephen L. Cabanlet at the Philippine Marine Corps Headquarters, Marine Barracks Rudiardo Brown, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig, call/text +63 906 564 2765 or email email@example.com]