Pacific Rim Report No. 53, February 2009
Trials, Burdens, and Triumphs in the Filipino Diaspora: Eight Tales
by Cher S. Jimenez and Christian V. Esguerra
Cher Jimenez studied journalism at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. After tasting the life of an overseas Filipino worker herself in the United Arab Emirates in 1996, Jimenez went back to her first love—journalism.
Starting in 2000, she wrote for various media outfits including the defunct Today newspaper, the Associated Press, Gulf News, GMANews online, Asia Times online (Bangkok), and the BusinessMirror in the Philippines. Her passion for the cause of overseas Filipino workers did not stop when she returned to being a media practitioner. In 2002, Jimenez received a grant from the Institute on Church and Social Issues at the Ateneo de Manila University to write an investigative story on the plight of undocumented Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates. She is now working as a reporter for Hong Kong News, a Filipino community paper based in the former British colony.
Christian Esguerra has been a journalist since 2000. He has covered a variety of issues in politics, economy, public policy, religion, environment, health, peace talks, and security. Esguerra is currently a political reporter for the English-language broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, the top daily in the Philippines. He covers Malacanang, the presidential beat. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas, his alma mater.
We gratefully acknowledge a grant from Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco to the USF Center for the Pacific Rim for underwriting the publication of this issue of Pacific Rim Report and supporting the Yuchengco Fellows Program for Young Professionals in the Media.
SHADOWY TRALS: STORIES OF THE UNDOCUMENTED
by Cher Jimenez
SAN FRANCISCO — His voice reverberates in a downtown San Francisco train station as passersby, residents and visitors make their way to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the city’s main subway system.
Train-goers from all over the world hear exceptional music as Ruben Kalinga sings Tagalog songs from way back. Many Filipino commuters and foreign travelers drop coins and sometimes one-dollar bills into the neon-green plastic box Kalinga has kept for months, ever since he decided to pursue a long-time dream.
With a guitar and a harmonica, Kalinga sings rock ‘n’roll and occasionally sits down to croon country and folk songs to the delight of his Western audience.
The 50-year-old former merchant seaman is no stranger at BART stations.
Every day, he lugs his musical instruments and performs for hours, most of the time without food, unless he decides to take a short break.
But unlike other Filipinos who are illegally staying in the United States, Kalinga is not in hiding. In fact, despite his illegal status, he exposes himself by performing almost daily in parts of San Francisco where police, tourists, and locals pass by. He also insists that his real name be mentioned in this story.
“They know who are illegal here, but I’m not afraid. I know they won’t deport me. You can’t call me TNT (for the Tagalog tago nang tago or “always in hiding”) because I’m not hiding,” he says with confidence.
Kalinga can afford to be nonchalant. San Francisco is one of few US cities that have remained friendly to undocumented immigrants like him. In an immigrant rights summit in September, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised that despite a crackdown by the Bush administration, San Francisco would continue to be a “sanctuary” for undocumented foreign workers.
Eleven years ago, Kalinga, a father of six, took a chance to attain the American dream. When his oil tanker docked in Los Angeles, he skipped out. Pretending to be mentally challenged, Kalinga was able to pass through the security check.
This attempt to sneak into the United States was his second, and it was successful. In 1993, the ex-seafarer had been deported to the Philippines when immigration officials caught him in El Paso, Texas, shortly after failing to return to his ship, which was docked in Florida.
Philippine authorities have lost count of how many Filipino seamen have “jumped ship” while abroad, especially in places like North America and Europe.
The Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) says illegal immigration has acquired many facets as more Filipinos scramble for jobs abroad. An estimated one million Filipinos are living as illegal immigrants in more than 100 countries around the globe.
A study by the Scalabrini Migration Center, a Manila-based nonprofit research institute, states that not all undocumented Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) travel on fake passports or visas, which was the practice many years ago. Many have taken more dangerous paths, taking a chance that their bold move would lift their families back home out of poverty.
Many illegal immigrants, such as Anita and Jerome Gonzales (not their real names) went through legal procedures when they entered the US as tourists in 2001. Anita was a teacher by profession and Jerome a veterinarian, but in New Hampshire, which became their home for six years, husband and wife worked as caregiver and farm attendant. Perennial financial hardship was the impetus for the Gonzales couple to quit their jobs, leave their three young boys and try their luck abroad.
The Filipino diaspora has remained a robust phenomenon despite the continued strong performance of the Philippine peso and a steady decline in unemployment. From 11.70 percent in 2005, the unemployment rate in the Philippines has declined to 7.9 percent this year.
A report by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) shows that with already 725,999 OFWs sent abroad as of August, the government could exceed its deployment goal of one million for 2007. Eight million, or a tenth of the Filipino population, are scattered in more than 190 destinations worldwide.
Institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) warn of a brain drain, but many Filipinos continue to defy immigration laws for the sake of their family’s survival.
