Some people leave home to serve their country.
Others, like Mithi Aquino, come home.
The Jolo native and fiancée of outgoing US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas, recently returned to Sulu with a group of volunteers to inaugurate a new set of classrooms for Tuup Elementary School in Patikul.
The classrooms were the latest to be completed under the project The Entire Nation Moves (TEN Moves!), an initiative that seeks to build 10,000 classrooms all over the country. This particular group of classrooms had the support of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-11 and volunteer and lawyer Angelo Valencia.
Through public fund-raising efforts, TEN Moves! complements the efforts of government to address the country’s classroom shortage. The campaign is spearheaded by the 57-75 Reform Movement, particularly the Philippine Business for Social Progress and the League of Corporate Foundations.
Aquino heard of TEN Moves! through one of her friends, artist and environmentalist AG Saño, who has been working with fellow volunteer Atty. Valencia, to paint murals on the walls of donated classrooms.
“It was Mithi’s fiancé, Ambassador Thomas, whom I was originally friends with. He is a strong supporter of my environmental advocacy,” recalled Saño. “We were doing a mural campaign in Tacloban when I mentioned that I am involved in a mission called Klasrum ng Pag-asa (classrooms of hope) as well as with TEN Moves! that had projects in Sulu. The ambassador immediately said he was seeing this woman who hails from Jolo, and told me a lot of nice things about Mithi. So when Harry learned of my following mission trip, he notified Mithi.”
Inspired by Saño’s current work and fueled by her love for her fellow Tausugs, Aquino decided to join the latest classroom turnover, as part of Saño’s Art Attack team.
“I miss Jolo,” said Aquino. “The Sulu of my childhood was an idyllic place. We ate fresh seafood and fruits every day. We played with friends and visited families across religions without fear or prejudice.”
Her parents, she said, met in Jolo when they were both assigned to the area. Ret. Col. Magtanggol Aquino, then a private, was quickly smitten with Dr. Zenaida Inciong, a pediatrician under the Rural Health Profession Program. The couple fell in love with the province and made it their home.
Mithi’s name, just like her childhood home, is also part of a bigger story.
“My mother got married at 31,” said Aquino. “She feared that it would be difficult for her to have a child. She said she wished to have even just one child, and her wish was granted. When I was born, they named me Mithi, meaning ‘wish’ or ‘desire.’”
The Aquinos would have two more children, Mutya, a pharmacist, and Mayumi, a dentist.
The eldest Aquino had a lot of happy memories of her childhood home, with Sulu serving as a backdrop for days spent “playing tapuk-tapuk (hide and seek) and len-len (patintero) after school, as well as eating kilaw-kilaw (green mango or papaya with soy sauce and chili).”
“We lived a simple and happy life in Jolo,” said Aquino who recalled going to church in Asturias Chapel every Sunday, and going home to their house in Maubuh.
She added, “Every kid in my neighborhood, as well as friends from school, looked forward to our birthday celebrations because my nanay always hired a sorbetero (ice cream man). We had paluan ng palayok (hit the pot), agaw-agawan (hanging treats), and giveaways. It was an atypical birthday celebration in Jolo.”
One of Aquino’s favorite childhood memories was going to school at Notre Dame of Jolo for Girls. She recalled how the Dominican nuns who ran the school taught them to treat each other with fairness, and made sure that they had all they needed to study well.
“We were blessed to have everything we needed to get some quality education,” mused Aquino. “We had desks, books, blackboards, chalk, pens, pencils and rulers. We enjoyed everything that a child needs to get an education.”
In 1993, the Aquinos left Jolo and moved to Manila because of a kidnapping threat. Their eldest would then finish high school at Siena College, and take up Business Administration at Manila Central University.
Aquino works as a training instructor for an international cruise line, and teaches Hotel and Restaurant Management and Tourism students in schools in Manila and Leyte. Her work for the cruise line would prove to be life-changing, as it was on the cruise ship that she was introduced to Ambassador Thomas.
Her happy childhood stood in stark contrast to the realities of Sulu’s younger generation, Aquino said.
The province is the lowest-ranked in the 2012-2013 Philippine Human Development Report, which measures longevity, access to education and standard of living. The province has a Human Development Index rating of 0.216, which is comparable to those of African countries Niger and Zimbabwe. The lack of infrastructure and the armed conflict between government troops and Muslim insurgents have reduced opportunities for a better life among Sulu’s children.
According to Aquino, schools in the province lacked even the most basic supplies, such as desks, chairs and electric fans.
Things got worse in Tuup Elementary School whose classrooms were burned down, allegedly by rebel groups. Only a few desks, some books and niggardly pieces of chalk were left in the wake of the incident.
When Lt. Col. Jun Narag of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11 showed Aquino a photo of the old classrooms, it sealed her commitment to help out the schoolchildren in her hometown.
