“If we want to achieve lasting peace, education is the key to open the doors of intellectual and spiritual well-being of learners so that they may grow up to be productive, responsible, and God-loving citizens of the country.”
These are the words of Sarah Handang, a public servant from the Department of Education (DepEd)–Schools Division of Zamboanga City, who proved that difference in religion is not a hindrance to contributing to the betterment of our society.
In 2011, Handang accepted the challenge to serve as the new head of Lima Elementary School, located 28 kilometers west of Cawit Elementary School in Zamboanga City, where she has already established a flourishing career as a Master Teacher and a national writer of learning materials and teacher manuals for the K to 12 curriculum, particularly in the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) Bahasa Sug.
Taking into account her progressive career in the city, and the travel time going to and from the new school – Cawit Elementary School is just a few walks away from her residence – she first hesitated to accept the offer. But her passion to serve others outweighed these barriers.
Bridging religious differences
Handang felt love at first sight with Lima Elementary School, which is situated on top of a mountain overlooking the whole Zamboanga City, including the Basilan group of islands. The community is predominantly Catholic, where some people were at first reluctant to welcome her – a Muslim – as their new school head.
This did not deter the strong-willed Handang from carrying out her mission. She exerted efforts in bringing local catechists to teach Christian Theology to learners. She even went the extra mile and organized regular Catholic mass in the school, which saved the community from enduring a five-kilometer travel to their chapel.
“I did not feel that helping my learners practice what they believe in will make me less of a Muslim. I was able to convince the local priest to conduct mass in the school every 8 a.m. of the last Thursday of the month, which both the parents and learners attend,” Handang shared.
Handang was also bothered by the high dropout rate in Lima Elementary School, because some learners who reach adolescent stage are already sent to work in farms by their parents to help earn for their living.
“I started to network and partner with stakeholders to provide students with school supplies, slippers, and even training for livelihood program. These motivated the parents to enroll their children back to school… The infrastructure of the school was also improved and the number of enrollees really increased,” Handang stated.
Establishing learners’ identities
Through Handang’s leadership, the school was able to put up a baseball team which won the District Athletic Meet and advanced to the Division level.
“In our practices, I bring my sons’ shoes, short pants, jogging pants, and t-shirts for our baseball team to wear. We emerged champion in the District meet,” she shared.
The dilemma, however, was when the students were required to submit Philippine Statistics Office (PSA) copy of their birth certificates. Handang found out that most of the players did not have birth certificates at that time since their parents were not legally married.
The 52-year-old school head did not want their team’s efforts to be put to waste. She personally coordinated with the proper authorities so that she will be able to conduct a mass wedding in the community of Lima Elementary School.
“Fifty-four couples got married and 159 learners now have their birth certificates for free. The Civil Registrar went up to Lima to process both the marriage certificate and the birth certificates of the students,” Handang proudly mentioned.
She further shared that because of these documents, some families already qualified to become recipients of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
Reaping awards, international scholarship
Handang’s unwavering efforts were not left unnoticed. She received the Best Woman of Zamboanga City and the Peace Weaver awards in 2016 from the Philippine Red Cross and the Peace Advocates of Zamboanga, respectively. More so, she was awarded an international scholarship by the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“I was chosen to be the first Filipino scholar by the Nostra Aetate Foundation under the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue because of the impact of organizing the Catholic wedding, despite the fact that I am a Muslim,” Handang relayed.
“This scholarship made me have stronger faith as Muslim and I commit myself to be an advocate of peace and harmony across religious beliefs,” she added.
During her six-month scholarship, Handang attended two universities in Rome, the Angelicum University where she took three Christianity subjects, and the Pontifical Institute for Islamic Studies where she took three Islamic subjects.
“I was with two other scholars with the same program, one from Indonesia and one from Myanmar. I had a great experience in Rome, meeting and mingling with priests and nuns,” she shared.
She also recalled that she fulfilled her fasting during the month of Ramadan, “I spent the whole month of June fulfilling my fasting. I was able to organize an iftar or breaking of the fast with my classmates, priests, and nuns who really supported me in the name of interreligious dialogue.”
Handang further shared that she was invited to forums in Rome, Venice, Milan, Verona, Suave, and Assisi to talk about interreligious dialogue: “There, I felt that I am not only representing Filipinos, but also, I am the ambassadress of goodwill for all the Muslims in the world.”
“As I lead a life after this scholarship, my perception and dedication to work for peace deepened. And that in my current work as the Madrasah Education Program (MEP) Coordinator in Zamboanga City Division, I lead the group to educate our young Muslim students under the MEP to learn Islamic values education with the strong principle anchored on love of God and neighbor, and respect and understanding,” she concluded.