(Jamela Aisha Alindogan, Correspondent of Al Jazeera, delivered this speech at the Commencement Exercises of the Ateneo de Davao University’s Graduate School and the College of Law on 27 April 2019 at the ADDU’s Finster Auditorium).
Distinguished guests, good morning.
Allow me to thank you for being part of the conclusion of a chapter of your lives. It is a significant and difficult journey that has come to a close, but it also marks the beginning of another adventure. I am deeply honored to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Did you always want to become a journalist? It is a question I am often asked. The truth is no.
Growing up, I was brainwashed by my grandmother to become a lawyer. A human rights lawyer to be precise. A decade before I was born, the land of my family in Ticao Island in Masbate was forcibly taken from them- that incident compelled them to move to Manila in search of a better life.
We grew up poor in Manila. My grandfather was a fisherman, and my grandmother was a vendor and moving to Manila meant taking on difficult jobs. My grandfather worked in factories while my grandmother sold pancakes to put us in school.
My grandparents taught me the value of fortitude; a refusal to give in to despair.
In college, I took two jobs to pay for my education, and I finished. By then, I had discovered the love of storytelling and broadcast. Going to law school was already at the back burner. But no local TV network would take me. First, they said I look too foreign for local news, and my news delivery was a bit off.
I heard Al Jazeera opened a bureau. I stalked the news team for a job. There was no opening. I kept badgering them until they relented. I took an internship with Al Jazeera for a year without pay. I was very broke and very much single. But I’d say it is one of my favorite years.
That was twelve years ago. I have now become a Correspondent from the Philippines.
Filipinas are not often the top choice for foreign correspondent roles.
You see, I do not have a Harvard degree or an Oxford accent. And in many situations, I saw how carrying a Philippine passport is seen as a liability by other countries. But I say the hardships I have faced in life had given me the grit to strap my boots on and keep plodding.
The plum roles in international journalism are often abroad. London, Paris, New York. But I chose to be here, telling the world the stories of my people. And it hasn’t been smooth. Often, there is adversity.
For the last twelve years, I have borne witness to that suffering.
When soldiers and aid workers see me land in an area, they tell me they often wonder whether something bad was about to happen. A friend once told me in jest that I specialize in mayhem. He laughed just as he said it, but I pondered over it for months.
I have survived the most powerful storm on the planet; I faced typhoon Yolanda in a seaside hotel in Palo, Leyte and went missing for three days. I was arrested and detained in Malaysia while covering the Sabah armed incursion. I escaped a kidnap attempt in Jolo and survived a friendly fire explosion with fellow journalists in Zamboanga.
I have told stories of war widows, orphans, rebels, and soldiers. I have interviewed Abu Sayyaf fighters, I have even interviewed Presidents of this Republic, and yet it feels as though everything that we do is insufficient.
Journalists have been under relentless attack over the last few years. The questions facing us now are existential, and it made me question the power and limits of journalism. Every single story I encounter is gut-wrenching. I have encountered many, but allow me to tell the stories of some of the brave souls in Marawi: for that is the most recent story that many of us remember.
In May 2017, I was embedded with police forces in Marawi when I saw her almost immediately. A little girl wearing a pair of red shoes, a pale pink jacket, and striped colored pants. I met her in a way one never wants to meet a child. She was lying face down in the mud, her body disfigured and bloated. Her arms were spread out, her right hand resting on the hip of a dead woman. I assumed the girl was the dead woman’s daughter. She looked as though she had been hiding behind the woman before they were shot. They were both unrecognizable too: their heads had been blown off. But the girl’s red shoes, somehow, remained clean and unstained. They somehow shone, despite the pool of blood and mud surrounding them.
The police started taking photos of the woman and the little girl, as well as those of four other female bodies lying twisted in that small, dark alley. I asked a man if he knew the identities of these women. “I have no idea, ma’am,” he replied. “Identity unknown,” the police officer wrote on his report cards.
Fatima emerged from the second-floor veranda of her home. She closed her eyes, ran to the edge and leaped barefoot, with one hand clutching a bag of her meager belongings and a blue veil wrapped around her tiny head. The rescuer caught her in time, but not before her body hit a steel rod – twice. She was carried into the back of the car where I sat. She looked at me and opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out of her mouth. She kept shaking her head as tears continued to fall. In a whisper, I told her, “You are safe now,” but that was all I can do. Overwhelmed by her presence in the car, I did not have the courage to hold her.
