Promoting tolerance through books and education

| Written by Khalil Ismael Michael G. Quilinguing

“At 22, people say that I am ‘accomplished’ and they expect that I’ll be even more accomplished as I grow. This induces a lot of pressure, and the fear of not living up to people’s expectations can cripple anyone. However, I have to remind myself that these accolades are just decoration. The real work lies in the everyday toil that no one sees. The real achievement lies in building and growing things that are quietly changing lives.”

That’s what University of the Philippines alumna Arizza Ann Sahi Nocum says when asked how she feels about being constantly recognized for her efforts to promote dialogue between Christians and Muslims through the Kristiyano-Islam or KRIS Peace Library. The daughter of a Roman Catholic father, Armand Dean Nocum, and a Muslim mother, Annora Sahi, she shares the passion of her parents in bridging the gap between two of the country’s most active religious groups.

On February 9, 2017, Arizza was chosen as one of this year’s Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP) and recognized in a ceremony held at the Heroes Hall of Malacañang Palace in Manila. Her efforts to promote education through books and libraries in conflict areas in Mindanao, while maintaining her academic standing in UP Diliman, were cited as reasons for the award.

The engineer turns advocate

Prior to the TOSP award, Arizza’s efforts had been recognized with the Zonta International Young Women in Public Affairs Award in 2011, when she was still a freshman at the University. In 2016 she was also chosen as a Young Leader of the Extremely Together initiative of the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World.

Aside from these, she was also part of the team of UP Diliman Industrial Engineering students who brought home the championship title from the Industrial Engineering Competition at the Institut Teknologi Bandung in Indonesia in January 2016. And during her time in the University, she enjoyed a full scholarship as an Oblation Scholar, having been among the top 50 passers of the UP College Admission Test (UPCAT).

Graduating with a degree in Industrial Engineering, magna cum laude, in 2016, Arizza now spends most of her time with the non-profit organization which she and her family started in 2008, in an effort to provide books to hard-to-reach areas in Zamboanga.

Libraries for peace

This industrial engineer started working for KRIS Peace Library in 2011, which at that time she says “was very informal. Essentially, it was just me and my family doing projects on the fly that were not expertly planned, maintained, and evaluated.”

The KRIS Peace Library maintains six libraries all over the country, one each in Zamboanga City; Barangay Holy Spirit in Quezon City; Tungawan, Zamboanga Sibugay; Bangkal, Zamboanga Sibugay; Rodriguez, Rizal; and Davao City.

Aside from providing books and educating children, the Kris Peace Library promotes dialogue and understanding between groups of different faiths and brings these groups together through education. Asked what advice she could give to people of different religious convictions, she suggests, “Exercise empathy. Before judging, blaming, pointing the finger, or fearing a person who may be different, try to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Live out his or her story. Expand your capacity for understanding.”

Acting as overall head of the organization, Arizza tries as much as possible to divide her work days equally, half of the day working for the library, leaving the other half for other commitments. But she admits she does find it difficult. “I average about 16 hours of total work every day,” she says. “Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a social life at the moment,” she adds with a wry smile.

When asked about her student involvements in college, Arizza says she joined the UP Industrial Engineering Club where she headed several teams which did outreach work. “Being part of IE Club really taught me the soft skills which I otherwise wouldn’t have learned in my classes, such as handling people, managing my time, and resisting distractions,” she says.

As for her favorite haunts in Diliman, Arizza recalls that she was usually to be found at the Bahay ng Alumni. She also used to frequent the Engineering Library 1, the Engineering cafeteria, and the Main Library.  She would also hang out with her friends at the UP Town Center along Katipunan Avenue. As for her preferred spaces for peace and quiet, she says that “I have always loved the Main Lib and walking around the oval.”

A turning point

While she admits she has had many memorable experiences in her years in the University, she says there was one particular instance which she considered to have been a significant turning point. “During the day of the Engineering Job Fair in my senior year, I felt very uneasy because, while everyone else was excited handing out resumes, I decided to withhold mine and not apply to anything. This was my heart telling me that these jobs were not for me; that I was being pulled to take on a different path. I’m glad that happened to me,” she says.

Since graduating from college, Arizza has made several changes on how the Library does its work. “In that year, I formed the first volunteer core team. Our team then set the strategic direction for KRIS, set our first mission and vision on paper, created a working structure, recruited more volunteers, started systematizing operations, and hired our first full-time coordinator,” she says. But she also candidly adds that they are “still very much a work in progress.”

For those considering non-profit or non-government organization work after university studies, this is what she had to say: “Concentrate on the people. Get people around you who are equally passionate about your cause. Find people with resources and connections who can support you as you secure funding and other needs. Find leaders from your target beneficiaries or communities who can bridge your work to these communities.”

She also adds that it is important to focus on one’s self, particularly on one’s internal strengths. ”Build on your resilience to failure and disappointments, and choose to be happy in your work even if other people think you should be working somewhere else. This is your life, after all. Right now, I have this quote by Bob Dylan plastered on my desktop: ‘People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.’”

Asked if there was one important lesson she learned from UP, Arizza says that “I think the most important life lesson I got from my UP education is humility. Having met so many talented, hardworking, and genuinely intelligent people, I often felt challenged and would always aspire to be a better version of myself. Outside the university, humility is what keeps me growing and learning with every chance I get.”