Mohammad and His Catholic University Adventures
by Elijah Marvin (Mohammad Ilyas) Santos Guangco
“Some stranger somewhere
Because you were kind to them”
– Beaufort Chalkboard
It was months before I graduated from college when I started to send out application documents to various private schools and colleges in Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, and Misamis Oriental. Some of you might wonder, “Why these areas?” Well, these were the ones within my reach from being a soon-to-be graduate of Mindanao State University in Marawi City. Hailing originally from Zamboanga City, some people asked me why I did not apply in my hometown. My answer was simple—I just did not feel like going home yet.
It was during my series of applications when I first experienced a stumbling block in my adventure. Several schools and colleges rejected me for confidently writing “Islam” on the space provided for “Religion” found in the upper right corner of every application form I accomplished. I thought that my academic profile was just really not that impressive, but after receiving messages that actually read, “We are sorry to inform you that we prioritize applicants of the Catholic faith over others” and hearing stories of rejection from close friends who applied to the same instituions, who are not even Muslims and are not Catholics as well, I knew that it was not a case of incompetence that warranted rejection. It seemed like none of my hard-earned achievements mattered because the defining factor was religious affiliation.
The day of my graduation came and as I was about to transfer the graduation cap tassle from left to right, I was shocked to receive a call right there and then from one of the prestigous universities in Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental. The gentle voice of the woman on the other end said, “Good morning, Mr. Guangco! I am (her name) from the Human Resources Office of (the unversity name). I would like to ask if you are available to start work tomorrow in our Senior High School Deparment?”
My choices flashed before my eyes and it dawned on me that Ozamiz City was a safe place for me. It was only two hours away, and the best part was that my father hails from Ozamiz City where his brother lives in our common ancestral family home. This meant that I can live there rent free and just make respectable contributions. After entering that mental limbo, all that I can remember is saying, “yes.”
I broke the good news to my Omie right away, and from Marawi City, at 03:00 p.m. that day, I travelled with my mother to Ozamiz City. In my mind, I constantly called myself stupid for giving up on the idea of teaching and completely forgetting that I successfully had my demo-teaching with this particular university. I just threw the idea of getting called back out the window because, just like what happened with the other institutions that rejected me, I am a Muslim. I started the very next day after arriving in Ozamiz City, and my experience with that university was a roller coaster ride of emotions. I had humihiliating and insulting moments, but I also had unforgettable and redeeming moments there as well.
I clearly remember this one time during the first day of classes when everyone just stopped where they were while something was being played over the campus speakers. I approached one student and asked what it was, and he said it was the “Angelus” which was played around 12:00 p.m. and 06:00 p.m. daily. After I thanked him, I just walked away. Little did I know that I was not supposed to move until the prayer was over. It was embarassing to know that people saw my ignorant self walking around. Months into my teaching, I made sure to diligently stop when the prayer was being played. I even found it ironic and funny later on because my Catholic colleagues were the ones urging me to hurry up and make a run for the gate to make it out of the university before the prayer was played so no one had to stand still until the prayer was over.
As I look back to the segments of my adventure that really shaped the world view that I have today, I can vividly remember two instances when I felt insulted. The first one was the time when there was this male colleague who constantly greeted me by telling me to shave my beard because it made me look like Osama Bin Laden. He even once made the mistake of making fun of the white hair that grew out with my beard. He exited in shame when I explained to him that the white hair was not because of something aberrant, but it was due a skin condition called Vitiligo, which I have until now. I honestly got insulted because what seemed to be an act of promoting proper hygiene was actually his failed attempt to sugarcoat his motive of referring to my beard as a symbol of Islam and terrorisim. On the other hand, the second one involved two simple questions that broke my heart. It was when one of my female colleagues asked me if I am a Muslim. I responded, “Yes, Ma’am,” but to my surprise, she raised her brows and asked, “Why?” before walking away. I still cannot describe the pain I feel whenever I remember that day. I still hear her judgmental voice playing in my head. I understood the fact that I was not in a Muslim-dominated area with people who had little to no prior interaction with Muslims, but does this fact still hold water in situations that required common courtesy and kindness? I guess not. It hurt because it was as if being a Muslim is a fault or a sin that I should be ashamed of. Yet, despite those experiences, being part of that university also gave me several of my fondest memories that I cherish up until this very day.
