By Ellyssahanna Espinosa, (YES 2013 - 2014, Philippines, hosted with IRIS in Algona, Iowa)
To Reduce Extremism to Achieve Lasting Peace (#ToREAL) is an offshoot campaign of an initiative called I am Mindanao involving communities in the conflict area of Mindanao, Philippines. I am Mindanao aims to promote tolerance and increase understanding through social media, to develop empathy, appreciate people of other faiths, and minimize religious extremism through face-to-face engagement and interactive dialogues.
The #ToReal campaign focuses on toril (Islamic seminary) students and Xavier University undergraduate students and brings them together for a series of activities, such as camping, forums, and exhibits. Through this campaign, university and toril students can gain a better understanding of each other’s backgrounds and perspectives and reach common ground. Peace starts by having an open mind and a willingness to understand others.
This recent campaign was initiated by a group of students from Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan. The core team is composed of five students including two YES alumni: Ellyssahanna Espinosa (project team leader, YES 2013-2014), Mohammad Haydar Alonto, Hasibah Pandapatan, Khalid Bashier, Al Hakim Palanggalan (YES 2016-17, hosted with STS in South Bend, IN), and three volunteers/facilitators. The team is mentored by Sir Evans Yonson, the founder of I Am Mindanao.
The first event of the #ToREAL campaign was a two-day camping trip at SEARSOLIN, Upper Balulang, Cagayan de Oro City. The campers, who consisted of 20 Muslim students and 18 non-Muslims, were immersed into different activities such as inspirational talks, small group sharing, art making, interfaith and intrafaith dialogue and film, which molded friendship and built mutual understanding. The goals of this camp are to recognize and acknowledge one's own identity, to develop sense of belongingness, to realize one's purpose in the community.
At the end of the camp, the campers were inseparable. Some of the non-Muslim campers learned Arabic words from the Muslim campers. During the big group sharing that took place at the conclusion of the event, each of them shared what they learned and their messages to their fellow campers. Most of us wept hearing their messages. It was so fulfilling.
Here is some of what they shared:
“I have realized that there’s more beyond one’s skin, clothes and eyes. There’s more beyond culture, religion and beliefs. There’s more to people when you choose to open your eyes and heart....I learned that we have a lot of differences in terms of culture but we also share a lot of virtues in common such as love, faith, peace, sacrifice, and service. Together, we could harmonize and together we could promote everlasting peace.” - Julienne Ouano
“Seeing that both religions enjoy the company of each other is a start of something beautiful — something beyond words. If this opportunity happens to everyone here in the Philippines, I am sure that it will create harmonious relationships with the co-existence of each other and will blossom into a beautiful world. Truly, I am a Christian and they are Muslims, but together, We Are Mindanao.” - Nina Galarrita
On Nov 29, #ToREAL had a photo exhibit at Xavier University for the Mindanao Week of Peace. It was attended by the campers, faculty and staff, and students from the university. During the opening, the campers performed nasheed, call to prayer (adhan), and songs to entertain our audience. #ToReal also recently won an award from MPower, an on-line community that works to change narratives and promote understanding, for our social media work, which included a mini-grant to continue our campaign.
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