It’s like you are seeing double. From their expressive eyes, striking golden complexion, up to their minute mannerisms and gestures, one finds it hard to ascertain who is who between the girls. The easiest way to discern the Sampang twins is that Farhiya wears a ‘turung’ (a hijab or headscarf worn by Muslim women), while Ferwina doesn’t.
“It can get really hot and it gives me a headache,” Ferwina explains when asked why she is not wearing her hijab.
Despite being identical twins, the girls are opposites in many ways. Farhiya loves English class, Ferwina prefers and excels in Math. In their spare time, Farhiya enjoys singing along to her favorite local artists while Ferwina prefers drawing. But when asked what they want their futures to look like, the twins answer in unison - as if the words are coming out from one person. It’s an instant, firm and resounding response.“We dream of peace,” they reply.
Zamboanga Siege 2013
On September 9, 2013, an armed group entered and attacked Zamboanga City, situated at the southern most tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula, on the island of Mindanao, Philippines.
The fighting between Government forces the armed group lasted for almost three weeks. The Zamboanga siege displaced more 100,000 residents, creating a humanitarian crisis that has taken years to resolve.
The conflict has left children particularly vulnerable. Even in instances where they were able to flee and find safety, a disconsolate future awaits them especially if they are not provided with much needed supports, including returning to school. The scars of the conflict will likely persist with them for a long time, if not for rest of their lives.
As the conflict flared up, families from areas deemed to be “ground zero” were evacuated to a safe place in a sports complex that sheltered thousands.
Former evacuees now recall that if you walked around, you would see children writing and reading while trying to blow off dirt and dust that had gathered on the pages of their books. A makeshift learning centre was built in the sports complex to cater to the children’s educational needs. Educators from closed schools in affected areas served as mobile teachers.
The place was not conducive for the families and children and as such the local authorities transferred the displaced families to the Masepla transitory site, where a learning space for kids, Masepla Composite Learning School, was established
“It was not easy. Before we go back to reading books, reciting alphabets and singing nursery rhymes, we had to work on the children’s attitude and outlook in life. Violence was what brought them here and we want to make sure that violence won’t define them,” says Cristina Santos, the school’s principal.
Greeting you with warm smiles, the children at the school are like any other children in any other school you’ve seen. They are energetic, curious and carefree. It’s as if none of them have gone through traumatic experiences some years ago.
One thing is also evident. Dreams don’t easily fade away here. By way of example, we meet some of the girls who proudly call themselves Children of Peace.
For a 13-year-old girl, Tarna exudes remarkable levels of maturity, strength and shrewdness in the way she carries herself. After talking to her, it is evident why she is the way she is.
“I can vividly remember what happened when the fighting broke out. It was frightening. Before we knew it, our house was already burning. That’s when we decided, it was time to leave,” she shares while trying to hold back her tears.
Tarna lives alone with her mother, who was diagnosed with a mental disability. “We don’t have any relatives here. My father left us when I was just little. I have nine siblings and all of us have different fathers. I don’t see any of them anymore.”
She is one of the recent elementary graduates of the Masepla Composite Learning School and plans to continue on with her education once they move to their permanent home at the Valle Vista resettlement site. For now, she attends some classes to avoid any long gaps in her education.
“When I grow up, I want to be a teacher and educate kids to be kind to one another. This way, no fighting will break out again,” she says.
Hanna and Nangnang
Rain was pouring, everyone was scared and soldiers came to their houses and asked them to evacuate. These are the similar and hunting memories that Hanna, 9, and Nangnang, 15, had when the fighting reached their respective homes four years ago. They became good friends in school and both share the same dream: to be a successful nurse. Unlike many aspiring nurses in the country, these girls are not seeking to go abroad. Instead, they want to stay in Zamboanga and help their own community.
“I want to help the people here and I want my family to be always complete. That’s why when I become a nurse, I will serve here”, Hanna shares with a shy smile across her face.
“I want to be a nurse mostly because I want to heal my sick grandmother. If I ever leave this place for my job, I will make sure to bring her with me. When I was a little girl, I thought my grandmother was my mom”, she shares with a cracking voice and tears falling down her face. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me she wasn’t my real mother. She told me the truth when the fighting started because she couldn’t feed me anymore. She then brought me to my biological mom.”
Farhiya and Ferwina
Back to the Sampang twins. They have nine other siblings. Their faces light up every time they talk about their family. “We’re complete and I want us to always be complete,” one of the twins says while leaning her head against her sister’s shoulder.
Despite their different choices when it comes to wearing a hijab or their personal interests, both share the same ambition of becoming a doctor and remaining in Zamboanga to help as many families as they can.
The transitory site, four years on
The school faces some challenges,mostly absences due to sickness, hunger, child labour and poverty.
Which is why last year, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), together with IOM, the UN Migration Agency sub-office in Zamboanga as its implementing partner, provided much needed supports to local schools, pupils and teachers. School and teacher kits, which comprise of different materials like pens, papers, flash cards and notebooks were provided to facilitate learning. New sturdy plastic chairs and tables were given to the schools to make learning environment more conducive.
Supplemental feeding and demo gardening projects, which teach students basic farming techniques and provides pupils hands-on gardening training, were also rolled out by IOM, which helped increase the participation and the attendance rate of pupils.
The vegetables and other crops that were grown at the demo farm were used in the feeding programme, which ran for 120 days ending in August 2017. Even after the programme ended, produce from the demo farm continues to sustain students and their families.
Even though these displaced children are so young, they’ve already witnessed the grim realities of life. Still the dreams of these #ChildrenofPeace offer more than just a glimpse of hope. It’s what drives them on.
“We will study hard. We will promote peace. Education will be our weapon for a better future,” one of the girls says before running off to play with her friends.