Amanda Javier (not her real name) did just that when she used her perks as a travel agent to fly to Paris more than 10 years ago. For almost a year, the 41-year-old mother of three took housekeeping jobs in French households, a far cry from her executive position in a travel company.
Prompted by her family, which feared for her safety, Javier returned to the Philippines and worked for another travel firm. But the dream of a stable future for her children again drove her to consider working abroad even if it meant taking another risk. In 2001, Javier used her single entry visa to the US, where she now works as a caregiver by the day and a waitress by night.
Despite working two jobs, sending three kids to school requires more earnings, and better-paying jobs require a legal status. Javier convinced a longtime Filipino American friend she had met in her bar to marry her for a fee.
This peculiar arrangement, widely known among Filipinos in America, is deemed the last resort of those wanting to legalize their status. The going rate is $10,000 to $30,000, enough to buy a brand new car.
“Danny,” who tends a small store his mother owns in San Francisco, has been approached many times by a man who offered him money in exchange for marrying an undocumented Filipina.
“I get a lot of those proposals but I’m not interested. If I marry, that will be for real and not arranged,” he asserts. He adds that “payments” may go higher depending on how many dependents the immigrant has in the Philippines, because it is presumed that they, too, will be petitioned to the United States.
In Javier’s case, her friend agreed to the arrangement “after three years of convincing.” Her husband, who was left to care for their children in the Philippines, agreed to sign their divorce papers so she could remarry in the US. His approval came with a stern condition: that his wife’s second marriage would be on paper only.
The US government knows of this practice and has implemented strict measures to detect bogus marriages. One of the procedures includes a series of interviews by an immigration psychologist, who probes the couple to see if their answers match on personal matters like the color of each other’s underwear.
“We’re prepared for that, that’s why I bought him only one color. I got him gray briefs,” Javier says, chuckling.
Marianito Roque, OWWA administrator, notes that OFWs have developed different ways of seeking jobs abroad even if these pose risks to their own safety. Unscrupulous manpower agencies and individual recruiters use their situation to make more money.
Because of the nature of their deployment, many undocumented OFWs do not undergo a pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS), which provides information on the culture and laws in host countries. The major source of information for unauthorized immigrants are the agents and the recruitment firms responsible for their deployment, said the Scalabrini study.
Sad But True Stories
With Filipino women pitching in for their families, there has been a ‘feminization’ of labor immigration from the Philippines. Ten percent of the country’s yearly labor deployments is made up of domestic helpers bound mainly for the Middle East. Many of them tell stories of abuse both from their recruiters and employers.
Nelly Martinez (not her real name) was recruited by a certain Tessie Guimarao from Davao City in 2002. Guimarao promised Martinez that she would work as a receptionist in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A certain Lucy Padilla instead sold Nelly into prostitution.
Padilla made thousands of dirham (the UAE currency, abbreviated “AED”, worth about US$0.27) by offering Martinez to an Arab customer who was willing to shell out big bucks for a virgin woman. A doctor had Martinez checked twice to confirm that she had yet to lose her virginity.
In her sworn affidavit before the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the19-year-old woman said Padilla sold her for AED6000 (US$1,630) to a Palestinian customer who raped her inside the house of another Filipina. Martinez’s client also paid her AED3000 and offered to take care of her and her family.
“He drove me to Lucy’s house and while inside the car, he asked me if I wanted him to be my boyfriend. He said he would also send money to my family. I refused the offer, I know he will just use me whenever he wants,” Martinez wrote in her affidavit after escaping from her abusive recruiter.
Martinez returned home with the help of the Philippine Embassy, and so did Padilla after she was arrested. The UAE authorities refused to keep Padilla in jail and instead sent her back to the Philippines. While prostitution is alive and thriving in that part of the Gulf region, governments are not taking its existence seriously.
Reports of sexual abuse of Filipino women, especially in the Middle East, have become common, but little is being either by the Philippine government or receiving countries to prevent them. The dangers are worse among unauthorized immigrants. Eighty percent of the more than 5,000 domestic helpers who were repatriated to the Philippines during Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 claimed to have been victims of physical and psychological abuse. A great number of them were illegal workers, according to OWWA.
In a report by OWWA to Vice President Noli de Castro during the second quarter of 2007, Roque identified Damascus (Syria), Amman (Jordan), Kuwait, Kish Island (Iran) and Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) as “extreme human trafficking areas” for Filipinos.
Iraq, however, was not named as a trafficking area, although nearly half of the more than 7,000 Filipinos there are undocumented. Critics say that the Philippine government, which is supportive of the US war in Iraq, is not seriously committed to stopping the hiring of OFWS by American facilities in Baghdad. This support was also demonstrated in 2002 when about 300 Filipino construction workers were immediately whisked to Guantanamo, Cuba to build detention cells for captured Taliban fighters.
Network of Leeches
Filipinos working at Camp Anaconda in Iraq had defied a deployment ban and now face security risks. In May 2007, the Department of Foreign Affairs renewed its call for OFWs in Iraq to seek the help of the nearest Philippine labor office if they needed assistance to come home. The department promised they would not be prosecuted and “everything is forgiven.” The advice came following the death of a Filipino worker in a rocket attack in Baghdad’s US-controlled Green Zone.