“I was disappointed when I recently read that Jolo was the poorest place in our country,” she said. “The needs are too numerous to detail but health care, jobs, education and peace are what my home province needs most.”
Aside from material needs, Aquino added that Sulu folk would appreciate a more open mind among their fellow Filipinos.
“The most common misconception is that we are all terrorists,” she said. “In fact, the majority of Christians and Muslims in my home province are law-abiding Filipinos.”
Despite the kidnapping threat to her family that compelled them to leave for Manila, Aquino made plans to return to her hometown as a volunteer for TEN Moves! in June in time for the turnover at Tuup Elementary School. It would be her first trip as a TEN Moves! volunteer.
While others may have balked at the prospect of even visiting this area of perennial conflict, Ambassador Thomas and Aquino’s family both gave her their blessing.
“Harry, as well as my family, supported my trip to Patikul,” she said. “He is very happy with what TEN Moves! and I are doing for the people of Sulu.”
Recalled Narag: “When I first saw her, I thought she was just a local joining the team. She was well-versed with the Tausug culture. It was nice working with her, for she is dedicated, focused and passionate about helping those in need.”
“She’s very down to earth,” said Valencia. “She was game. No airs, and she did not ask for any special accommodation nor requested anything out of the ordinary.”
Upon arriving in Sulu, Aquino helped paint the walls of the classrooms and guided the kids as they painted a mural.
Saño had asked if she could teach the kids origami in Tausug, at which point the other teachers realized that this volunteer was actually one of their own.
“Mithi was excited for this homecoming,” said Saño. “It wasn’t just a simple homecoming, but a trip with a mission, to give back and share some time with the townmates she had lost when she left several years ago.”
The returning native taught the kids how to make paper boats and paper planes, where they could draw or write their dreams for the future.
“Almost all of them wrote ‘love, peace and education.’ Their reaction saddened me, but it also made me proud because after all they’ve been through they still have hope for the future,” Aquino said.
The lot that used to be ruins after the fire at Tuup Elementary School has been transformed into a building with three classrooms for Grade 1 to Grade 6 students, each with colorful murals adorning the walls. On one side of the building is a peace tree, where the ‘leaves’ are made of handprints, an apt symbol perhaps of people finally taking their future into their hands.
For Aquino, the classrooms are a good start to healing the fractures among communities in Sulu. “An education will help (the children) get good jobs in the future,” she said. “They will learn to think for themselves, plan for their families, and not be prey to the influence of criminals.”
Narag himself witnessed the change firsthand, noting that enrollment has increased in the school, with less absences. Having access to a computer, new audiovisual aids and a new library have also helped raise the students’ spirits, making them more motivated to go to school.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done to improve the educational system,” said Narag. “[But it’s easier] because of the high regard, trust and confidence of the parents and the community.”
Aside from providing classrooms, the Marines have been working as well on improving the water supply in the area, and are exploring ways to update the teachers’ materials through the use of mobile phones and text messaging.
One thing that Aquino feels elated about is the influx of new friends visiting her hometown and sharing their talents, thanks to the project.
“Angelo (Valencia) brings with him photographers, divers, environmentalists and his friends to help,” she volunteered. “Initially, as a Tausug, I was embarrassed because it took my non-Tausug co-volunteers to prove to me that we can help my fellow Tausugs. I came away filled with pride because of what we were able to accomplish.”
“When this is all over, more than buildings, it would be a story of friendships, of bonds that were created, and of hopes that were resurrected,” said Valencia.
Added Saño, “Motivation is not even a prerequisite anymore. TEN Moves! has become home for me and my team.”
For the gift of education to bear fruit for the rest of the community, Aquino believes that peace should come first. “I am hoping that the framework agreement will lead to a peaceful solution. With peace, all of the people’s other needs including health, jobs and modern technology, can be provided.”
Back in Manila, Aquino managed to join Ambassador Thomas during his visit to Caloocan for the Chilean ambassador’s street football initiative. The two of them also visited Mercy House, which supports at-risk girls.
“We support each other’s individual advocacies by discussing whom we would like to assist and how,” said Aquino. “I am not directly involved in the US Embassy’s many charities but Harry and I often discuss how to make a difference in people’s lives.”
She is joining the outgoing ambassador when he leaves for the US this month and is preparing herself for the various changes that the move will bring to her life.
“My biggest adjustment will be missing my family,” said Aquino. “I may have a difficult time adjusting to American humor and sports, and I know that I will miss Filipino cuisine.”
But she hopes to continue fighting for better education for the kids of Sulu, and to help raise awareness for the cause among the Filipino-American community. “I hope to give TEN Moves! additional support by spreading the word that our fellow Filipinos in Sulu need help,” said Aquino.
“I will continue contributing to education by following the examples of Loida Lewis and Dado Banatao who are my role models in giving support back to the (community),” she added. “I may not have their resources, but my trip to Patikul has proven that even a small donation can greatly change lives.” •