I entered a public health clinic, right next to an evacuation center in Saguiaran. Nuraisah Untao was there with her sick one-month-old baby, Mishael. He was only three days old when they fled, and he was suffering from diarrhea brought about by the difficult situation in the camp. “We have been poor even before this war started ma’am and I hope they haven’t forgotten us,” Nuraisah said. I looked at Mishael, and he reminded me of my son. I then stood up and walked out. When difficult scenes leave us journalists with nothing to say, what do we do? And then another woman on a hospital bed, who had just given birth to her tenth child. “This baby is my last. I can’t take any more uncertainty,” she said. She named her baby boy Martial, in keeping with these uncertain times.
Ibrahim is 14-years-old and lives in an evacuation camp with his father. He says a group of men approached him and told him that they were police officers and invited him to join the training. He said the prospect of taking revenge against the ISIL-inspired Maute group that attacked (his) Marawi city and kept it under siege for months appealed to him. So he said yes. His father, Assad, knew they were not police officers but Maute supporters in disguise.
Fifteen-year-old Rakhim lost his parents in the conflict. Now he lives alone, moving from one evacuation camp to the next. “I don’t know who to trust anymore. I don’t know where to go. All I know is that I am all alone”.
It’s a sentiment shared by many young boys displaced by the war. They are the perfect recruits for armed groups like the Maute, and they need to be protected.
I set up Sinagtala to deal with my personal feelings of guilt; guilt for leaving my son at home to cover disasters and the same kind of guilt for leaving the people I meet in the devastation to go back to the comforts of my own home.
We opened seven toy libraries across Lanao province in 2017 and also opened a weaving center right at the heart of Marawi for widows displaced by the war.
Soriada Bato was an Arabic teacher before the war. I met her in the basement of one of the buildings that have been turned into an evacuation center. She was facing the wall and was very quiet. She had breast cancer. I told her Sinagtala could help by offering her meals and free weaving classes.
She looked at me blankly and asked: “Why are you helping me?”
I was surprised. I didn’t realize that the situation was so dire that many believed help was not going to come.
Two years later, these war survivors have now become community leaders.
They have become professional weaving instructors providing training and emotional support to other displaced women in Marawi.
I went back to Marawi last weekend for the graduation of more than fifty women.
They had just completed 100 hours of weaving classes and have now become full-fledged weavers.
In one of our sharing sessions, one of our Sinagtala weavers, Jalilah Tamano told me she did not want to become imprisoned by her anger anymore. So she says she was ready to forgive; forgive the Maute group for attacking their city, and the government because they remain displaced.
In her own words, she says she is now ready to weave her own future.
Most of us here know it takes enormous courage to forgive. Jalilah and other displaced women of Marawi did it. Why can’t we?
Sometimes it is hard even to find the courage to hope in the face of so much despair.
You know, it is the first time I am giving a commencement speech. And wow, Ateneo de Davao University.
Over the last few days, I had been thinking hard about what sort of life lessons I may be able to share with you.
You may have heard most of these already. Still, these are good reminders. I choose seven and I don’t know why. But I guess seven is my favorite number. Here we go.
First: LIVE A LIFE OF TRUTH AND SUBSTANCE.
We are given this enormous life. We should love it as best we can, and we must honor it by living in the service of others. There is no better way life to live than this; a life of truth and substance equals to a testament of love and commitment to this country.
Second: NEVER COMPROMISE YOUR INTEGRITY
There will be many instances where you are broke and desperate. Money and power are fleeting. But you cannot easily reclaim your lost dignity. Be sure that you can look at yourself in the mirror and say I did what was right, no matter how unpopular and difficult that may be.
Third: WE ARE NOT TRANSFORMED OVERNIGHT; WE BECOME WHO WE ARE THROUGH THE LITTLE STEPS AND ENCOUNTERS WE MAKE EACH DAY
Make those moments count. Nurture your souls. Protect your heart.
You see, I am a hopeless romantic. I can’t do anything in my life without love. I am sure many of you here feel the same. Vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. It is what keeps us human and real. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from the book of John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
The Qur’an also teaches love and compassion:
“God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.” (Surat al-Mumtahana, 8)
Fourth: MAKE IT ABOUT WORK
It does seem obvious, right? But sometimes we get frustrated when we don’t get what we expect for ourselves; a promotion, the recognition, the raise we needed to provide for our families.
