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20th Anniversary stories
From devastation rises a model Muslim-Christian community

From devastation rises a model Muslim-Christian community

Typhoon Sendong in 2011 holds the record for being the worst typhoon to hit the Philippines during that year. It devastated large areas, including several regions in the Visayas and in Mindanao. To a group of Muslim and Christian families in Cagayan de Oro City, Typhoon Sendong was the worst but also the best thing that happened to them.

It was the worst times for these families who once lived along the river but lost their homes and possessions to the rampaging river’s floodwaters. But it was also the best times because the disaster paved the way for the families to come together and build a new, improved, and safer community where they can live with each other in peace and in prosperity.

The successful project was due in no small part to the leadership of Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Emeritus Antonio J. Ledesma, a church leader highly-regarded even outside Roman Catholic circles, and deemed one of the most credible voices in social development.

The families who lost their homes to Typhoon Sendong had come to the archbishop for help. By divine coincidence, the archbishop’s own family ran a foundation that has built mass housing projects in his native province of Negros Occidental.

The Julio and Florentina Ledesma Foundation Inc. has patented and piloted in the city of San Carlos a system that made building mass housing projects easier and cheaper. The system has also been used in Bacolod and other places in Negros island.

Key to the system are specially-designed interlocking compressed earth blocks or ICEBs. These blocks were inspired by technology found by Dr. Billy Tusalem, director of the Julio and Florentina Ledesma Foundation, in his travels in France.

Dr. Bill said that homes built with ICEBs are structurally sound while costing only about PhP578,000 per 51.4-square-meter unit compared to PhP892,000 using conventional materials. He also said that ICEBs have been internally recognized as an alternative to traditional hollow blocks and also are more environment-friendly. This made it the most promising technology in building socialized housing for the Typhoon Sendong victims.

The Muslim-Christian Women Homeowners’ Association Inc. (MCWHOA) united behind this novel project under a groundbreaking framework of a public, private and people partnership. The project would build 223 housing units.

“It was a joint development work from the very beginning. The purpose was not so much to be a capitalist but to contribute to human development,” stressed Dr. Bill.

The work to build decent housing for the poor came to life with the help of partners such as the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF), the local government of Cagayan de Oro City, Social Housing Finance Corp., the Diocese of Cagayan de Oro City Social Action Center, and the Julio and Florentina Ledesma Foundation Inc.

PEF became involved in the project through the intercession of Archbishop Ledesma, also a former PEF chairperson. PEF involvement was crucial in the development of the ICEBs as it was one the first to believe in the project and bankroll its development.

Initially, it released a PhP4-million loan which the foundation used as capital to start the mass production of the ICEBs. Part of the funds was also used to train community builders for the quick transfer of the technology to other places where it was needed. The technology went from Negros Occidental to other areas of the Visayas and then to Luzon and to Northern Mindanao, where the pioneering ICEBs became part of something even bigger.

This is because, with thousands urgently needing relocation and safe shelter in the aftermath of Sendong, the Cagayan de Oro archdiocese through its social action center, and with the city government, had been seeking ways to find new homes for the typhoon victims. In early 2012, the diocese had helped a group of women survivors organize themselves to start their own housing project.

The group of women – half Christian and half Muslim who were neighbors in their former community — was linked up in 2014 with the city government under Mayor Oscar Moreno. At that time, the mayor had already found and allocated a site where new houses could be built and even provided with water and electricity; and these are being sustained by the current Mayor Rolando A. Uy.

In 2018, the Social Housing Finance Corp. got involved and had the women’s project covered under the government’s community mortgage program. This made low-cost government loans with 2-6 percent interest rates available to the prospective homeowners.

Thus the needs for the Cagayan de Oro housing project were found – land for relocation, financing, and homes designed which people could immediately move into and call their own. It would have an average floor area of 51.4 square meters within a 60-square-meter lot, and with utilities installed. Recipients would get easy loans from government with a 30-year payment scheme that would not overstrain their monthly budget.

The process had been long and complicated, but the 223 women-leaders comprising the homeowners association have persevered despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and are now seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

More than a decade since Typhoon Sendong hit, the families are about to move into their new duplex-style homes in a well-planned relocation site of about three hectares developed by the local government.

And for the Muslim and Christian women, the homes mean much more to them than just a safe place to live in. It means the beginning of a new and better chapter in their lives, allowing them to dream big not just for themselves and their families but their own multifaith and peaceful community.

Johanisah Guro, for example, recalls how her family was nearly drowned by the fast-rising floodwaters. It was now impossible to think of returning to their old homes by the river. Others in her community had relocated to Marawi City but later returned because of the siege in that city in 2017.

She considers it a blessing that Archbishop Ledesma listened to the pleas of Muslims like her for a new and permanent home. That their homes in the relocation site are about to be finished fills her with joy. She can’t wait to move in and start anew and with her neighbors prove that Muslims and Christians can live side by side in peace and working for shared prosperity.

Through the Muslim-Christian Women Housing Project, the Muslim women also want to debunk nasty stereotypes that Muslims are hotheaded or are war freaks, an image unfortunately reinforced by the 2017 Marawi siege.

“We want to remove that impression of us. May generalized na perception sa amin. May discrimination. Makakita lang yung iba ng naka veil eh iniisip Isis agad,” lamented Sittie Nassipa B. Cader, a director of the MCWHOA.

(We want to remove that impression of us. There’s always a generalized perception against us, a discrimination. They think we are members of Isis only because we wear veils.)

Omairah Mardan, President of the association, is confident, however, that these negative images will eventually be replaced with that of a peaceful and self-reliant community living in dignity in homes they own.

Mardan admits that in the long years after Typhoon Sendong, the group sometimes came close to quitting. But the women’s desire for change, independence and owning decent homes has led them to the finish line.

The women also admit that meeting the loan amortizations will be challenging because the cost is double the usual cost for socialized housing. But the look and feel of the houses nearing completion is an inspiration for them to work hard and meet the payments. The cost, they believe, will be worth it.

“The feeling of having my own home is overwhelming, for it is true that a home is not just a home. It is where the heart is,” stressed member Shaleha Hamimah Guro.

Archbishop Ledesma could not agree more. This is why housing for the poor has become one of his and his family’s main advocacies.

“Housing is a basic need for families. Building housing is also about building the community itself,” he stressed.