Bridges of Peace

Photo courtesy of Al Santoli

Photo courtesy of Albert Santoli

Norway helps young inter-cultural leaders build bridges of peace

Special Release

On a cool foggy morning in the mountains of Benguet, an area known for impoverished mountain tribal communities and  armed guerillas of the Philippine Communist New People’s Army, a diverse cultural assembly youths gathered together to plant the seeds of peace.  Their weekend of solidarity was part of an ongoing series of “Peace Caravans” funded in substantial part by the Government of Norway.  The facilitators are young Filipino professionals and college students who comprise the Catalysts for Peace volunteer wing of the non-governmental Asia America Initiative. “We often think of peace as something too big or too difficult,” said Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, 28, AAI Philippines country director. “But it’s the positive attitude that each of us possess that is the foundation for peaceful change.”

In many parts of the world, violence caused by intolerance has led to tragic results.  In the Philippines, the partnership between the Norwegian Foreign Ministry – which a facilitator of peace talks between Filipino leftist rebels and the elected Government–   the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and AAI, as a charitable organization, spreads the seeds of understanding, appreciation, and coexistence.

AAI Founder and President, Albert Santoli, is a physically disabled war veteran and a father of three daughters.  He believes that sustainability of peace and democracy in an increasingly chaotic world is best served by the empowerment of youth from across the cultural and social spectrum.  “Through understanding each other’s hopes and dreams, they may become friends and life-long stakeholders in building bridges of peace and their communities’ future,” he says.

“When we first requested assistance from the Government of Norway, our principle focus was on the peace process between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao war zones,” Santoli recalls.   “But as a statement of gratitude for the kindness of the Norwegian government and people, in 2010 we expanded our programs into the mountainous areas which are the main habitat of the leftist guerillas who recruit young tribal children to be “child soldiers.” We utilize health, educational opportunity and livelihood training as a means of generating Hope as the sustainable foundation for reconciliation.”

At the two-day Caravan event, 40 young people representing Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous People (IP) shared personal and group experiences to enable them  to become Catalysts for Peace— inter-faith role models to help overcomes to heal and unite a fragmented nation.

A Muslim youth, Alrashid Abdulmunat, 24, said, “I only heard about the IP’s [indigenous people] before the Caravan.  I also thought Christians hate Muslims.  But I have learned that they are kind and don’t have bad intentions toward Muslims and IP’s.  In the Holy Quran, Almighty Allah instructs that Peace cannot be achieved if all the tribes are not included.”

The participants, who were of diverse ethnicities, ages, and religions, were divided into five groups: A, M, I, T, Y. They participated in games created by Asia America Initiative’s Filipino staff that promoted interaction and learning about each other.  Jassan D. Batalang, 19, said, “The peace caravan wouldn’t be memorable if it wasn’t fun. We smiled and laughed a lot … already a sign that we were at peace with each other.”

In peace-building, AAI stresses that peace must begin within one’s self.  “If a person doesn’t know the essence of his or her religion, he may become violent. That is why intra-faith is important,” said Alnasser L. Kasim, chair of the Young Moro Professionals Network (YMPN) who spoke on “Islamic Faith”.  Brother Mark Joseph Purugganan, a seminarian at the San Jose Seminary who spoke on “Christian Faith”, said some people could misinterpret what their religion was actually teaching them.

Marlon T. Jinon, AAI programs and resource mobilization coordinator, emphasized differences in religion should never be the cause of conflict. “It is greed, lack of awareness, and misunderstanding of our very own religion and culture, and the religion and culture of other people that fuel vicious cycles of war in the world.”  He added,   “It is ineffective to try to make peace with the world or within a nation before making peace with one’s self, family, and neighbors.”

Jason Roy Sibug, president of Tuklas-Katutubo, a national organization of young indigenous tribal leaders, said the youth should rid themselves of prejudice. “When you don’t have it (prejudice) towards other cultures and religions, there can be harmonious relationships. Do not associate a person’s act with his/her religion and do not generalize. The next step is to share (this attitude) with your family, friends, and community.”  Sibug, 30, a Manobo, founded Tuklas-Katutubo when he was 17. He said IPs accounted for 13 million or 10 to 15 percent of the total Philippine population.

The youngest participant, nine-year-old Joshua Siddayao, said, “I thought Muslims were cannibals but now I know they are not.”

Through sharing hopes and fears, the participants celebrated commonalities. Jasmin P. Tosay, 17, was teary-eyed as she reflected, “We’re not just Lumad or Muslim or Christian, we are all human beings.”

AAI Director, Bai Sumndad-Usman emphasizes, “Being a Muslim, Christian, or IP is in itself because all our creeds essentially call for peace. We can all be peace advocates in our own spheres of influence. The peace process is intergenerational. It is a shared responsibility.”

“We are exceptionally grateful to Government of Norway for believing that peace is indeed possible,” states AAI’s founder Santoli. “The tragic events of July 2011 in Norway deeply saddened us.  We intend to dedicate our Peace Caravans of 2012 in memory of the Norwegian youth leaders who perished at Utoya.  Many of our Catalysts for Peace and Caravan volunteers and student participants have witnessed or subjected to violence caused by ignorance and hatred.  They know what it is like to be a refugee within one’s own homeland. In light of our shared experiences, we strongly agree with the sentiments spoken by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg: The best response to terror and  political violence is to strengthen our fundamental values of democracy, humanity, more openness and even more humanity.

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