Mohammadnor Pandatapan, 20, always wanted to become an engineer. Born and raised in Marawi City, Mindanao, Philippines, his dreams fell short when his family could no longer afford his schooling.
Not to be deterred, Mohammadnor looked for job opportunities. In 2016, he found a free digital T-shirt printing course offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development. “It was fulfilling to see my printed designs,” he said.
When Mohammadnor learned about entrepreneurship and how to manage money, he had an epiphany: “I realized that I could run my own business.”
He gathered some friends and, with the help of a USAID grant, bought equipment to start a T-shirt printing business.
Soon after Mohammadnor got his first T-shirt order in May 2017, hundreds of ISIS-inspired militants descended on Marawi. The Philippine government launched an operation to take back the city. More than 360,000 people fled to relatives in neighboring towns and to evacuation centers.
“We thought we could go back to our homes after a day or two, but it became a full-blown war,” Mohammadnor said.
The five-month conflict turned the city center into rubble. “We lost everything,” he said.
Well of resilience
Determined to survive, Mohammadnor found his aunt 60 miles away from Marawi and helped his cousin operate a graphic-design business. In his free time, he designed T-shirt logos about rebuilding Marawi, including one with the words “Bangon Marawi” (Rise Up, Marawi).
“I believe that we can rise from this situation,” he said. Unsure of his plans but filled with hope and resilience, he returned to Marawi in January 2018.
Mohammadnor found his friends and former instructor, Danny Arumpac, and they restarted their T-shirt business. Since reopening their shop in March 2018, they have sold T-shirts in trade fairs and are expanding to schools and businesses. Meanwhile, USAID has extended its project to reach an additional 8,000 youth living in areas around Marawi.
“Inshallah, I might be able to go back to school to become an engineer,” Mohammadnor said. For now, he is rebuilding the city one T-shirt at a time.
A longer version of this article appears in USAID’s Exposure magazine.