PIKIT, PHILIPPINES – To some people, the seven-classroom facility used by elementary school students in the Muslim-dominated southern Philippine village of Bualan in the town of Pikit is just a building — though evidently a well-built one.
But for the students in Pikit — whose education is occasionally interrupted by fighting between Muslim insurgents and government forces in this part of Mindanao Island — the building, erected two years ago with some $100,000 in Japanese government aid, is a launchpad for realizing their ambitions.
“This new classroom means a lot to me,” said 12-year-old Micheil Abellanida, a sixth-grader with dreams of becoming a flight attendant. “I like to attend classes all the more, and I can learn a lot more because I can listen well to my teachers.
“Before, we were all cramped in the old building, together with students from another grade level. We had to bear the noise and sit on the floor due to overcrowding,” she said.
Abellanida’s classmate, 13-year-old Hairin Saliman, agreed.
“I’m positive that one day I’ll become a policewoman because I feel assured of my education,” said Saliman, the recipient of a scholarship from the Mindanao Children’s Library Foundation, a Japanese-founded nongovernmental organization.
The new building, which sits beside Bualan Elementary School’s two aging, battle-scarred structures, was formally turned over Thursday by Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe to Tomo Matsui, executive director of the project’s conceiver, MCLF.
Housing more than 300 students, 90 percent of them Muslims and the rest Christians, the facility is equipped with blackboards, school desks with armrests and tables and chairs for teachers.
Matsui said his pitch to the Japanese government to build the new facility was preceded by another initiative of his — the creation of a 2-km pathway to the school from the Christian residential area where Abellanida lives.
“That road not only provides students access to the school, it also unites the Muslim and Christian communities, which is essential for peace,” he said.
In addition to the two communities’ religious and cultural differences, the decades-old conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government has also threatened Bualan and other parts of Pikit.
The MILF — the country’s largest Muslim rebel group — is currently in the process of finalizing a peace deal with the government.
When rebels and government troops fought nearby in 2008, the school was temporarily shut down to ensure the safety of students. Saliman recalled how she and her family had to evacuate to a safer place in town. When classes resumed after several weeks, teachers and students were saddened to see one of the original school buildings riddled with bullet holes.
Two years later, the school suffered another misfortune when it was torched amid domestic political wrangling.
Seeing the pathway and school building projects as a manifestation of “a better understanding between” the Muslim and Christian communities, Urabe said, “We are now giving the children in this community a chance to enjoy a peaceful life.”
“We are making a building block for peace,” he added.
Urabe noted that in the wake of its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan — a country with few natural resources — made the most of its human assets.
“Education was the key to rebuild Japan,” he said.
Because Japan sees education as empowering children and improving their lot in life, while also positively affecting communities, the nation has become “a partner in building schools” in the Philippines and elsewhere, Urabe said.
Based on embassy records, more than 66,000 classrooms in many parts of the country have either been built or repaired with Japanese government funding, either by grants or through loans.
The assistance, which also extends to infrastructure, livelihood support, and disaster-control projects, is Japan’s contribution to the peace process and development of the conflict-hit areas of Mindanao.
The amount of aid committed so far under the so-called Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development, which were launched in December 2006, stands at ¥12.5 billion.
However, seeing the fruits of their labors takes time, Urabe said, stressing the need to continue supporting children in developing their full potential, including efforts to ensure they grow up in peaceful communities.
Jeramae Tan, who teaches second grade at the school, said she has noticed significant changes in the students since moving to the new school facility, which was completed in 2011.
“The students are comfortable,” she said. “They listen intently because the classroom is conducive to learning, unlike when we held classes outside by the tree and they had to sit on the tarpaulin-covered ground.”
Tan said they show increased interest in their studies and a greater determination to make their dreams come true.
In a speech during the turnover ceremony, Matsui challenged the students to be agents of peace, saying: “You make peace here. You will make peace here in Mindanao.”
Abellanida, who is Catholic, and Saliman, a Muslim, are already heeding his call.
“I have good relations with my schoolmates who are Muslims,” Abellanida said. “At first I got into fights with them because they would tease us about eating pork, which they don’t do. But our parents and teachers held meetings over it. That’s why we’ve learned to understand each other.”
“No, we don’t fight each other,” echoed Saliman. “Whether we’re Muslims or Christians, my classmates and I are all just happy with our new classroom, and we’re showing great interest in our studies.”