Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peace through printed matter


Seventeen-year-old Arizza Nocum gives her speech as she is recognized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Library of the Philippines for her work as administrator of the Kris Peace libraries.


Armand and Annora Nocum reach out to children in conflict areas in Mindanao -- where they are both from -- through books.


Some people are hard at work countering the culture of guns in the South and elsewhere.

When the Nocum family talks about the prospects of peace, or at least peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao, they speak from experience. A very personal experience.

After all, Armand – who hails from Manicahan, Zamboanga City – is a Christian actually a former Catholic seminarian) and his wife Annora, a Muslim from Sulu, have lived together and raised their children out of respect for each other’s
religious beliefs.

But this is more than just a mixed-religion marriage. The family has ventured out. Building on their love for books and their knowledge of the many heart-rending stories preventing children in conflict (and impoverished) areas the simple joy of holding a book on their hands.

This family does not just go out there and hand out books, either. They build libraries. These structures, Armand believes, are important in establishing children's habit and the love of reading. These edifices are called Kris Kristiyano at Islam) libraries.

The first Kris library was built in 2008 in Arman's hometown, where the Christian-Muslim ratio is 50-50. It is now a fully-functioning, two-floor library built on 100 square meters of land. There are about 5,000 book titles there: the Nocums provide incentives like school supplies to encourage children of either religion to come to the library – and keep coming back.

There are two other such libraries in Moro Islamic Liberation Front strongholds in Zamboanga Sibugay and yet another in a relocation site for Ondoy victims in Rodriguez, Rizal.

Their latest project is yet another library in Bgy. Holy Spirit in Quezon City. "It's a facade," Arman says of the middle-class subdivision that first greets visitors to this part of town. Further down live about 150,000 squatters. Small wonder that there are always reports of petty crimes here. What they intend to do this time is to attract the children who live in these depressed areas to read.

Another library will soon be built in Basilan.

We don't need to be told that reading has the power to transport children to places they have never dared imagine. When they are constantly exposed to the fact that there exists a place where they don't have to take up guns or resort to petty crimes to stay alive or protect their families, children will start realizing that they could do things differently. They could read some more. Finish their studies. Be professionals. Do something meaningful and help their families and communities build a life different from the one they were born to.

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In the meantime, the Nocums' advocacy has been taken up as well by their daughter Arizza, 17 and an industrial engineering freshman at the University of the Philippines. Arizza was recently recognized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Library of the Philippines for her work as administrator of the Kris libraries.

Earlier, Arizza became the first Filipina to win the Zonta International Young Women for Public Affairs Award. She donated part of her $4,000-prize to expand the library in Quezon City. For her 17th birthday several months ago, she conducted a book drive among her friends instead of throwing a party.

Despite these, Arizza looks and acts like a normal teenager – doting on her baby brother, enjoying her just-obtained driver's license and meeting new friends at school.

"I've been so fortunate, having these opportunities as a scholar and getting the best education," she says. She attended Philippine Science High School and is now an Oblation scholar at UP. "I just want to give something back."

Her father has retired from journalism – he says the profession is stressful and dangerous to his health -- and now heads his own public relations company. Working for the cause is not a breeze, of course. Aside from the obvious issues of security in the Mindanao libraries, mitigated only by the fact that they are from there and are thus a bit more familiar with the situation, the Nocums also have to deal with distrust from the children's parents – Christians and Muslims alike. Many of them feel threatened that the libraries expose the children to other worlds and encourage them to think differently.

Local government officials are also a problem, according to Armand. They do not recognize the basic issues – for example, the fact one pencil must be broken into two or three pieces just to be shared by more children. That kids walk several kilometers or brave dangerous roads in order to come to school. That they bring salt as baon just so they could eat something while studying. "Mindanao needs help, it has been neglected for so long," he adds.

All these years, the Kris libraries as well as the scholarship programs and other activities have been sustained by the generosity of friends and acquaintances who send books and financial assistance. Visit www.krislibrary.com to find out more about the project.

adellechua@gmail.com

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