Alternative learning in Sabah: Giving hope to undocumented Pinoy kids

KOTA KINABALU – Monera and Mohara are twin sisters. At 10 years old, one says she wants to be a doctor while the other, a teacher.

Three years ago, such dreams seemed impossible to achieve as the twins, along with their 4 siblings, do not have access to education, being born to undocumented parents in Sabah.

Nowadays, Monera and Mohara are learning to read, write, and do their maths – a couple of steps closer to achieving their dreams – with the help of an alternative learning center (ALC) in Kota Kinabalu.

Many Filipinos who fled Mindanao due to poverty and conflict became undocumented residents of Sabah, otherwise branded as illegal immigrants. Their children are born practically stateless. They do not have proper identification like their parents or documents that are required in enrolling in local public schools. 

Unfortunately, this results to high illiteracy rates among the undocumented Filipinos who grew up in Sabah. During the monthly consular missions of the Philippine Embassy, during which they issue passports to undocumented Filipinos, most of the applicants need help in filling out forms. Some do not even know their birthdays or the full name of their parents. Some are ashamed to fashion a signature on their forms and affidavits and would offer their thumbs for a print instead.

These are grown men and women who all wanted to learn but could not. They grew up shy and often end up working illegally with meager wages.

This is just one of the issues Filipinos in Sabah face – but thankfully, there are people who are trying to help.

Stairway to Hope is an ALC founded by Filipina Marilou Salgatar-Chin. She is married to a Sabahan and has been living in Kota Kinabalu for years. She says the idea for the school came after she saw how undocumented children in Sabah are in dire need of education. Some of them work illegally, doing menial jobs, while some prowl the streets for pieces of metal and garbage that they can sell. All these, so they can help earn money for the family.

“I knew children belong in a school where they can learn and they can achieve their dreams so I wanted to help.” Chin said during this writer’s visit to Stairway to Hope.

Stairway to Hope rents a house in the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu and uses it as their learning center’s premises. There was a bit of construction done to restore the place but a lot of work is needed still. A bit of water goes through the roof when it rains and classrooms are cramped.

Chin says it’s hard to keep it going especially with rent and utility bills that come every month. But with donations from different organisations and their various fund raising activities, they make do with what they have and stretch their funds to keep accepting children who want to learn.  

Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya encouraged the establishment of Stairway to Hope, an idea he discussed with Chin and came into fruition in 2012. He visited the alternative learning center during its opening, bringing with him assurances of help and support.

This was followed by the establishment of several other Filipino-run ALCs in different parts of Sabah. As of posting, there are 6 in operation. 

In 2013, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Education Cooperation was signed by the Philippines and Malaysia during the state visit of President Benigno Aquino III. Among the proposed projects under the MOU is cooperation in the field of alternative education which could potentially benefit the undocumented children in Sabah.

Unofficial estimates put the number of undocumented Filipino children in Sabah without access to education at around 30,000. So far, less than 10% of that number are studying in various ALCs. 

Upon the Philippine Embassy’s urging, the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) have also started their initiatives to help the ALCs. 

In November of this year, the two government agencies and the Philippine Embassy hosted a training for 65 ALC volunteer teachers to equip them with proper teaching methods.

In the long term, the Philippine government aims to develop an equivalency program that will allow ALC students to receive further education in regular schools in the Philippines. But for now, the focus is on providing basic literacy.

Things are starting to look up for the children, but the reality is, there’s more needed to be done. One thing the children really need are learning materials – books, pads, notebooks, pencils. Things that are often taken for granted by well-off children, but mean the world to these kids who are excited to learn but whose parents cannot spare money for school supplies as putting food on their table is the top priority.

When asked how Monera and Mohara plan to go to college and medical school, the twins just shrug and look at each other, smiling. They know it’s far off, and getting the proper education to be a doctor and a teacher seems impossible at their current state. But one of them says, “we are learning.” And in the meantime, that’s the most important thing.

Reaching their dreams may still be a long shot but Monera and Mohara are now smiling more often, as they know that their future is no longer as bleak as it once was. –