Thirteen Filipinos have been killed in Iraq since 2004, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a web-based service that monitors war-related deaths. But despite the three-year-old deployment ban, Filipinos continue to pour into Iraq, using Dubai as a transit point.
A licensed recruitment firm hired Andres Jose (not his real name) to work as a warehouseman for the Dubai-based Prime Projects International, a subcontractor of US military contractor Halliburton.
“The recruitment agency in the Philippines arranged my visa for Dubai. From there, I was able to get through to Iraq,” confesses Jose. He adds that while he wants to, he cannot go back home for a vacation because he had violated the deployment ban. “Because of that stupid ban I couldn’t come home and see my family. Our employer is also using this ban as an excuse not to pay for our visa and a return ticket to Dubai if we wish to come back to Iraq,” he fumes.
Others such as Peter Noble and Jun Santillan, who also work in a US-run facility in Iraq, chose to pay their way to get a reprieve from the 12-hour daily work schedule they have endured for years without seeing their families. They felt that the occasional telephone calls and chats on the Internet were not enough to relieve their stress and homesickness. They are also prevented from leaving the camp because of security threats.
Santillan shelled out P75,000 to return to Iraq after a brief vacation in the Philippines. Someone working at the Philippine foreign affairs department asked him to pay P13,000 so that “not valid for travel to Iraq” would not be stamped on his passport. In Dubai, a Filipina known only as “Mommy” arranged for his visa and plane ticket to the UAE and his transit flight to Iraq. “Mommy’s” contact in the Philippines escorted Santillan through the airport immigration check.
From cunning agents who victimize rural prospects to shady immigration officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila, the network of leeches that bleed OFW victims dry is extensive. Philippine officials are well aware of this ‘guided’ departure of unauthorized Filipino immigrants but have not launched a serious effort to stop it. into operation. The anti-illegal recruitment task force previously formed by President Gloria Arroyo did little to prosecute those responsible for these unlawful acts. The task force died a natural death as its head, a former police officer, was recently convicted of killing fellow lawmen in a drug operation.
Meanwhile, there seems to be no stopping more Filipinos from joining the diaspora despite the personal risks involved. “I would do anything for my family. I’m willing to go through anything to give my kids a better future,” says Javier, a mother of three.
FAMILY BREAKUP: AN IMMIGRATION SCOURGE
by Cher Jimenez
SAN FRANCISCO — Adrian Atoprea becomes emotional when asked how his life was more than 20 years ago. Despite now having his own four-bedroom house and an expensive car in one of the most progressive cities in the United States, he remembers perfectly how his family struggled hard in the Philippines.
Atoprea, now a successful registered nurse, was separated from his siblings when he and an older sister were sent to a province in Northern Luzon to live with his paternal grandmother. His two younger brothers, on the other hand, lived with their maternal grandmother in Manila.
“We were so poor then. I remember selling vegetables and ice candy from house to house. I felt bad whenever I sat by the stairs waiting for my mother and she wouldn’t show up,” said the 30-year-old nurse whose current financial status is a far cry from his impoverished past.
He was only five years old when his father Jose, a machinist, left for the United States on a tourist visa. Atoprea’s father intended to work in California, at the prodding of his mother. “My mother hated the fact that he was irresponsible. He woke up late and was always absent for work. So she thought maybe he would change if he went abroad,” recalls Atoprea.
But the family’s hope turned to a nightmare as he abandoned them for another woman. For several years, Jose Atoprea never communicated or sent money to his family in the Philippines. He lived in the United States as an illegal alien and married an American citizen by presenting a fake death certificate of his legal wife in the Philippines. His act was later on uncovered and his second marriage was voided. He also left his second wife, with whom he had two children.
Left with no choice but to take these blows from her husband, Mrs. Atoprea also left her four children to work as a domestic helper in Singapore when Adrian was in grade school. For many years, the children lived with relatives, some of whom treated them badly.
The immigration of workers has contributed much to keeping the Philippine economy afloat, but it has also brought several drawbacks. The disintegration of the family is probably the worst of them, says a study by the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), a Manila-based non-government organization.
“While remittances bring material and economic benefits to other family members, migrant families have to contend with the grave impact of migration: absentee-parenting, dysfunctional families, growing-up problems of children, and breakdown of marriages,” noted the CMA report in 2006.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) claim that long absence exposes an immigrant to a number of trying situations, including emotional stress, that sometimes lead to extramarital affairs and eventual abandonment of one’s family.
While the Philippine government reaps the economic benefits of the diaspora, NGOs are alarmed that the exodus of Filipino workers abroad is creating cracks in immigrants’ families. The usual cases: Either the overseas worker acquires a new family in the host country or engages in extramarital affairs, or the spouse left behind becomes unfaithful. In either case, it is the children who suffer most from the collapse of the family.
