Opposites Attract

Indonesian non-profit SabangMerauke believes there are more similarities between us than differences, and tolerance will usually smooth over the friction of any disparity. Read more about its interesting way of promoting cultural and religious understanding.

BY ESTHER AU YONG
 

G

rowing up in a village where everyone practised Islam, Indonesian student Apipa used to be wary of people who didn’t share her religion. But she has learnt to embrace people of different faiths through SabangMerauke, an organisation offering a unique student exchange programme in Indonesia.

SabangMerauke, which is short form for Seribu Anak Bangsa Merantau Untuk Kembali in Bahasa Indonesia or “a thousand children of the nation travel to return”, aims to promote interfaith and intercultural understanding by placing students from all over Indonesia with host families of different faiths and races.

Apipa took part in its exchange programme where she was placed with a Christian family. But two days into the programme, the teenager asked to be moved to a different home. She was worried that her hosts would not understand and allow her to practise her religion. When she related her concerns to her mentor from SabangMerauke, the mentor helped facilitate a discussion between her and the family. It helped allay her fears of her hosts, who had earlier provided her with a prayer mat, and helped her find the direction to Mecca so she could fulfil her religious obligations.

By the end of her fortnight stay, Apipa had grown close to the family and, today, still keeps in touch with them. She says: “Understanding religious differences is important, especially when it comes to promoting tolerance. I learnt to respect other people who are of different religions.”

For Ayu Kartika Dewi, who co-founded SabangMerauke in 2013, this was a successful outcome. The programme involves young students, older mentors and host families, all of whom have been selected to represent the diverse ethnic groups and religions found in Indonesia. The selection process is carefully calibrated, and students from post-conflict areas in Indonesia are given priority to participate in the programme, Ayu says.

Apipa’s story, and that of SabangMerauke, has been told in a video on Singapore International Foundation’s digital storytelling platform, Our Better World. The video has garnered over 240,000 views and this, Ayu says, has gone a long way towards helping people understand the organisation and its programme. This outreach is important to SabangMerauke, which has only one full-time staff and is largely a volunteer-run effort. Typically, a two-week programme for 10 students requires US$20,000 in funding and the participation of at least 300 volunteers, who help with tasks ranging from fundraising to operations. The volunteers also help to mentor student participants. Its programmes are funded by donations from individuals and corporations.

THE SINGAPORE CONNECTION
Ayu herself has experienced diversity as part of the SIF-Asean Student Fellowship programme, which ran from 1992 to 2004. It introduced student leaders from Asean countries to the Singapore way of life. Ayu had spent a semester at the Singapore Management University in 2004, and lived with a Singaporean family during her stay.

Ayu’s time of peaceful multiracialism and religious tolerance in Singapore inspired her to start SabangMerauke. She was also influenced by her experience of teaching at a village primary school in Maluku for a year from 2010 to 2011.

“The village was 100 per cent Muslim. Ten years before I arrived, there had been a riot between Muslims and Christians that caused thousands of casualties and resulted in thousands of internally displaced people,” she says. “After the riot, the Indonesian government segregated the villages by faith. My students were too young to have experienced the riot first-hand. Some of them have never met a Christian, yet they had such hatred and anger for Christians.”

SabangMerauke hopes to correct these perceptions by encouraging interactions between people of different faiths and culture, says Ayu. It is effecting societal change via what she calls “social acupuncture”. She says: “You stick a needle in one small spot, but then the impact expands beyond that. The students who have gone through the programme have become more open-minded.

“ If youth are exposed to intercultural and interfaith diversity in an educational and constructive way, they will then grow up with a positive attitude towards diversity. ”


Ayu Kartika Dewi, co-founder of SabangMerauke

 

“Post-programme, the participants return to their hometowns and become peace ambassadors in their social circles, spreading positive stories about their intercultural and interfaith experiences. Apipa learned tolerance and respect for other religions and cultures. She will share her experiences and reflections with her family, friends and relatives, who in turn will tell their own networks.”

Moving ahead, Ayu says the organisation wants to be more than an exchange programme; it wants to solve real issues, and influence policies and national curriculum. “What really matters is how we can spread the peace message to a broader audience faster and affect them more significantly. Ultimately, if youth are exposed to intercultural and interfaith diversity in an educational and constructive way, they will then grow up with a positive attitude towards diversity,” she says.


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