As a working mother, I realized that I could have it all. I just can’t have it all at once. My son loves the cartoons movie, Finding Nemo. Can you remember what Dory, his partner, said in the film? “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”
So be patient. Make it about work and your passions. And the rest of it will follow. I promise you.
Fifth: IT DOESNT MATTER, BE KIND ANYWAY
Now, this is hard. When an unkind thing is said about you, it is so easy to respond in anger. I am still trying to learn this. But I realized that responding in anger clouds our judgment and our ability to communicate effectively. Extend yourself with kindness to anyone when we can. I have interviewed hundreds of people, and often I meet them under the most difficult of circumstances–difficult because I have to speak to them at a time of great suffering.
A mother pulling out her son’s lifeless body from the rubble. An orphaned child who witnessed the murder of her father. A widow who has lost her husband in a war.
I need to tell those stories; I need to get them right, down to the spelling of their names. But what is also equally important is how they feel after speaking to me, to us.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Self-love is one of the hardest things to learn as an adult.
Sixth: WHEN YOU ARE AT THE LOWEST POINT IN YOUR LIFE, REMEMBER THAT IS WHEN YOU ARE STRONGEST.
The weavers created a new pattern a few months ago. The patterns in their weaves looked different from the typical Meranao pattern–they looked like towers. I asked them what it was. “Ma’am, these reminded us of bombs dropping in Marawi, so we decided to weave them instead.” They also did not want to use the color black; it reminded them of the black flag of ISIL. We encouraged them to use black no matter how painful. Eventually, they managed to take the narrative back. The war may have devastated their homes, but now they color their own future.
I am proud to say that what I am wearing now is woven entirely by hand by the weavers of Marawi; woven with grief, love and hope for the future.
Just like the women of Marawi, remember that you will also discover that strength at a time of great adversity. Use that to propel you to move forward.
Lastly, LOVE THIS COUNTRY. IT IS THE ONLY ONE WE HAVE.
The more I traveled abroad to meet people and tell stories, the more I feel even more connected to the Philippines. I have never felt more Filipino. We are so quintessentially different from the other countries. Let us nurture that identity. And it also means doing much more.
At a time of great distress, the press, like so many embattled institutions seek support from the academe and especially the courts for refuge. We long for the protection and guidance of our religious leaders.
Art has also become the next line of defense. Not one person can hold the line for us. Believe me. We all need each other. So let us all work together to rebuild the integrity of our institutions.
Remember that no matter how fractured our society has become, how wars and armed conflicts have become in the many areas in the country and no matter how much we fight and kill each other over ideology and politics, always remember that we are all Filipinos and inequality continues to persist.
We should keep in mind that the grief and loss of one Filipino, is the collective grief and loss we are all burdened with as a nation whether we like it or not.
What you have achieved here the last few years has been amazing; beyond these diplomas, your experiences here will carry you through so be proud of yourselves.
We are all here celebrating but we must remember that what we have achieved is nothing compared to the suffering of those who came before us. May we give their sacrifices justice. Let us honor our past and defend our future.
So here’s a challenge to you. To the future lawyers, may you continue to uphold justice and the rule of law.
To our future psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors, may you become instruments of healing not just in the big cities but especially in conflict zones where there is a scarcity of empathy.
To those in business and technology, we hope that you continue to innovate solutions that not only generate wealth but distributes it equitably most especially for the poor.
To future biologists, may you continue to help improve the quality of life through your research and discoveries,
To future educators, may you be teachers not only of knowledge and competencies but also of compassion.
To our future theologians and pastoral ministers, I hope that as preachers you remind the world that faith, in whatever creed or religion, be instruments of peace and reconciliation especially here in Mindanao.
To future anthropologists, your work in studying cultures is so essential and may you continue to promote a counter-culture of life, truth, justice, and dignity.
To future writers, may your prose and poetry evoke deep-seated longings for national transformation.
And to all of you, to all of us, may you have the moral courage to do what is right.
Yes, even if we know that sometimes it comes with immense personal costs, always remember to hold the highest, grandest vision of yourselves. But that also includes doing something beyond yourselves.
For people like Fatima, or Ibrahim and Rakhim, even for the dead little girl with red shoes. Never forget them and live a life of meaning.
To the professors and deans of the Ateneo De Davao University, you are the unsung heroes of society for you continuously mold and guide the future leaders of this country.
To the parents, family members and friends of the graduates, this ceremony is also to honor you and your sacrifices.
To the graduates, a huge congratulations to you. The country’s future burns so much brighter now because of you.
Once again, good morning and maraming salamat po.