Katherine Santos’ 16-year-old son couldn’t forgive his father who left them when the boy was three years old. “My son abhorred him ever since he was small. We consulted a psychiatrist to help him deal with his feelings for his dad. The last time his father called, Junior gave him a mouthful of harsh words. He said he should have not abandoned us,” says Santos, holding back tears.
Archie Santos left his family in 1999 for the United States and has never reunited with them. Undocumented, Santos accepts meager jobs in construction and in small restaurants while hopping from one state to another to evade immigration authorities. He has never sent support to his family since leaving them in the Philippines. In 2001, Katherine got a phone call from her husband when she visited relatives in the United States. He asked her to stay and join him, but she chose to go back to the Philippines for her son.
Katherine saw the extent of the boy’s anger towards his father when they flew to the United States a few years later. Her husband, who lives with other undocumented Filipinos in an apartment in California, asked that they meet him in Hollywood. “I told my son to decide if we would meet his father. He opted to go to Disneyland and Universal Studios instead,” recalls the working mother. She knew that Junior would have nothing to do with his father.
Katherine’s son had turned to her male officemates for fatherly attention. Junior’s hatred for his father grew worse when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Even then, Katherine did not receive support from her husband.
Advocacy groups helping families of OFWs noted an increase in the number of complaints against immigrants abandoning their brood. The government has focused much on remittance and overlooked the social impact on families left behind, the say.
In 2002, the Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerants, an attached agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), called on the government to stop sending labor abroad to prevent family disintegration.
The CBCP is particularly concerned that some immigrants get involved in illicit affairs with other OFWs even in conservative societies in the Middle East where adultery is punishable by death. Renato Villa, former Philippine consul general in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), says a number of Filipinos are jailed there for involvement in extramarital affairs.
The bishops are also concerned that grandparents and relatives who act as surrogates are raising the children of OFWs. They argue that children’s needs are best met in an environment where parents or at least a parent are present.
A survey by the Scalabrini Migration Center shows that parental absence leaves an emotional mark on children of immigrants. There is hardly a family that does not have an immigrant member, since 10 percent of the Philippines’ more than 80 million people are overseas workers. This does not include the estimated one million unauthorized immigrants.
Recently, the Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia reported receiving letters from families complaining that their OFW relative had stopped sending money home.
In addition, an OWWA survey from 2006-2007 found that three out of ten overseas contract workers in the Cordillera region north of Manila, have either abandoned or cut off ties with their families. Relatives complained that they no longer received support from their overseas-based breadwinner.
Despite longstanding warnings from civil society groups, it is only now that the government is openly recognizing the problem of family disintegration and slowly taking measures to address it. An annual government-run contest that awards OFW families has been redesigned in 2007 to honor those who have maintained a healthy relationship despite the absence of one or both parents.
Since the oil boom in the Middle East in the 1970s, labor deployment abroad has been a major economic strategy of the Philippines. Dollar remittances from the estimated nine million OFWs have ballooned to US$17 billion as of this year, when annual deployment is expected to hit the one million mark for the second time.
“It is not the policy of the Arroyo administration to promote overseas employment as part of its medium and long-term development plans. It is an option for every Filipino to take,” says Ed Ballido, director of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), in an email.
Despite the negative social impact of immigration on families, the economic gains of labor deployment are also undeniable. A survey by Nielsen Media Research in February and March 2007 covering Metro Manila and other key cities showed that at least 813,000 Filipino families benefit from remittances. The survey noted that yearly remittances sent by OFWs have raised some 23 percent of families to the middle class. All families surveyed owned a television set, VCD or DVD players, and could afford to go shopping and to movies.
Anita and Jerome Gonzales know this very well. They were able to send three of their four children to college when they worked in the United States for six years. Working for a family in New Hampshire, they endured the risks of being undocumented as they sent their children to school. Their oldest is married.
The Gonzales family pinned their hopes on Glen, their youngest, who graduated this year as a nurse. Glen took the Philippines’ nursing board exams in June and was planning to head for the United States when he passed and got a license. Once in America, Glen was expected to petition his parents and the rest of his brothers.
But this dream is no longer possible. In August, a still unknown assailant stabbed Glen to death while he was on his way home. His parents were forced to return to the Philippines to bury him.
“He was planning to come to the US to work so that we could come home and stop being illegal aliens. I guess that’s not going to happen anymore,” Anita says. Two weeks after Glen’s remains were laid to rest, results of the board exams came out. He passed.
LABOR EXPORT: BOON OR BANE?
by Cher Jimenez
SAN FRANCISCO — Ruben Kalinga was not too excited to learn of the possibility that he may finally get an official identification document for the first time in 11 years. This city’s Board of Supervisors voted in November to issue municipal identification cards to all San Francisco residents regardless of status, starting in 2008.
