21-year-old Arizza Nocum’s upbringing was markedly different from your average Filipino.
Nocum is the daughter of a Catholic father and Muslim mother. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with around 83% of the population ascribing to themselves to the religion in the 2000 census, while just 5% of Filipinos are Muslim.
Her parents’ union was a “statement against what was happening around them,” according to Nocum.
“Throughout our history, the dominance of the Catholic religion has sort of translated to oppression against the Muslim minority, so naturally there is a lot of tension and prejudice between Muslims and Catholics in my country,” Nocum told Business Insider.
Nevertheless, Nocum was brought up to learn both religions. Her parents taught her both the Bible and the Quran. She dressed in casual clothes to attend mass with her father and wore the hijab whilst attending Muslim gatherings. Nocum was comfortable in her two identities, living “between the cross and the crescent moon.”
But as she entered high school and college and began posting pictures of herself wearing the veil and without to Facebook, Nocum began receiving negative comments from friends, like: “I don’t understand who you are.”
“More than that, what really horrified me was when I was in my casual clothes, people treated me normally, but when I was wearing the veil and I was out with my mum, or just walking, people would treat me differently,” Nocum said.
“There was a very real sense of fear and distrust because you don’t see a lot of hijabis here in Manilla. When I wear that, it automatically signals something that people actually associate Islam here with conflict and aggression,” Nocum continued.
“I’m supposed to be the same person, I’m Arizza, but it’s the way when I wear the clothing of one religion versus the other I’m treated completely differently.
“That’s when I knew it wasn’t healthy and something had to be done.”
In 2008, the Nocums set up a library in Manicaha, Zamboanga. They named their non-profit foundation 'Kris Library,' a portmanteau of Kristiyano and Islam. It is funded by companies and private individuals.
The idea was to create a buzzing community center in which Catholics and Muslims could interact together. Arizza became involved in 2011, helping set up five further libraries across the Philippines in just a year.
The majority of Kris Libraries are located in the Zamboanga region, in the southern-most area of the Philippines and close to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The threat of extremism in the largely impoverished region remains constant.
There are several terrorist groups operating in the Philippines including the New People's Army, the Abu Sayyaf Group, Jemaah Islamiya. Foreign nationals and tourists have been kidnapped and even beheaded.
A 2014 peace agreement was hoped to bring a 40-year insurgency in the south of the country to a halt, but there threats still remain from two insurgent groups, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Two of the six Kris Libraries are located near to alleged terrorist camps, which associate themselves with ISIS and attempt to recruit child soldiers, according to Nocum.
She said: 'We don't exactly know where they are, but there are soldiers standing by the schools where the beneficiaries go.'
Nocum admits it was difficult at first to encourage parents to attend Kris Library. Some parents were worried the library was trying to convert them to the opposite religion.
'We were able to attract them because we provided a mix of both books and digital resources, computers, and an internet connection,' Nocum said.
'The computers and internet connection were a big temptation to the kids because these communities were not only experiencing conflict, but they did not have regular access to telephones lines or electricity.'
Even so, when children and their parents were convinced to come through the doors, the communities hesitated to mix.
'They would be off to their own corners: Christians this side, Muslims this side. You'd see a really physical divide, which was saddening,' Nocum said.
But Kris Library encouraged the children to interact through tutorials and a scholarship program, where the foundation sponsored children to go to school.
'In time you would see that physical divide dissolve,' Nocum added.
There is one example of Kris Library bridging religious gaps that really sticks out in Nocum's mind.
One of Kris Library's scholars lost her father to a terrorist attack, which was supposedly carried out by Abu Sayyaf, a terror group that is currently associating itself with ISIS.
The elementary schooler no longer wanted to attend the library after her father was killed.
Nocum said: 'She had a certain hate for the Muslims in the community. We understood how difficult, challenging, and traumatic it was for her.'
But not only did the girl stop attending the library, she began missing school too.
'Her classmates, most of them scholars of our organisation, sought her out and went to her house,' Nocum said. 'At the beginning they were just giving her the school materials she missed, like homework and assignments.
'But eventually they were able to convince her eto go back to the library and eventually go back to school.
'She's now in her first year of university.'
Nocum says Kris Library has sponsored more than 400 beneficiaries but she wants it to achieve far more than that and has ambitions to open up as more than 30 libraries across the Philippines.
The sponsorship program at the moment is particularly focused on disadvantaged young people who have been affected by conflict, but she wants to extend it out to other people in the Philippines too -- particularly those in her home city of Manila.
Nocum: 'Our beneficiaries were Muslims and Christians down in the south, in the areas of conflict, but we realised we needed a program to reach out to other Filippinos who weren't previously aware of the trouble that has been going on.'
But Nocum won't just wait for the government to tackle the issue.
Nocum has just graduated with an engineering degree and now she wants to turn her attention to the social enterprise space.
'(At Kris Library) I realised we were educating scholars and helping them finish college, but when we visited them after university we found out that they were either under-employed or unemployed because these regions -- especially in the south -- don't offer a lot of jobs,' Nocum said.
'So I want to go into more of a social business model now to find out how we cna provide jobs to the people there.'
In the meantime, Nocum is also one of the 10 young leaders from around the world that have been chosen to take part in the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World's joint initiative 'Extremely Together.' They will produce a toolkit with the aim of enabling young people across the world to fight extremism.
The seventh One Young World Summit takes place in Ottawa, Canada from September 28 until October 1.
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