Having grown up in the Middle East, I always felt a vague kinship towards Muslim Filipinos. I always consumed news about the Bangsamoro, about the woes and travails of Muslim Mindanao, with great interest and curiosity, and I’ve always felt a bizarre sensitivity to the region’s struggles.

I never imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to visit the Islamic City of Marawi.

Inevitably, it was work that brought me there. In 2017, militant groups laid siege to Marawi, and only after five months of bitter conflict did the Armed Forces of the Philippines retake the city. During the siege, Doctors Without Borders entered the city to provide water, emergency medical care and mental healthcare to the local population, especially those displaced by the conflict. After the siege, we remained to provide care to the internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially for mental health and non-communicable diseases. At the end of 2022, we closed the project.

As communications officer, it’s my job to document these things: how a project is going, what we’re doing, why we’re closing. In October 2022, I spent two days in Marawi, talking to our staff and our patients, hearing of their struggles and celebrating their successes. (Read the article and see my photos here.)

It’s hard to explain the joy and distress, the despair and the frustration that I felt on this trip. I felt an immense gratitude, that I had the opportunity to visit a city so precious to Muslim friends and colleagues, that I could learn a little bit about what it was like to grow up in this city, to be a Muslim woman. I felt an overpowering fury and despair to see the buildings–once homes and businesses, places where people gathered to pray or to celebrate or to eat–riddled with bullet holes, overgrown with greenery, walls felled by weapons. It filled me with some pride to speak with patients who could only sing praises of our staff, and of the loving care they received at our clinics. I laughed as I chatted with an old lady who demonstrated to me the exercises she learned, just to keep her diabetes and hypertension at bay. I giggled as an elderly patient was teased by his wife while I interviewed him.

At the time that I visited Marawi, I was perhaps not my best self. I was exhausted, and the days of travel and multiple appointments were taking their toll on me. Fatigue and anxiety did not help my already frayed sense of peace, nor did my fear over the possibility of acting or dressing inappropriately in a context so different from my own. I remember worrying if the scarves I had brought to cover my head were enough, and cursing myself for not having enough long-sleeved shirts in my closet.

My journey home was fraught with distress and anxiety. A big storm loomed and there was a chance my flight would be canceled. I had been having stomach trouble through most of the trip. And at the airport, two policemen were overly friendly while I was minding my own business, and I felt incredibly unsafe. By the time I was in the boarding lounge, I was in tears and frantically messaging friends to help save my sanity.

I suppose all these things worked together to unhinge me.

Still, I always feel that travel teaches you things that you can’t learn in a book or online. My conversations with our local staff, Sarah and Al, taught me so much about the culture of Muslim Filipinos, about Maranao culture, about history and politics. I learned other things from chats with Sara, David, and Caro, our international mobile staff. Simply walking around the clinics and the temporary shelters, I got a glimpse of how displaced people lived and struggled, how vastly different their lives were from mine. Amid the ruins at Ground Zero, between shelters and clinics, I found simple joys and beauty, friendships and kinship. And cats.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to visit Marawi again, but I would jump at the chance to see the patients and the staff who shared with me so much in the two short days I was there. But for now, though I use different words and profess my faith differently, I pray for all of them, that they do more than survive, that their lives become easier, better, more comfortable, and that we were able to do something to help them, even if only for a little while.

Say something?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: