Dreaming the impossible dream
By Benjamin Abubakar
“Silupin (cellophane), babu…bapa. Piso lang po”.
These words always remind me of the struggles and sacrifices I experienced during my childhood. Nevertheless, motivated me to work harder and “dream the impossible dream”, as many would say.
Yes, I became a market vendor at a young age. It was our family’s bread and butter, selling goods at Super Market in Cotabato City. It all began when my family had to flee our home in Libungan Torreta because of the armed conflict between the government and the revolutionary group in 2001.
As I recall, I had difficulty adjusting to the place, especially to my new school. I didn’t know how to converse in Tagalog with my classmates since I was not used to speaking the language in my province. It took me months before I adapted it. I skipped classes and even refrained from going to school for almost two (2) months. I only focused on selling cellophane in the market because all I wanted back then was to survive. Going to school was not my priority. But, there was a moment in my life when I asked myself about the things that I want to achieve in life—that’s when I started to dream. I told myself that I want to have a better life, not just for myself but for my family as well. So, I juggled work, studies, and family responsibilities.
When I stepped into high school, I was very happy because I was very close to my dreams. But, life was testing me. I almost quit my studies because my parents could no longer afford to send me to school. However, that didn’t stop me. I looked for many jobs so that I could continue my studies. It lasted until I reached the third year of high school, which was also the time when I applied to the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program. It’s a fully funded exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State.
During my application, I was very nervous and got intimidated by the other applicants because I knew that I wasn’t good at English. But, I ignored those negativities. I just gave my best during the interview – I answered the questions honestly, danced, sang, and participated well during the group discussion.
Fortunately, when the results came out, I was speechless and very emotional when I read my name on the list of the 50 national qualifiers who would be allowed to study in the United States of America.
“Benjamin, breakfast is ready!” Someone was calling my name from the kitchen, then I woke up. I thought I was dreaming but it was real! I was in America! It was my host dad who was calling me because the school bus was about to arrive in our subdivision. My two host sisters and I would move quickly because we didn’t want to miss our school bus. My host mom’s orange chicken was my favorite. She would prepare it during dinner whenever I want to.
The Winfields treated me like their own son, which helped me adapt to the place fast and lessen my homesickness. Well, more than having a very loving and caring host family, I was also lucky enough to have very good American friends and classmates in my host school in Dexter, Michigan. I joined Drama Club and Choir Class where I mostly had the opportunity to develop my skills and talents. It also gave me the chance to visit many places in and outside my host state. More so, I took the chance to share my own culture, my blood as a Muslim-Filipino, and my identity as a Bangsamoro. Aside from that, I learned the spirit of volunteerism. I engaged myself in different community services, which allowed me to fill in the gap in the perspectives of Americans about the Islam religion and its people.
However, just like a fairytale story, it must have an ending, and I would say that my one-year academic exchange program ended happily ever after. Why? Because right after returning home, Allah opened many doors of opportunity throughout my life.
I became an active alumnus volunteer in my community and participated in different community projects funded by the U.S. Embassy that mainly focused on promoting civic engagement, protecting the environment, improving education through literacy training programs, and many more. Later, I was elected as the President of the AFS-IPP Cotabato Chapter, which served as one of the local chapters in the Philippines that helps AFS Philippines in the recruitment and sending process regarding the KL-YES Program.
More than these, I am always thankful to the Almighty for helping me ace my academics despite the financial challenges. I got a scholarship that helped me support my studies in college and earned my degree in Secondary Education. Alhamdulillah!
In 2015, I had the opportunity to represent the Philippines in Bangkok, Thailand as one of the delegates of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Generation: ASEAN Education for the 21st Century Workshop where I won $ 5,000 during the project pitching. The following year, six (6) years after my exchange program, I went back to the United States of America for the YES Alumni Social Entrepreneurship Workshop in Virginia. In the same year, the U.S. Embassy Philippines also sent me to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to attend the ASEAN-American Exchange Alumni Workshop.
Currently, I work for one of the Members of Parliament in the Bangsamoro Government as a Legislative Staff Officer after finishing my job as a senior high school teacher at Notre Dame University for almost five (5) years. And I think, Allah has been preparing me to play a bigger role—to give back…to serve the Bangsamoro community.
After those several exposures, I thought my American dream ended. But just last year, I went to New York City to represent the BARMM where I had the chance to introduce the Bangsamoro Flag to thousands of youth from across the globe who attended the 27th Youth Assembly. My third visit to America was unforgettable because I was able to see my host family and friends, and visited other places. To me, it was truly a life-changing experience.
As I reflect on my previous experiences, I must say it was never that easy but Allah SWT helped me make it. I know that my life story may be different from others but I have high hopes that this will open the minds of the young Bangsamoro people to be hopeful…to be dreamers. No matter where we come from, no matter the social status, everyone can dream. With optimism, passion, and persistence, anything is possible. As they say, “libre ang mangarap”.
It was indeed a humbling experience. These could be small wins for some, but for a young market vendor named Benjamin, it was his American dream turned into reality.
Benjamin A. Abubakar is a licensed professional teacher who works for the Bangsamoro Transition Authority as the Legislative Staff Officer III of the Office of MP Engr. Aida M. Silongan. Currently, he is working on his thesis proposal for his Master’s Degree at Notre Dame University-Graduate School. Following his profession as a teacher, he became one of the faculty of STI College Cotabato Inc. and Notre Dame University-Senior High School. Also, he was the former President of the American Field Service-Intercultural Program Philippines Cotabato Chapter and an active member of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Further, he was a recipient of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, hosted in Dexter, Michigan, USA. His active involvement in his community had been recognized by the U.S. Department of State, which allowed him to participate in various International workshops such as in Bangkok, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Virginia, and New York, USA.