“I’ll have it checked first. It might do me more harm than good,” said the street artist, wondering how to react to the news he heard on the radio. Not having an identification card has proved to be a bane for this former merchant seaman who left his ship in Florida to try his luck in San Francisco, one of the few US cities that declared itself a ‘sanctuary’ for unauthorized immigrants.
Two months ago, Kalinga was arrested for drinking alcohol in public. His arresting officers, whom he claims know him because they see him perform downtown, gave him the moniker “alien from Mars” for not possessing anything to identify him. This was not his first brush with the law. This father of six was previously arrested for holding a fake California ID, which he bought from someone on Mission Street for $30.
“If I can apply for a driver’s license using that, then I’ll get it. But perhaps getting an ID would immediately identify me as an illegal immigrant,” Kalinga hesitates.
Joaquin Gonzales, an official of the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission, says the new ID system might send the “wrong signal” to those who wish to enter the US illegally and to those on tourist visas who intend to overstay. “It legalizes your personality,” he adds, explaining that the measure would allow cardholders to transact business with government offices and the private sector including banks and credit card companies.
This doesn’t sit well with San Franciscans. In a survey by the San Francisco Chronicle, 83 percent opposed the legislation while 17 percent supported it. Immigration is also causing heated debates in the US presidential campaign. For many years the city administration has been at odds with the federal government in issues pertaining to immigration. San Francisco had in the past declared itself an INS raid-free zone.
Recently Mayor Gavin Newsom reiterated the city’s ‘sanctuary status’ in the wake of a bill in Congress that tried to criminalize the hiring of unauthorized workers.
Antonio Morales, deputy Philippine Consul General, hints that the issue may reach the US Supreme Court since much of America’s economy depends on inexpensive labor. He estimated the number of Filipinos staying illegally in the Bay Area to be “a little over five thousand.”
“There are lots of opportunities for employment, especially for those who don’t ask for high wages. And this demand for cheap labor can only be filled by these migrants. So we see two sides opposing each other: one for stricter immigration laws and employers who would not want to be penalized for hiring migrants who contribute to the economy,” Morales says.
Groups supporting immigrants have appealed to the Philippine government to work out a measure with host countries to protect Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) from abuse and to discourage illegal deployment. The Scalabrini Migration Center recommends that efforts to curb unauthorized immigration in the sending country should be matched with policies in host countries, because a strong measure at home would do little when the demand for exported labor abroad perpetuates unauthorized entry.
Other groups, including licensed recruitment agencies, criticize the Philippine government for failing to go after unscrupulous agencies and tighten the travel bans imposed on some destinations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Nigeria. The travel bans, imposed at different times mainly for security reasons, have not deterred the deployment of Filipinos to these nations despite the danger.
Filipinos continue to pour into Iraq with undocumented workers making up half of the more than 7,000 staff mainly assigned to US facilities in Baghdad. In Lebanon, despite a mass evacuation of OFWs in 2006, many of the more than 6,000 repatriated to the Philippines have gone back, defying the ban.
Such defiance is creating headaches for authorities who have used up millions of pesos to rescue abused and stranded workers. Unlike most regular workers, undocumented OFWs are underpaid and exposed to physical and mental abuse by their employers. Many of them, especially domestic helpers, run away from their employers and seek the help of the nearest Philippine diplomatic post.
Ed Bellido of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) says the agency has a presence in 30 posts abroad. “The presence of OWWA offices in these areas is partly an indication of the seriousness of the problems of contract labor migration. However, every post has varying needs and requirements,” he says in an email.
Every year, OWWA spends P16 million to repatriate Filipino workers in distress. OWWA Administrator Marianito Roque says the agency runs as a trust fund for documented OFWs, but repatriation does not include unauthorized immigrants. In addition to repatriation, the OWWA shells out $20,000 a month for maintenance of its offices mainly in the Middle East where most of its posts are, according to Roque. The Philippines’ response to the mass evacuation of transnational domestic helpers from Lebanon led to a new policy doubling to $400 the standard monthly salary for housekeepers and raising the age requirement for those that engage in such labor.
About 60 percent of those repatriated from Lebanaon were unauthorized workers. Reports of domestic helpers being locked up by employers and having to jump off buildings to escape the hostilities as well as evidence of physical abuse that left traces on some workers’ mental states, were among the disturbing pictures of the war in Lebanon.
As expected, manpower agencies are demanding an end to this new salary policy, alleging that the measure would likely “kill” the Philippines’ dominance in the global domestic help market. Unwilling to budge, the Labor Department sent its officials to North America and Europe to look for new markets for Filipino skills. Meanwhile, domestic helpers were required to complete culture and language lessons, in the hope that these would protect them from abusive employers.
Labor Secretary Arturo Brion says the Philippine government did not mind losing its global position in domestic workers. He added that the new policy even promoted respect for Filipino domestic helpers, making slave-like conditions unacceptable. As a result of the new policy, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) reported that deployment decreased by 10 percent during the first quarter of 2007, and demand for household workers dropped by 87 percent in the last quarter of 2007. But the number of Filipinos leaving the Philippines continued to rise and is again expected to breach the one million mark as it had done for the first time in 2006.
