He looked at the sky, trying to count the times he has been involved in a trouble: “It has been more than one hundred times,” he said.
Bensar Tan was only 13 years old, on his first few months as a high school student, when he was recruited in a gang. As a sign of his “membership” he got his hands burnt which resulted to a scar that would identify him as a member of the gang.
Since then, he stopped taking his studies seriously; he would be absent from his classes, jump off the walls of the school to escape, look for trouble, and whenever his mother would give him his allowance, he would rush to buy marijuana.
Bensar recalled that during his early adolescence, he was a bully himself: “I don’t think of others. One time I saw a student eating, I would get his food and hurt him; I even threatened him that I would punch him outside the school if he didn’t give me his food.”
Because of this practice, Benzar went through 7th Grade five times. After repeating grade 7 for the third time in Zamboanga City High School Main, he got kicked out from the school because the authorities looked for students who had the burn insignia.
“I was a gang member for five years. Even inside the campus, we would start trouble. There was a time when I wanted to change but there was a big trouble in the campus and I was involved because they saw my burn.”
He was kicked out so he transferred to Maria Clara Lorenzo Lobregat National High School where he continued as a grade 7 student for two years. When he transferred, he thought he left his old life behind, instead it intensified as he became the gang leader.
Inside the campus, they would look for troubles with other gangs. Bensar narrated that they would purposely go to pueblo (town) to look for trouble.
That was Bensar’s normal life for five years. Then one day, he found out that his dressmaker mother could not send him to school anymore because the amount of money she made wasn’t enough to sustain their daily expenses. The 17-year-old Bensar decided to stop going to school and start working as a construction worker.
“I had to stop schooling so I could help my mother. My brother had a job but we could not rely on him because of his vices. I had to help my mother because I do not have a father. She is so important to me,” he said. Their father left them when Bensar was only 4 months old.
After two years of being out of school, Bensar heard about SUGPAT through an alumna of the program. He did not hesitate in passing the application form. For him, it was his way of making up for all his lost years.
“I realized that the sun sets fast. The days are short. That is why I need to study well. My former classmates encouraged me to go back to school. They told me that I can still achieve my dreams.”
After submitting his requirements, going through a series of screening, and an in-depth interview, Bensar became one of the fellows for SUGPAT Alternative School for Peacebuilding and the Arts, a flagship program of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University for out-of-school youth in Zamboanga City.
He underwent classes on youth legislation, human rights, digital literacy, human dignity, and design thinking to name a few. He also had the experience to be part of creative workshops: photography and digital storytelling.
But Bensar’s favorite was their lessons on human rights: “Out of all our lessons in SUGPAT, Human Rights is the topic I will never forget. When that was taught to us, I felt like it was really for me because before, I used to step on other people’s rights.”
“Now I realize that I can still change, I can still help other people, I can still achieve my dreams. I still have a chance in life,” he said as he recalled the times he hurt other people when he was still part of a gang.
He added that most of all, SUGPAT taught him how to love, how to respect others, and how to be generous.
The old troublemaker from Tetuan, Zamboanga City is now a peacemaker. When Bensar saw a group of youth in their neighborhood fight, he tried to settle it through peaceful conversation: “I told them that we are all alike, no matter if you’re a Christian or a Muslim. We may not share the same blood, but we are all like siblings.”
After being in the program for more than half a year, Bensar learned to dream again, “Our minds have been opened again to dream, to work for our dream, to achieve it, and to rise again.”
Now that he is about to graduate in the SUGPAT ALSPA Program, Bensar is motivated now more than ever to continue his education he once took for granted. He dreams of becoming a computer engineer someday. According to him, he has been a geek for computers since he was seven.
With SUGPAT inspiring them to dream deeper, Bensar is now ready to face the world.
“Our dreams are bound to come true, it may not be sudden and easy, but it will happen; we just have to work hard for it,” he said with utter confidence.