Suli, a Creating Sinag Within volunteer, shows a young survivor how to do the cortices. (c) Aliya Agbon, 2017 | Canon 550D

“Are you coming back?” asked a little girl when she saw me gather the volunteers of Creating Sinag Within. “I don’t know”, I told her. It was a hot afternoon in October, and we were on our last day for the second mission of the Waldorf-inspired initiative. I’ve learned long before that it’s best to be honest with children. Never make any promises, and be courageous enough to tell them that you may no longer see each other in the future.

She hugged me. “You’re so fluffy… like a pillow”, she said.

I’m all for hugs. I love receiving hugs and I can distinguish the happy “hey-it’s-nice-to-meet-you” ones from the “please-don’t-leave-me” kind. It is heart-wrenching and I wish we didn’t have to say goodbye. But we had to. I kneeled down and told her “I don’t know if we’ll see each other again, but I do know that you are strong, courageous and beautiful”. She beamed and gave me one more hug before joining her friends.

The need to be found. (c) Aliya Agbon, 2017 | Canon 550D

It’s always the same. When you go to an evacuation center, kids will scrutinize you. Can they trust you? Are you there to genuinely help them? Then, once the activities begin, the kids warm up to you and even if you don’t want them to, they will start caring for you. They will run towards you whenever you arrive and cry when it’s time to go. Eighteen years in this kind of work and nothing has changed. It’s always that heartbreak at the end of each mission, you flash your biggest smile in the hopes that the kids won’t feel your pain (they will) and cry your eyes out once you’re inside the van. But you’ll do it again anyway because you know that you can’t just sit there when you are capable of doing something.

Post-mission, you begin to wonder what life will be like for them. Will their parents continue to hurt them? Can they move forward and learn from this experience? What were they supposed to learn anyway? What does the future hold for them? Do they already have “sinag” within them? You may never know the answer.

Tutubing Bakal (c) Aliya Agbon, 2017 | Canon 550D

Time as of writing: 10:26 and in less than two hours, Marawi siege will end it’s first run around the sun. Some anniversaries are worth celebrating, but this one I’m not so sure. All I know is in less than two hours, it will be one year since the siege and the residents are still in the process of rebuilding the city, themselves, and their community.

My thoughts right now are with the siege survivors I met before, during, and after the Creating Sinag Within mission. The lone Islamic city in the Philippines will always have a special place in my heart. If you’re reading this and are aware of what 05.23.18 means, please send healing thoughts to the people and the place they all call home, Marawi.

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