One of my fondest memories while serving as a teacher in that university was being appointed as the adviser of the University Muslim Students Organization called Ummah. It was an avenue and opportunity for me and the handful of Muslim students that we had in campus to be seen and recognized. It was an opportunity for us to spread awareness about Islam and break common stereotypes like Muslims wanting to work alone most of the time, that they abhor those who do not share the same faith, and that Muslims are just plain weird and mysterious.
During the University Days celebration, we organized a couple of activities for everyone to enjoy and participate in. First, we sold Meranaw and Tausug delicacies like dodol, tiateg, lokatis, broa, durul, and putlihmandi. Second, we organized a public prayer exhibition for Salatul Asr that was witnessed by curious and excited teachers and students. Third and lastly, my students and I started the Wear a Hijab Challenge for a day. Female students who participated even took the challenge of wearing the Niqab, while the male students thought it cool to wear the Taqiyah.. At the end of the day, we all were in awe of the success brought by the activities we organized and the support given by the university’s community. One student even said, “The Hijab did not feel peculiar at all. It felt just like any other article of clothing. Maybe others will not have it as their cup of tea, but personally, as a non-Muslim, I can say that I have felt protected and safe. It gave off this comforting and warm feeling.”
Another one of my fondest memories in that University would be the time when we celebrated the Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa. It was an annual practice for teachers and students to attend classes and official business while wearing the traditional Filipino Barong, Baro’t Saya, or any other ethnic Filipino clothing. In my case, I wore an elegant all-black Meranaw ensemble composed of a long sleeve polo, slacks, and shoes, paired with a Taqiyah bordered with silver lace, and a red Landap that glistened whenever light hit it.
What made that day more memorable was not only the opportunity for me to showcase the traditional clothing of the culture where I am from, but the teachers and students who were happily running around and proudly showing off that they were in their Arab, Meranaw, or Tausug traditional clothing, and it warmed my heart because whenever they saw me, they made sure that I notice them. One student happily approached me and said, “Sir, look! We are dressed like you. Does it look good on me? Look at them (pointing to his friends), they are also dressed like Muslims. Papasa na ba kame sa pagiging Muslim, Sir?”
During that day, I also busied myself praising and complimenting those who were in Subanen clothing and traditional, but elevated Filipino Barong and Baro’t Saya. Nothing can ever be better than the feeling of seeing those things unfold and happen before my very own eyes. The compliments that I got were just secondary to the joy I felt with seeing people embrace a new kind of openness and tolerance, even though the efforts made by us Muslims who were members of that university’s community were only tantamount to baby steps. Still, we made progress.
As cliché as it may seem, but the experiences, both the bad and the good, served as blessings to me. For the times I have chosen not to fight back when being insulted, and for the times that I pushed myself harder to better my cause when I was praised intead of letting it get to my head, I am forever thankful. It was life itself that proved to me that writing “Islam” on the space provided for “Religion” found in the upper right corner of every application form I accomplished was never a waste. It was actually an opportunity for me to make a huge difference, and that rejecting people who are different in riligious beliefs, gender preference, color of skin, ethnicity, and physical appearance is not really rejection, but a form of missed opportunity for such institutions to elevate, expand, and widen their scope. With this, I share with you what Omie shared to me when I was young. She said that it was one of her old, respectable, and intelligent Meranaw professors in MSU Marawi who said this:
“To be a good Christian,you must first be a good Muslim. To be a good Muslim, you must first be a good Christian”
For whatever this quote means, I have seen its unexplainable meaning through the eyes of my students whenever I do not allow religion to define things between them and I. I have understood this quote’s universal meaning right from the very moment I, my students, and some of my colleagues chose kindness over hate, steroetypes, and judgments. It all made sense when people started drawing strength and will from each other’s differences, like striving to be better Muslims and Christians in the hopes of coexisting peacefully with each other.
I have long ago tendered my resignation from that university, and I will never forget my one full year with them. Some people asked me in the past why I did not apply for work in my hometown, but seeing that I was ready to go home, I did. Now, I am again part of another prestigious Catholic University here in Zamboanga City that embraced me in all my entirety along with more than twenty other Muslim employees. It is actually fun.
So, I guess Mohammad and his Catholic University adventures continue.