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Discrimination: A Broken Bridge in Christian-Muslim Harmony
by Jamail A. Kamlian, Ph. D.
International Peace Advocate
Associate Member, International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
Vice Chancellor for Research and Extension, MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology, Iligan City

This is a first-hand story of a case of discrimination against myself primarily because I am a Bangsamoro and a Muslim, which was thus far the worst humiliation I have experienced in my entire life. It is a very ironic incident that should happen to an international peace advocate like me.

This story began as a happy one, when on August 3, 2002, a Saturday, I and my family - my wife Janeth and children (Jedd Rauff, 6, and Jannellah, 4) — went to Cagayan de Oro City to spend the weekend, to relax and shop in Cagayan’s malls as many Iliganons usually do. But never did I imagine this would lead to something more than a nightmare nearly three weeks later.

At the Lim Ket Kai Mall, Janeth was enjoying her time at the parlor, the kids and a niece were having a grand time at the games area, and me, reading a newspaper and sipping my coffee in a cozy restaurant in the second level of the mall.

It was 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, and I thought it had been some time since I left the kids with Christine, their elder cousin. So I went down to look for the kids, only to meet them near Jollibee as they were about to check on me, too, because it was snack time.

But before we could leave for our favorite snack bar, a lady in her 40s approached and handed me a flyer for a new promo for a house-and-lot in a subdivision called Grand Europa near the Lumbia Airport.

“Please don’t bother, ma’am, I can’t afford to buy a house-and-lot in your plush subdivision”, I politely told her, knowing that this lowly public servant would have no place in an upscale subdivision atop a hill. I, and my family, have been living in contentment in a low-cost housing area in Iligan.

But this persistent real property agent wouldn’t take no for an answer and begged for me to listen to them first. In their booth in the middle of the walkway, she pulled out a chair and presented me what her company, the Communities Cagayan, Inc. (CCI), had to offer. In the meantime, my kids were getting excited looking at the photographs and scale models of the beautiful houses in the subdivision.

“I told you I can’t afford your package,” I told her again with thoughts of my modest appearance in my shorts, sandals and sleeveless shirt.

“I know you are just being humble, Sir. I’m sure you have lots of money. You can easily afford a house-and-lot,” Gemma Patalinghug, the persistent sales agent said.

“Ssshhh ... please don’t say that aloud I might get kidnapped,” I jokingly told her.

It was at this moment that she offered to take me to the subdivision estate because they have a free shuttle bus leaving for the site soon. I really had no plans to purchase, but since we’re going somewhere for free that surely would give a good afternoon experience for the kids to see a beautiful scenery, I conceded. Janeth, meantime, was still attended to at the parlor and couldn’t come with us.

Really thinking I’m somebody rich, Gemma and her colleagues brought us to the Frontierra section of Grand Europa, supposedly the most expensive part of the subdivision. The kids enjoyed the facilities - swimming pool, the basketball court, the wide green expanse of the golf course, and a really beautiful playground. I too, liked the place, if only we could afford it. I told Gemma that my wife needs to see this for herself first before we could decide.

When we went back to the mall, Janeth was already there at the realtor’s booth waiting for us. Gemma invited Janeth to see the place, too, on our next trip to Cagayan de Oro.

We were supposed to go back on August 10, but Janeth’s Mom had just arrived from the US and wanted to see us. So we drove to Oroquieta City instead, all the while getting calls and text messages from the CCI agents wanting to bag a deal. They said they would be expecting us on August 17.

Incidentally, our car was due for checkup so we needed to go to Toyota in Cagayan de Oro City and decided to go the following weekend. This opportunity to further convince us made Gemma happy so that as early as 8 a.m., she was already calling and reminding us to go see the subdivision. We went to Toyota first, left the car there for checkup, then went to Lim Ket Kai to meet Gemma and company at around 11 o’clock in the morning. We were told that the shuttle bus had already left at 10 o’clock but another bus will be going by 2 p.m.