While the Philippine government has been denying that labor export is a policy, it is always on the lookout for new markets abroad for Filipino skills. President Gloria Arroyo almost always returns from foreign trips not only with reports of fresh investments, but also of new employment opportunities.
Repatriating OFWs in distress is no easy job, Roque says. In some cases OWWA personnel ask the help of other Filipinos in rescuing domestic helpers who are locked up by their employers in Middle East homes. Workers’ center offices in Saudi Arabia are filled “beyond capacity” by runaway OFWs. Roque says some stranded workers could not be immediately repatriated to the Philippines because their employers held their passports.
Extreme “exit’ difficulties in some host countries create “strained relations” between the Philippines and receiving nations, according to Roque. The Lebanese government did little to help in repatriating OFWs from Beirut during the Israeli attacks. Sometimes the only way for stranded workers to come home without facing legal difficulties is when the host country implements an amnesty.
Kathy Callo and her three children did just that when the government of the United Arab Emirates offered to pardon illegal immigrants in 2002. Callo’s children, aged ten, seven, and five, were all out of school because of their illegal status. Callo’s husband worked for a dry dock company, but she and the children had to hide in their small home in a residential compound housing other undocumented expatriates. The children had only one playmate who came to visit them every week.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Labor Department has signed several OFW agreements with host countries, but there is little, if abyhing, stated in those accords regarding treatment of undocumented workers.
There is no denying that labor export has been propping up much of the Philippines’ economy with the remittances sent by OFWs, which, says the World Bank, reached $17 billion in 2007 and put the Philippines among the five nations with the highest overseas migrant remittances.
SO THIS IS HOME FOR SOMA'S PINOYS
by Christian Esguerra
SAN FRANCISCO—The cramped space they call home in a five-story apartment building on Mission Street is a seeming affront to Jose “Joe” Ferrer and his roommate, Mang Aurelio Domingo.
Those who know them—at least who they used to be back in the Philippines—know they deserve something better. Not a place like Unit 225, which they share with yet a third occupant, a fellow Filipino surviving on financial aid from the United States government.
Ferrer, 51, and Domingo, 65, are former professors in reputable universities in Manila, with the older of the two having authored a college textbook. But here, they are ordinary joes—Ferrer is a teaching assistant cum department store clerk, Domingo a security guard—trapped in their own humble space.
Their shared apartment is more of a bodega, a pile of used clothes, seldom-used appliances, balikbayan boxes, and an overall accumulation of American junk. There’s very little room left for decent sleep on their old double-decker. Not to mention the gas pipe hanging under the ceiling, a makeshift clothesline.
The rest of the Mint Mall and Hall, also known as Apartment 957, gives the general feeling of despair—its reeking garbage depot, smelly carpeted corridors, vandalized elevator, to name a few—for many of its roughly 500 occupants, mostly Filipinos.
Just like Ferrer and Domingo, the other residents are haunted by the same problem of decent housing, a Philippine reality that has followed them from across the Pacific. In a fine, tourist city like San Francisco, home still is a problem.
The city’s sweeping gentrification that began more than two decades ago has limited housing options for immigrants like Filipinos. The rise of swanky condominium buildings, convention centers, and malls sent rents soaring, further underscoring the social divide between the haves and have-nots.
“That’s the natural flow, and the effect is that low-income residents will have no place to stay anymore,” Fr. Ed Dura, pastor of the predominantly Filipino St. Patrick’s Church on Mission Street, conceded in an interview.
Filipinos who could afford them didn’t go for the condos, but instead relocated to neighboring areas like Daly City, Vallejo, and Hercules. The unfortunate ones stayed and found refuge in buildings like Apartment 957, the best place their money can buy.
In a way, Apartment 957 is the enduring symbol of the community’s last stand against San Francisco’s gentrification.
Located at the heart of the ‘South of Market area’ (‘Soma’), the building offers arguably the cheapest lease in all of San Francisco. Until late last year, a studio apartment there could fetch as low as $500 per month. By contrast, a similar space in nearby condominiums commanded at least $1,500.
Ferrer and Domingo’s lease is exactly $501. Divide the rent between them and a third tenant and you’re basically getting a house for a song.
But you get only your money’s worth at Apartment 957. Not long ago, it was—and probably still is—the unenviable “Filipino ghetto” of San Francisco to many observers.
Home to Vagrants Too
Many of Soma’s homeless, particularly Filipinos, found regular refuge in the apartment’s corridors, much to the fear and displeasure of its paying residents. The scenario exposed them to danger, the possibility of strangers breaking into their homes.
Vagrants sneaked into the apartment usually late in the evening, slipping by the electronic door after legitimate tenants had gone by. They stayed well into the morning, lying on spread newspapers, a bottle of liquor on hand. Tenants suspected they were on drugs, too.
