Maria’s father was shot dead while he walked out to work his own farm. Her family had little time to mourn, the farm was their source of income, so her mother decided she would have to take over the farm. Not long after, she was shot dead on the same farm leaving their children parentless. Maria shared this information with us while we implemented a Project AK-47 camp designed to build understanding between groups that have been at war for decades. Maria understands the cost of this culture of conflict, having been orphaned by it. In a region like this, where education rates are low and poverty rates are high, Islamic extremists and other extremist groups capitalize on these conditions to recruit children, some who have few family members left to turn to.
As tragic as Maria’s story is, stories like these are not uncommon here. Children in this region of Mindanao are traumatized by, trained in, and raised up in a culture of conflict. Each killing exacts a revenge killing, and so often the real victims are the children who are orphaned by war and/or drug into it. This is why our work is so important. Regions like this which are so destabilized by violence are often the regions most organizations are afraid to go, but they are the places needing work the most. Our projects here are working to get children who are at-risk into good schools to keep them out of violence. We are also pioneering projects like this camp to help bring reconciliation and peace between groups with generations of animosity and vendettas.
In a place like this, sometimes the simplest acts can show these children a better way to live. That is what happened when Maria asked a Project AK-47 volunteer to eat lunch with her during our camp. In this region, people of different tribes very rarely eat together. For people of different religions, it is even more rare. Maria shared with us that she saw in our volunteers the kindness of Allah. She told us she saw it in the simple things they did, like smiling at her or sitting with her during lunch break.
At the close of our camp Maria sang a song acapella in front of the whole camp, and she dedicated it to the volunteer who sat with her during lunch. She said, “Even though I do not have parents, I found a friend in you. You are my friend and I can trust you.”
Jim Henson once said, “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Our hope is that moments like these in children’s lives can alter the course of their future, and in so doing, transform cultures of violence into cultures of peace.