Normina is a typical Muslim who wears a ‘tundung’ and long sleeved-blouse to cover her slender arms. She was only 18 years old then when the all-out-war took place in (Southwestern) Mindanao in 2000. She was a member of the DRT (Disaster Response Team) composed of Muslim and Christian volunteers that the parish organized in response to the humanitarian tragedy that had befallen the town of Pikit. For six months, she stayed with us at the convent. She only returned home to her family at the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadhan.
I remember listening to Normina one night at the balcony of the convent narrating her experience as a young girl and how her family evacuated in the middle of the night to escape from the war. “We lost almost everything from that war,” she said, slowing down as she listened to the staccato of gunfire that could be heard not far away from the convent. With me then were Cathy and Cecille, two DRT volunteers who were Christians.
Normina had stopped schooling for two years until Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, the producer of the sensational movie Bagong Buwan saw her at the convent with other volunteers. She and Professor Randy David of UP decided to send her back to school in 2001 at the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan. In fact, Prof. David was impressed by Normina that he included her in his book, Silence, which tells of heroism by certain individuals doing novelty acts in their own humble way.
Nor, as we fondly called her, would come to the convent once in while during her free time. She would talk to everybody at the office, sometimes helping Nang Bebeng at the kitchen. Sometimes, when I come home, I would find her sitting at the sala watching television by herself. During patronal fiestas she would also come to celebrate with us the event. Usually the parish prepares ‘halal’ food for our Muslim visitors.
One patronal fiesta, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, she came with some of her classmates from the University. Her classmates were surprised to see her coming in and out of the convent. They asked me why Normina did not have the inhibition to go in and out of the convent. I told them that Normina was one of our DRT volunteers and that she was already used to moving in and around the convent like it was her home.
In the summer of 2005, Nor finally graduated from the University. Still clad in her graduation dress, together with her parents, brothers and sisters, they proceeded to the parish where she tendered a simple celebration for the convent and Inter-religious Dialogue Muslim and Christian staff. During her thanksgiving message, she could not help but shed tears.
“Father, Happy New Year,” said the voice from the other end. “This is Normina. How’s everybody there. I really miss all of you,” the voice getting excited. I told her that everybody is fine and greeted her Happy New Year too. Then, we talked about our work here and her situation abroad as an OFW.
Nor was actually calling from Abu Dhabi. She has been there for only a couple of months since she arrived there late last year. She may be far now but she remains near in our heart. I guess that’s what dialogue brings. It breaks down religious and cultural barriers, including far distances.
(“Fields of Hope” is Fr. Roberto C. Layson’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Father Layson is former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato and presently the coordinator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculates' Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the 2004 Ninoy Aquino Fellow for public service.)