Nenette Platero, 51, recalled isolated cases of break-ins, apparently because of the lack of security in the apartment building. Estefania Menchavez, 65, said her son was beaten up when he confronted a group of homeless on his way to their unit last year.
“It’s unfair. We want to have peace,” Menchavez recalled her son protesting. She feared that her son, an engineering graduate at Devry University, could end up wasted in the hands of some nameless thugs. “They have no life, but my son has a bright future ahead of him.”
The familiar presence of homeless Filipinos contributed to the steady decline of Apartment 957, a war-time structure owned by a Filipino family, the Nocons. The building, like several other residential structures in the Bay Area, is managed by the American firm Meridian Management.
“They were smoking and drinking and scattering food all over,” Menchavez said in an interview at her apartment unit. “They would piss inside the elevator and write graffiti all over it. It was a total mess.”
Much of the problem of sanitation pointed to both the tenants and the building management—and the enduring apathy between them. Father Dura described it as the “you don’t care, so why should I care” attitude.
The result was revolting to the senses.
Every day, the garbage depot located at the end of each corridor was an overflowing heap of trash that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The disposal system was simple—shoot your bag in the hole and it goes straight down where a garbage truck collected the pile regularly.
But old habits die hard for many of Apartment 957’s occupants.
Evangeline Nocon, 59, one of the building’s two resident managers and unrelated to the owner, couldn’t hide her dismay in an interview: “Sometimes you could even see used toilet and sanitary napkins scattered all over. It’s disgusting!”
“They seem to forget that they’re now in America and no longer in the Philippines,” she said, pointing to a supposed “third-world” mentality that continued to influence their actions hundreds of miles away from home.
So how do you solve a problem like Apartment 957?
Over the years, tenants have developed a collective awareness of what was becoming of their building. It was dying, indeed, but hardly anyone exerted any concrete or effective effort at revival.
Their priorities lay somewhere other than in turning their units into a decent American home. Understandably so, many of them were saddled by day and night jobs to support families back home. Thus, a sacrifice or two in personal comfort wasn’t such a big deal.
Ferrer, for instance, works three shifts as a teaching assistant for special children, as a garment attendant at Macy’s, and as a security guard at the nearby Bayanihan Center on Sundays.
Several others—like Platero, Menchavez, and 85-year-old war veteran Buenaventura Santos—didn’t share their neighbors’ passivity. They spoke up during an innocuous gathering initiated at St. Patrick’s Church by the San Francisco Organizaing Project (SFOP) in June 2007.
The SFOP is a faith-based advocacy group involved in matters like immigrant rights, violence prevention, healthcare, and housing. St. Patrick’s became a member two years ago and the problem at Apartment 957 was the parishioners’ initial advocacy work with the group.
Convinced that the matter involved the basic issue of the “dignity of the human person,” Father Dura immediately threw his support behind his parishioners.
“As a church, we need to give witness to the people,” he said Father Dura. “So we ‘consciencitized’ them and made them aware of their rights.”
In the June meeting, the SFOP gathered around 50 residents and asked them to tell their “housing stories”—meaning list down complaints—about the apartment. The group, in turn, gave them a crash course on their rights as tenants under state laws.
Sarah Nolan, SFOP’s point person for Apartment 957, said many tenants were initially afraid to speak out, fearing that the building management might kick them out. Losing their place was apparently something they couldn’t afford—it’s cheap and very close to their workplaces.
Santos was just as worried in the beginning, especially for his son. The boy works for a care home and as a clerk at Ross department store, walking distance from 957.
“If we moved out, he would have to travel far and spend more on fare,” explained the father, whose pension shoulders their unit’s monthly lease. “Of course, I’d like to find a better place, but I don’t want my son to suffer either.”
The SFOP moved to allay such fears, assuring tenants that building owners could not just drive them away, especially for airing legitimate concerns.
Father Dura said he also made it clear that the advocacy was not meant to drive a wedge between tenants and the management: “We were not encouraging them to make enemies out of each other, but to work as Christians, to understand each other and know how they can help each other.”
‘Leave Us Alone’
But not everybody embraced the priest’s message of Christian unity.
The building management was initially defensive, if not hesitant, to deal with the SFOP-led tenants. Many residents themselves expressed discomfort toward the involvement of “outsiders” like the SFOP in the internal matters of 957.
Among them was Ferrer, an erstwhile member of the group. He quit the SFOP soon after it dipped its fingers into the apartment controversy. What he saw in Nolan and company was a naïve and one-track approach to a many-layered problem like 957.
It didn’t sit well with Ferrer and like-minded residents that the SFOP brought the matter out in public. He said the effort achieved nothing other than shaming both the tenants and management while obscuring the real issues.
“The problem with the SFOP was that they mixed the essential with the non-essential struggles of the tenants,” he said, explaining that he, too, backed “on principle” the need to provide residents with better living conditions.
An “essential” issue for him was sanitation and the lax security that allowed the presence of bums in the building. He said they could have been addressed “internally” by tenants and the management without the involvement of a third party like the SFOP.