But Janeth can’t afford to waste time and surely was also excited to see the subdivision. So, she told Gemma we would just get a cab and we pay for it. On our way up, Janeth called her brother, Rene Sumalpong who has long been living in Cagayan de Oro City, to meet us at the subdivision so we could ride in his car on our way back and save expenses for another taxi trip back to the city.

Janeth was so impressed with the location and what she saw there. The problem now is on the cost of the house-and-lot package of PhP1.7M. Janeth’s brother advised us to just purchase a lot, then build the house later when we can already afford to build it on our own. By that way, we could have the lot in the location but spend less, he said.

However, Gemma said they don’t sell just the lot in this part of Grand Europa. If we want the lot only, we can check out Portico, another section in the same subdivision where only lots were sold.

Janeth said she liked the place, but there’s no way we can buy a house-and-lot package at its current cost. So she insisted on just negotiating for the lot purchase. If they can’t offer us that, then we were ready to leave.

Gemma made a few phone calls. Shortly after, we were told there’s this just one lot in all of Frontierra that they are selling. Accordingly, this single lot is in a beautiful location, situated by the corner overlooking the other houses in the subdivision. Both of us were excited with the prospect of being able to purchase the lot and thought we were lucky it must have been God’s plan for us.

We were told the 189-sq.m. lot costs PhP795,000, on installment basis, and PhP680,000, on cash basis.

We were told that we could get the details about the transaction - monthly amortization, requirements, etc. - later at CCI’s office downtown. So we agreed to meet there by 2 p.m. Unfortunately, there was nobody around when we went there in the afternoon. Gemma later called us through cellphone and apologized that no one was around because everyone at CCI was at the Portico as it was its launching day.

So we went up to Grand Europa again. We didn’t regret the trip back because we were told they were offering a promo in connection with the fiesta celebration of Cagayan de Oro City that falls on August 28. This promo will give us the chance to purchase the lot (if the deal is closed before month’s end) with only PhP165,000 as downpayment instead of PhP200,000 and a monthly installment payment of PhP10,740 per month for ten years through CCI’s in-house financing scheme.

This is too good to be true, we thought.

The sales agents and Emy Lustado were so eager to close the deal and convinced us to pay a non-refundable, non-transferable reservation fee of PhP10,000 to guarantee that we can get the said lot and the processing of the lot purchase application will be initiated. Unfortunately, we did not have that much cash that time. We could only afford to pay P5,000 then. The CCI employees agreed to receive only the PhP5,000 at that time and gave us an RCBC account number to which we can deposit the remaining P5,000 the following Monday (August 19,2002) which we did.

In the meantime, Janeth already signed the conforme portion in CCI’s quotation sheet. We decided to make the transaction in her name to have higher chances of approval because she is a doctor of medicine (an internist and a gastroenterology specialist) and has bigger income than I have.

To be really sure, I asked Emy Lustado and her colleagues if there’s any chance that we would be disqualified because we were worried of the non-refundable, non-transferable reservation fee. P10,000, after all, is a big amount for us. “Are you sure we will not be disqualified?” I inquired.

“I’m sure you won’t be disqualified, Sir!” Emy emphatically assured me. She noted, too, that our aggregate household monthly income is higher than CCI’s minimum monthly income requirement of PhP35,000.

To make us more comfortable with our upcoming purchase, the biggest we would have in our married life, Gemma and colleagues who were present during the transaction, told us that the subdivision is owned by Sen. Manuel Villar. “The senator spent a fortune for this subdivision,” she assured me. Gemma even cited an incidence in this Villar-owned subdivision, wherein a house-and-lot buyer painted his house differently. Villar reportedly didn’t like it, and ordered it repainted at company’s expense to conform with the subdivision’s color scheme. “He’s really strict when it comes to following subdivision rules,” she added. CCI is a subsidiary of Crown Asia, which is owned by the senator’s family.

With Villar’s heroic deeds at the House of Representatives that led to the impeachment of Erap, I joined Gemma in praising Villar. I even told her I voted for his boss as I wrote 12-0 in the senatorial race in favor of the administration party. “It is secure here. We have lots of security guards. In fact, there are many foreigners living here,” Gemma boasted.

