A young Sama-Bajau’s search for hope, meaning, and belongingness amid diversity and difficulties as an out-of-school youth

When his father died at the age of 9, Omar Sharif “Qoy” Mohammad felt as if the world had ended. He lost the very source of his strength, and most importantly, he lost confidence in himself. After that, everything else around him started to fall apart: he quit school intermittently, went into vices, and detached from his own mother.

These weren’t the only things that had hindered Qoy from regaining his strength.

Coming from the Sama Bajau tribe, a diverse ethnolinguistic group of Zamboanga City also identified as one of the principal Philippine Muslim groups, his gender preference and sexuality was seen as bad omen.

Bakla ka. Salot ka sa lipunan. Ikaw yung nagbibigay kamalasan sa lugar namin (You are gay, a plague of society. You are bringing bad luck to our community),” his own brother had told him. His family even blamed him for being the reason of his father’s death when they were both based together in Cotabato City.

Remarks like these made him question his very own existence and blamed God: “Tao ba ako? Kung sadyang tao ako na ginawa ni Allah, hindi ganito ang magiging trato ng mga tao sa akin. Napakaunfair naman ng buhay. (Am I even a human being? If I really were made in the likeness of Allah, I wouldn’t be treated like this by the people around me. This is a very unfair life.)”

Losing vigor in the things that mattered to him, Qoy had gone in and out of school for 8 years before deciding to drop school and find work in a mall in Zamboanga City. When he had applied, he was accepted only to the position of janitor.

“I wasn’t choosy about the kind of work that I did as long as it earned me money and it did not involve anything bad or illegal,” Qoy says, “but here I realized that the lack of education will really give me limited opportunities for work.”

And then Qoy heard about the opening of applications for out-of-school youth to the SUGPAT Alternative School for Peacebuilding and the Arts (SUGPAT-ALSPA) by the Ateneo de Zamboanga University Center for Culture and the Arts fully supported by UNICEF Philippines.

Qoy had many apprehensions about applying for SUGPAT: “Noong una sa lahat, hindi ako makakaintindi kung anong meron sila kasi may pinagaralan sila. Ikalawa, mahirap lang ako. Ano ang lugar ko diyan? Wala akong lugar diyan, (First, I did not finish schooling so I would have a hard time understanding, Second, I was poor. I knew I’d be out of place).”

The 24-year-old also feared that being in the program would mean meeting people who would possibly subject him yet again to discrimination and humiliation, the same things he experienced in the past.

However, all that changed when he got accepted to the SUGPAT-ALSPA, a 6-month intensive leadership and development program for out-of-school youth that covers human dignity and children’s rights, bridging leadership, project management, and design thinking.

This alternative learning center is dedicated to capacitating out-of-school youth in creativity and 21st century skills that will turn them into transformative peacebuilders and compassionate leaders who are better equipped with life skills in their community.

Yung mga dati kong karanasan at kinasanayan, unti-unti siyang napabago. Napabago siya kasi nirespeto ako ng mga taga SUGPAT. Nirespeto nila ako at tinrato nila ako na tao. Nirespeto nila kung ano at sino ako, at doon nag simula yung pagbabago ko sa buhay. (The things that I got used to before were slowly changing. It all changed because I was respected by the people of SUGPAT. They respected me like I was any normal human being. They respected me for who and what I was. And it was there that my life began changing for the better.)”

His increased self-esteem catapulted him to become the class president of his batch of OSY scholars, allowing him to lead the group in various projects in and outside of the classroom.

Hindi ko narinig yung pasasalamat o yung mga pagpupuri ng iba sa ginagawa ko pero naramdam ko siya dito sa SUGPAT na may kagalingan at karunungan pala ako, (I’ve never been thanked or complemented for what I did before, but I felt here in SUGPAT that I actually had wisdom and was good at something,)” he says.

Because of his experience in project management through SUGPAT and his regained self-confidence, Qoy was inspired to gather the youth in his community late last year to form the Sama Youth Organization. This is the first youth org in the community that is led and composed mostly of Sama-Bajaus in Sinunuc, Zamboanga City.

In spite of being only a few months old, the Sama Youth Organization has organized multiple activities such as a community clean-up and a community-based pageant that utilizes the spirit of volunteerism of Sama-Bajaus in Sinunuc. They have also attended a seminar on LGBT Awareness.

Qoy also plans to do tree-planting in this coastal community with his newly founded youth organization and collect plastic bottles to recycle.

Apart from empowering his fellow Sama youth through the organization, he also draws the purpose of the organization from the English translation of the Tagalog word ‘sama’ which means ‘to join.’ He hopes to encourage the youth of his community and barangay to join the organization to be able to help others in the community.

Qoy adds that he wants to use his experiences as a SUGPAT fellow not only to achieve his dreams of becoming a teacher, lawyer, and public servant, but most especially to help those in need because he wants to.

It means na may mahal ka sa kapwa. Kung may mahal ka sa kapwa, mahal mo rin ang sarili mo (It means that you love others. If you love others, that means you love yourself).”

“If there’s one thing I learned in SUGPAT, it is that I can grow from all the bad experiences in my life and use them as an opportunity to improve myself and tell myself that even though I’m an OSY, who come from a broken family, or have not finished schooling, I can do so much more.”

Qoy says that he is coming out of the program as an entirely new person.

Yung akala nila na si Qoy na bulakbol, malas sa komunidad at sa pamilya, salot sa lipunan, ay ngayon isa nang Qoy na may hinaharap na bagong pag-asa sa buhay. Si Qoy na naniniwala na sa sarili at may kompyanasa na sa sarili. Si Qoy na handa na palang mag silbi sa comunidad niya, (The Qoy that they deemed a trouble-maker, a bad omen to the community, a plague of society, is now a Qoy that faces a new hope in life. A Qoy that believes in himself. A Qoy that is ready to serve his community)” he says with pride.

If not for SUGPAT, Qoy thinks he would bring the pain and bad things that he had experienced in the past until he grows old. He says the program has given him new hope and a new mindset in life, allowing him to be unafraid of the bad things that people say about him.

“SUGPAT made me experience that every dream does matter,” Qoy motions to his shirt printed with that very same text, “Do not stop reaching for your dreams. Do not stop serving your community. And most importantly, do not stop pursuing the things that make you happy.”“Eto na ako ngayon. Kaya ko pala. Pwede pa pala. May bukas pa pala. May diyos pa pala. (This is me today. I can still do it. There is still tomorrow. There is still a God),” he smiles.

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