Fresh graduate among last to leave Marawi
“You’re lucky you have fireworks for your graduation,” Airah’s relatives joked, as the firefight between local terror groups and the military went on in the heart of Marawi City.
Airah Mustapha, a Maranao, earned her degree in medical technology on May 28, 2017 – the fourth day of a conflict that has now been going on for ten days. Within just a few hours after receiving her diploma, she was roused from sleep and was told by her mother to pack her things.
“The terrorists are coming here. We need to go,” her mother said.
Airah and her family left their home early the next morning. After much deliberation among the elders of her family, they decided to leave Marawi City after noticing they were the last ones left in their village.
That was when they realized their lives were in danger.
Dazed and confused
Airah managed to go out of Marawi City within the first few days of the conflict, but at the time, she said it didn’t feel like it was a big deal. Together with one of her aunts, she bought a few things in the town market on the afternoon of May 25 before finally going to Iligan, where she spent most of the time as a college student in Adventist Medical Center College.
“On our way out of Marawi we heard some gunfire and I saw people hiding, but I really didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I just figured it would pass soon enough; it always does.”
When she arrived at her boarding house in Iligan, she was greeted with chaos. Everybody was panicking, with one of her housemates telling her, “I hear war is already going on in Marawi.” When she woke up the next day, somebody told her something about martial law being declared in Mindanao.
“Are you serious?” she asked, unable to believe what she heard.
She was looking forward to graduating because of her grandparents who raised her as she grew up in Marawi City. It was her grandparents who put her through private schools in the city – the Ibn Siena Integrated School during elementary and the Philippine Integrated School during high school – and made sure she was not left wanting for anything.
A day before her graduation, she decided to skip the ceremonies even if she was still in Iligan. The graduation was scheduled for three days, and there was no way her grandparents could make it. They were stuck in Marawi City because of the conflict, but they promised to try and come to Iligan for her graduation.
“Never mind. It’s too dangerous,” she told them. “I’ll just go home after I get my diploma.”
Her mother, however, insisted that she attend the last day of graduation. She eventually relented, but not without regretting her grandparents’ absence.
Change of plans
“I was really asking myself what was happening, because it felt like all my plans were rendered pointless,” Airah said.
“I was supposed to be home for our first suhoor (pre-dawn meal) this Ramadhan, I was supposed to travel back to Iligan with my grandparents for the thanksgiving ceremonies and my graduation, and then now I suppose I won’t be able to start studying for the board exams as I originally planned. It was as if everything that I knew and expected out of life suddenly changed,” she said.
But at least she was able to keep her promise to her grandparents, finally returning to Marawi on May 28, just a few hours after her graduation.
“I went back because I thought it was already safe in Marawi, but as I was about to sleep that night, my mother told me to pack my things because we were about to leave the city,” she shared.
“That night, I heard my grandparents arguing about evacuating, but the next morning, we saw we were the only ones left in our village. That was when we knew we had to leave.”
Airah still makes plans for the future, though. She sees herself taking the medical technologist board exams in February 2018, which is why she brought her reviewers with her to Balabagan, Lanao del Sur where she stays in Purakan Elementary School together with her relatives.
She laughed as she asked, “The thing is, will I even be able to review? I also brought my diploma, obviously, but between my diploma and the reviewers, the latter were actually the easy choice for me. I just bought them!”
In between laughs, she said it’s hard to study despite having her reviewers with her. “We don’t have electricity here, so I can’t study at night. During the day sometimes it gets too hot, sometimes a bit too noisy. I’m used to studying in a quiet room by myself,” she said.
“The board exams isn’t just something where I can encircle letters or memorize the answers. I need to analyze and think about the reasons behind the answers I will give,” she explained.
For a while, the board exams seemed like a fitting metaphor for her life’s sudden turn.
Looking to the future
When asked about her plans after the board exams, she had a ready answer.
“I want to work as soon as possible, or maybe pursue medicine if we can manage,” she said. When asked about where she wants to take up medicine, she answered quickly, “Hopefully in MSU-Marawi,” but her voice hit a reluctant note at the end.
Airah had this look that showed her strength lies in her honesty, and throughout the interview, it was precisely the expression she had on her face. Every question was met with an answer coupled with conviction, and yet she allowed herself this one moment of reluctance.
“You know, I’m still thankful despite everything because we have a place to stay in and we receive help from the regional government, but it would be very difficult if we have to stay here for a month, or a couple of months. We all just want to go home and go back to Marawi,” she said.
“If I do end up working, I’ll probably work abroad. But if there’s a good job here, I don’t think I’ll ever leave the Philippines, let alone Marawi. My first choice is actually working in Amai Pakpak Medical Center, but I’m not sure if it’s still there when we get back. I hope it’s still there when we get home; it’s a good hospital,” she said, a quiet strength registered clearly on her face. JE/rga
Marrian Pio Roda Ching is a writer and human rights advocate based in the Bangsamoro.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.