I was surprised because, as far as I know, foreigners aren’t supposed to own lands in the Philippines. So I let Gemma know of this. “But these are in the names of their Filipina wives,” Gemma answered with a smile.

Janeth filled up a number of documents, including the customer information sheet that asked about basic information like address, date of birth, age, employment, income, etc. Surprisingly, religion was not there. We were also given the list of requirements, 17 in all, that needed to be submitted.

Back to my normal activities on Monday, I was trying to figure out how to obtain the money for the downpayment — my time deposit with our multi-purpose cooperative, our little savings somewhere, financial assistance from relatives?

A friend suggested that I ask if I’d get a discount if I pay cash, then try borrowing money from relatives who would lend money without, or at very minimal, interest. I thought this was a good idea so I called up Emy. “Yes,” she said, “we give 15 percent discount if you pay cash.” This was good news.

So, in the next few days we sought help from relatives, reexamined our savings, and concluded that we could indeed raise the amount enough to buy the lot at spot cash. Now that we have decided to pay in cash, the CCI’s list of requirements suddenly dropped to just three, which included our marriage contract. All the troubles apparently started with this document because it was here that they learned that I am a Muslim because this was clearly stated there.

And then the nightmarish discrimination on my person and religion began.

It was almost noon on Wednesday, August 21, I was outside my office when my cellphone rang. It was Gemma asking for my wife. I told her that my wife will be arriving any minute to fetch me on her way home. I gave her our land line telephone number and asked her to call back in thirty minutes. I inquired whether they had received the documents that I had faxed and the additional PhP5,000 that I had deposited earlier thinking that the call was made to acknowledge receipt of these. Gemma acknowledged receiving these but added that there was a problem and that could she talk to my wife.

“Why, what’s the problem? You could at least tell me,” I told her. But she continued to ask for my wife. This made me so curious and again asked why? Finally she opened up.

“Sir, amo lang i-uli inyong reservation fee nga P10,000. Sorry kaayo, Sir, pero dili madayon ang transaction kay Muslim diay ka. Sir, ayaw lang kasuko sa ako, gisugo lang ko sa opisina nga paingnan ka. (Sir, we will just return your P10,000 reservation fee. I’m sorry, Sir, but the transaction can’t push through because you are a Muslim. Sir, don’t get angry with me, I am only requested by the office to inform you.)

I was stunned and felt goosebumps swelling out of my skin but surprisingly, I was not angry yet. “Why, what’s wrong with being a Muslim? Why won’t you allow us to buy a piece of property in your subdivision?” I asked her politely.

“It’s a policy of our company, Sir, not to sell to Muslims because they usually have a lot of visitors that would disrupt the neighborhood,” Gemma tried to appease me.

“But you shouldn’t worry about me because I’m a Tausug, I’m from Jolo, and I seldom have relatives visiting me. The few relatives that I have would only visit me when I give them money for their transportation because they ask for their fare from me because of the distance,” I countered.

“Actually, it is company policy, Sir, not to sell to Muslims,” she repeated. “Honestly, Sir, wa gyud mi gatuo nga kanang imong nawong, nawong diay ug Muslim,” (Honestly, Sir, we did not really expect that your face is, in fact, the face of a Muslim) Gemma said.

That statement made me really mad. Under the noontime heat, I felt my blood pressure surge. I thought I would collapse, or have a heart attack right there and then. I prayed to God, the God I know ... Allah, Lord as I went into an outburst.

I continued to argue my case. I told Gemma that if they were in my shoes, to imagine themselves to be working comfortably in Jolo, yet they can’t buy land there because of being Christian. But my words apparently fell on deaf ears. I later felt defeated as Gemma kept insisting it was company policy and she could do nothing about it. She was only doing her job, she said, and that she was really so sorry for having caused me all the trouble.

But I argued some more and pleaded.

“If the Muslims have sinned against you or your company, can you just please sell to my wife? She’s Catholic anyway. My kids - I don’t know yet what religion they’ll follow when they grow up. I could sign a waiver that should we eventually build a house there, the guards could stop me at the gate and deny my entry. Then, I’ll just sleep in the trees outside your subdivision.”

