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Zamboanga’s valedictorian: ‘Our hearts cannot be shaken’

Jee Y. Geronimo
They lost their homes, their parents lost jobs, children stopped schooling for a while, but Sedimar Suhaili urges his classmates: Trust God, this happened for a reason

 EMOTIONAL. Sedimar Suhaili from Mariki Elementary School gives a tearful valedictory address. Photo by Jee Geronimo/Rappler

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Risking mockery from his fellow graduates, Sedimar Suhaili did not hold his tears back while giving his valedictory address on Friday, April 11.

Tayo ay dumaan sa matinding pagsubok. Dahil sa nangyaring Zamboanga siege, hindi lang tayo nawalan ng matitirhan, kung hindi nawalan din ng kabuhayan ang ating mga magulang, at nahinto rin tayo pansamantala sa ating pag-aaral. Ngunit…hindi natitinag ang pusong Pilipino,” he said, echoing the theme of this year’s graduation rites. 

(We went through a great challenge. Because of the Zamboanga siege, we did not just lose our homes, but our parents also lost their jobs, and we also stopped schooling for a short while. But…the heart of a Filipino is unshakeable.)

On Friday, Suhaili and other graduates of Mariki Elementary School received their diplomas on the stage of another school, the Zamboanga City State Polytechnic College, on whose grounds the Mariki students held classes in tents. (READ: 149 schools in Zamboanga City reopen)

The Mariki Elementary School was not destroyed; in fact, among the 3 schools most affected by the Zamboanga siege last September 2013, their buildings did not incur much damage. But the community near the school fled when the war between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) erupted, and had to take shelter in Mariki’s classrooms. (READ: Zambo crisis: The fog of war)

For the rest of the school year, Suhaili and his classmates had to endure both heat and rain in their temporary classrooms, the tents.

Pete Natividad, officer-in-charge of the city’s school division, said that, after the siege, Mariki’s students could not go back to their schools just yet. Seventy-six students from the elementary school graduated last Friday – 16 less than the original 92 sixth graders identified at the start of the school year on June 30, 2013.

In his speech, Suhaili urged his batchmates to consider their experience a preparation for what high school, college, and their future workplaces will bring their way.

Maaaring mas higit pa rito ang susuungin nating pagsubok upang subukin ang ating katatagan bilang isang mag-aaral…. Manalig lang po tayo sa Diyos at magtiwala dahil ang lahat ng ito ay may dahilan,” he said.

(We may experience more challenges to test our endurance as students…. But let’s trust in God because everything has a reason.)

After his speech, even his teachers, his principal, and Natividad were in tears.

PLAYTIME. Thousands, including children, are still in evacuation centers 7 months after the Zamboanga siege. Photo by Jee Geronimo/Rappler

More work ahead

Natividad, in turn, urged the elementary graduates to continue studying grade 7 and beyond. 

He said less than 5% of students in 3 schools – Mariki Elementary School, Sta Barbara Central School, and Rio Hondo Elementary School – remain untracked, while 604 have been tracked but did not attend classes. (READ: School turnout improves in Zamboanga City)

About 466 students graduated from the 3 schools last Friday. 

The department will open a summer enhancement program and summer classes for students who need to catch up on their competencies and missed school days.

The school break will also be used by the department to prepare Mariki Elementary School and the Sta Barbara Central School for students. The latter was at ground zero during the Zamboanga siege.

“I really need the strong support of the local government, because DSWD…has the data of our IDPs [internatally displaced persons],” Natividad said in a mix of English and Filipino.


Building-wise, Sta Barbara Central School was the worst hit among the 3 schools.

Bullets and mortars pierced through walls, blackboards, and roofs. While other schools in the city reopened, Sta Barbara remained close to students for the rest of the school year.

Natividad said a proposal for the school building was already submitted to the central office of the Department of Education and the Post-Crisis Need Analysis of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council.

Since rehabilitation has not yet started, he said the Sta Barbara school may not be ready yet for next school year that starts in June. The division is considering another place which can accommodate the school’s large population – 3,021 students as of June 30, 2013.

As for other schools which are still being used as evacuation centers for IDPs, the department and local government are already in talks of clearing these learning spaces.

According to non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, Zamboanga City still has 64,600 IDPs. Hundreds of them – mostly Badjaos – will soon be relocated to another public school in the city. –

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Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.