Updated: July 10, 2017 07:39 AM GMT
Aeta children on the island of Palaui attend classes at a learning center for tribal children run by Franciscan nuns. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Every day, Eva Vallangca takes a 30-minute boat ride from the northern Philippine town of Santa Ana to the island of Palaui, off the northeastern coast of Cagayan Valley province.
The 25-year-old woman is a volunteer teacher in a tribal community school run by the Franciscan Apostolic Sisters, a Catholic religious congregation based in the northern Philippines.
Eva says teaching the Aeta tribe on the island is her way of showing gratitude to the community that gave her the "most precious gift that completes" her life.
"This is what I really want. I want to be an instrument of empowerment for indigenous people," she says.
Eva has been teaching Aeta children for three years, although her love for the tribe, which she calls "the most wonderful people," started years earlier when she met Alvin, a 32-year-old tribesman.
Eva and Alvin became friends after an accidental meeting. The young Alvin says he thought he went crazy after seeing Eva.
"I wanted to see her every day just listen to her voice. Then I realized I love her," says Alvin who married Eva and brought her to his tribe.
It was in Alvin's community that Eva saw how the Aetas had been deprived even of the basic right to an education for children.
Eva and her husband Alvin volunteer as teachers at the nuns' learning center for tribal children. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The Aetas of Palaui
The island of Palaui is home to the Aeta, an indigenous people who live in scattered, isolated mountainous parts of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The Aeta, thought to be the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines, have always suffered discrimination because of their small physical stature, very dark brown skin, and kinky hair.
Palaui, which earned 10th spot on CNN's World's 100 Best Beaches list in 2013, has since been invaded by commercial beach resorts, further pushing some 40 tribal families inland.
In 1994, the island was declared a national marine reserve, but due to its remoteness, government services seldom reach residents, leaving the tribe with no access to education, health, or other services.
The religious missionary Franciscan Apostolic Sisters came to Palaui some 20 years ago and started working to empower the community.
"The congregation realized that a school would help them secure a better future, away from the discrimination of society," said Sister Minerva Caampued.
A mother and her child spend time at the learning center for tribal children run by Franciscan nuns. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
School for the tribe
In 2010, the nuns established the Santa Ana School for the Aetas, a learning center for tribal children.
Sister Minerva says the school was a "blessing" but the challenges continue. "We have to look for teachers," she says.
During the school's first year, the sisters became teachers.
Alvin, an eager young man who has been helping the nuns, became a volunteer instructor.
"I can only teach them how to read the alphabet, do some basic math, and write letters," Alvin says.
He spends his free time listening to the nuns. "I want to learn so that I can teach the children more," he says.
Eva says she sees her husband's desire to be an educator.
"I know the reason why he is so eager," Eva says. "He really wants to see an Aeta community free from discrimination." The only way out of this is through education, she says.
Eva appealed to the nuns who have helped Alvin get a proper education from a Franciscan school in Santa Ana town. The young man is in his third year in college and is taking an education course.
To show her gratitude, Eva volunteers as a teacher in the nuns' tribal school to give what she describes as "the only treasure that no one can take" from the tribe.
The couple decided not to have a child until Alvin finishes his studies. "It is only a little sacrifice that we can do not just for the tribe but for us as a couple," says Alvin.
"We are happy to have them and we really wish others to follow their example," Sister Minerva said.
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