“Outside your office and your subdivision, please post a sign that say you don’t sell to Muslims. And, can you please put down in writing what you just told me, that you’re not selling property to my wife because she’s married to a Muslim. In your computer, please put in bold the word Muslim.”

Toward the end of my conversation with Gemma, Janeth arrived. She saw my face red with anger, and told me to sit inside the car and cool down. I told her about the cancellation of the land deal, then it was a quiet ride all the way home. We had tinolang tangigue for lunch, but I didn’t have the appetite for lunch.

Then the phone at home rang; it was Gemma again. This time she talked to Janeth, telling my wife the same lines she told me earlier. I could feel Janeth’s anger this time. The last words that I heard from my wife to Gemma were to put their refusal into writing.

Back at the office in the afternoon, my colleagues saw distress in my face and asked what’s wrong. Everything showed in my face.

I had a hard time getting sleep the next few days. The few moments I was able to sleep, I had nightmares recalling the dialog between myself and Gemma.

I went back to my normal life after three days, only after talking to religious leaders, both Muslims and Christians and to legal advisers.

I and my wife wrote a letter to CCI on August 23, still demanding that they sell us the land by virtue of the already perfected agreement between us and their company and if they will not honor anymore this agreement, then they put all of this into writing. Up to now, we still haven’t received their reply.

But they did invite me for a luncheon meeting in Cagayan de Oro. I told them I’m busy with my work. And since business with them is no longer feasible, then they should be the ones to come to Iligan City if they want to talk to me. They said that they would come and probably talk it out with us at Sunburst Restaurant. But again I refused because I have a lot to do in the office. If they should talk to me, they should come to my office.

Since then, I have this resolution not to let them get away with this. This is a blatant discrimination against Muslims, an ignorance of the religion of Islam, and clearly a violation of the Constitution. It is just so unbelievable that while foreigners can buy lands at Frontiera with the help of their Filipina wives, they won’t even sell to my Filipina wife who is married to a Filipino citizen whose only unacceptable disqualification (according to them) is being a Muslim.

Although I am a Tausug from Sulu, I’ve been away from my homeprovince for the past 32 years. I have been living harmoniously with Christians in heterogeneous communities this long and have been happily and faithfully married to a Christian (Roman Catholic) wife. I was even accorded an Outstanding Citizen Award by a Christian-majority community that is a concrete testimony of my being a peace-loving Muslim Filipino citizen living in a Christian-dominated community. I had never before personally experienced this discrimination against Muslims although I did hear of such stories. This is my first direct encounter with discrimination. Or maybe, am I just too confined in the academe that I did not get to see it?

This incident only underscores the need for redressing historically-rooted problems that we often shrug-off as trivial or not serious enough. While this unfortunately happened to a Muslim in a largely Christian populated community, the same can also happen to a Christian in a Muslim populated community. The issue here is no longer on who the aggrieved person is or who the aggressor is, but instead, this experience should be an eye-opener to all of us to be cognizant of the stark reality of prejudice and discrimination borne out of ignorance of each other’s culture. It is also sad to note that this issue is in no small measure aggravated by an equally prejudiced media and educational system that have bred stereotypes of Muslims as unruly and lawbreakers.

Sad a story this maybe, but still I don’t feel hatred against Christians. I hope the Christians will reciprocate by not branding all of us Muslims as bad elements of society, especially in this era of post 9/11. I’m sure there are as much evildoers in Christianity as there are in Islam, and there are as much Muslims with good hearts as there are Christians.

I have been helping to build a peaceful world through the academe in peace conferences and other endeavors all over the world. This experience only strengthens my resolve to continue working for peace.

Just this morning, my four-year old daughter Jannellah asked me and her mother, “When are we going to stay in that beautiful subdivision?”

Her mother replied, “We cannot anymore, because your Dad is a Muslim and Muslims are not allowed in that subdivision.”

Then Jannellah asked, “Why? What is wrong about being a Muslim?”

We could not answer her.

(Written October 1, 2002)