Muslim mayor says Gawad Kalinga built homes, brought peaceBy: Margaux Ortiz | THE PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER | July 28, 2007
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MANILA, Philippines -- When Gawad Kalinga volunteers first visited the town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao province, not a few questioned their motives. The predominantly Muslim residents in its villages, victims of the war between Moro rebels and the government, were wary of accepting help from their more fortunate countrymen -- especially those who worshipped a God with a name different from theirs. “Even I was baffled at first,” the town’s former mayor, Totoy Paglas, told more than a hundred mayors and town officials at the 1st National Township Development Summit at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City on Sunday. Paglas recalled with a laugh: “I was wondering what they needed from us and why they had to go all the way to our town for that.” The religion of the volunteers and coordinators, who mostly belonged to Couples for Christ, a Catholic group, was an issue to Paglas’ constituents. They thought that the Gawad Kalinga members had come to convert them, and voiced out their protest against the “outsiders.” However, when Paglas learned of Gawad Kalinga’s purpose, he immediately began to reach out to the jaded town residents and informed them about the volunteers’ real intention. A video presentation exhibited before the summit participants showed Paglas asking his constituents to let Gawad Kalinga into their town and their hearts. “Many of you wondered at first why these people were able to penetrate our town,” Paglas told the residents during a gathering. Building communities The former mayor said the Gawad Kalinga volunteers had come not to evangelize, but to build houses for them. “In Datu Paglas, we build peace. And we do not just build peace but communities,” Paglas said. He added, “When you help the poor, the country becomes peaceful.” Paglas’ words of reassurance eventually convinced his constituents to cooperate with Gawad Kalinga for their own benefit. Conflicts leave homeless And they really had no choice but to do so, according to Paglas. The seemingly unending conflicts between the Moro National Liberation Front, and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the government have left many residents of Datu Paglas homeless. “Most of them -- uneducated because schools were often used as evacuation centers --lived in shanties,” Paglas said. Many of his constituents earned a monthly income of P1,500 and could never afford to build decent homes. Gawad Kalinga, according to the former town mayor, gave villagers back the hope and dignity they lost from years of misfortune. “The beneficiaries helped the Gawad Kalinga volunteers build the houses,” Paglas said. After a few months, a hundred families in the town’s Poblacion area moved into their new homes. The following months saw the proliferation of Gawad Kalinga villages in Datu Panglas. But more than giving physical structures for the residents to live in, the project allowed a climate of peace to reign in the area, Paglas said. “There are places in our town where rebels used to frequent,” the former mayor said. Rebels disappeared He noted that the rebels disappeared as the colorful houses built by Gawad Kalinga volunteers replaced the shanties in the barangays (villages). Religion, which at first was the biggest obstacle to the project’s success, eventually became a non-issue in the area, Paglas said. “We have barangays where Christians, Muslims and the ‘lumads’ (indigenous people) live together,” he said, adding that the building of homes paved the way for the healing of relationships between people with different religions. “Faith is actually not a barrier, but a tool for everything to happen,” Paglas said. Other mayors also shared how Gawad Kalinga helped pave the way for “new politics” in their own cities and towns. The last three years of coordinating with the organization have been a “humbling learning experience” for the town officials, said Mayor Sonia Lorenzo of San Isidro, Nueva Ecija. “I realized that ordinary citizens could do better than us in the government,” Lorenzo said, laughing. She said she learned that working with what they have -- even without help from the national government -- could have very positive effects on peoples’ lives. Transformation “When Gawad Kalinga started in San Isidro, we only wished for houses,” Lorenzo said. “What we got was an entire transformation of the community and a better quality of life.” For Baby Congco, a former three-term mayor of the Nueva Ecija town of Cabiao, the partnership between local government units and Gawad Kalinga was a way of rebuilding and uplifting the nation through township development. Congco, who now works with the Gawad Kalinga Builders’ Institute at Ateneo de Manila University, recalled how she saw a pretty picture of a Gawad Kalinga house on a calendar while thinking of where to relocate informal settlers living by the town lake. “I thought it was a great project, and shortly after discovering the existence of the organization, members of Couples for Christ talked to me about building houses for the poor in my town,” Congco said. After promising a lot owner to pay for the property in installment, the Gawad Kalinga volunteers immediately went to work. “At first, I was happy that they were there because (the project) would look good on me,” Congco said in jest, to the amusement of the other mayors present at the summit. But after she went to Chicago, Illinois, to coordinate with donors, who promised to give the municipality houses, windmills and a library, Congco realized other more important things. “I felt politics left my heart. It dawned on me that I had to do it because I love my people,” she said. Most touching was the evident transformation of children in the Gawad Kalinga Burakay Chicago Village, according to Congco. Smile “After just a few days of living in the villages, they already wore confident smiles on their faces,” Congco said. She added: “They did not know that God existed before because their world was so dark; now, they could look forward to brighter days and promising lives.” Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto agreed, saying that the first phase of Gawad Kalinga was to give aspirations to the young. “It is very difficult to come home to troubled communities, where dignity and pride are absent,” Meloto stressed. He said that social engineering, by providing poor families with homes and a community environment, was the solution to this problem. “Going home to a beautiful community would make these young people feel that they are also children of God. Eventually, they would pass this positive attitude to their own families,” Meloto said.