A “non-essential” matter, to him, was the complaint that mildew had accumulated in the toilet and kitchen sink in an apartment unit of an elderly couple. He said it was an “isolated” case that had come about simply because of the tenants’ inability to clean their own place.
It was this image that permeated TV screens following a news crew’s visit to Apartment 957 in response to an invitation by the SFOP.
Building manager Evangeline Nocon sought to put this particular matter in perspective: “The main concern was mold. When they moved in, the apartment was clean, newly painted, with a new refrigerator, new carpet, and new stove. Then came the mold later on because they weren’t cleaning their own units.”
The June 2007 meeting with the SFOP particularly disappointed her.
She said she showed up in the gathering, having been invited and told that it would tackle the issue of affordable housing. A tenant of 957 for 25 years, she said she was just as interested in exploring the possibility of finding a better place.
The meeting took place at the Bayanihan Center located a couple of blocks from the apartment. In attendance were SFOP people and the predominantly Filipino residents of 957. But even in the company of her own neighbors and compatriots, Nocon said she felt the odd man out.
“All the while, they were made to believe that the agenda was affordable housing,” she said. “But in the meeting, they were asked to write down all their complaints about the apartment. Then I was sent out because they told me the tenants were not comfortable with me present.”
The June gathering was only the beginning.
Four months later, on October 29, came a much bigger gathering of around 150 tenants at St. Patrick’s. Nolan said SFOP had also invited the building management and Chris Daly, the San Francisco supervisor (roughly councilor) in charge of the Mission area.
But with no representatives from the management available, tenants spoke out more freely, their “demands” projected on a big screen in full view of the public. Their petition was summarized as:
— Provide a clear process for complaints that allows tenants to be notified as to when they should expect a resolution;
— Ensure that all current tenants are named as tenants on their rental agreements without a change to their rent, utilities or any other details of their lease
— Provide staff and managers with the tools and training necessary to serve tenants in a respectable and timely manner, including training managers on issues of security, processing complaints, and tenant rights, as well as providing sufficient support to the maintenance team so they may complete jobs in a timely manner; and
— Provide consistent and reliable security to residents and hold a tenant meeting to discuss the issue of security cameras and their placement in the building.
Two weeks later, Daly officially joined the bandwagon, writing a strongly worded letter addressed to Ron Rogness of Meridian. He backed all four demands of the tenants, expressing his “disappointment that my constituents are dealing with issues of intimidation, sub-standard conditions, and lack of consistent security.
“I expect a positive and quick resolution,” he wrote in his November 14 letter.
All the while, another faction of tenants was growing anxious over the turn of events. Ferrer referred to his peers as the “quiet majority,” those who also wanted better conditions but wanted the advocacy to be handled differently.
Ferrer said getting the SFOP involved was a mistake in the first place. What the group did, he said, was to apply an “American model” of problem-solving to a problem like Apartment 957, which required a “Filipino” approach.
“Their approach is if you have rights, fight for them,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily work in an environment like . While I accept their [SFOP] principle of helping people, the approach should be to start with ourselves. Let us clean the corridors. Let’s help the old ones who can’t clean their units themselves. Let’s pool our resources and repaint the building.”
Marriage of Convenience
Told about Ferrer’s position, Platero said the approach was perfect had it been “initiated” by the same people now calling for it and condemning the SFOP’s involvement. “But they didn’t do it,” she said. “That’s why we’re thankful that we have a group like the SFOP to push us.”
Nolan, 26, said SFOP would not have gotten involved if tenants hadn’t brought the 957 problem to its attention.
Still, tenants like Ferrer were convinced that the SFOP’s move to raise public awareness over the issue—and bring it to the attention of City Hall—only disturbed the enduring marriage of convenience among the majority of the residents and the resident managers.
“The relationship was broken,” he said. “The management felt betrayed because you squealed on them.”
How did the “relationship” exactly work?
Apartment 957 can be considered an aberration in San Franciscisco’s housing system in the sense that as many as five people were “allowed” to live in a single studio unit. The law set the limit at only two occupants, but 957’s residents managers appeared to have looked the other way.
What seemed to prevail was the managers’ affinity with their compatriots. Of the apartment’s approximately 500 tenants, all but six were Filipinos, according to Evangeline Nocon, who shares the resident management job with Jose Sarmogenes, also a Filipino.
All the while, Meridian knew nothing about the accommodation being accorded to many of 957’s occupants, she said.
“It’s a private family apartment building, not a housing place,” she justified. “To help, we allowed families to stay. You couldn’t just drive away the children of a couple staying in a studio unit.”
Among tenants, they had also developed a “scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours” mentality. Call it their own ‘omerta’.
This code of silence allowed several tenants to crowd a room with impunity. Ferrer said his unit had as many as seven occupants before he came over.
The obvious problems with space and personal convenience aside, the arrangement worked well for these residents. By splitting the monthly rent among them, they were able to save more money to send to their families in the Philippines, according to Ferrer.
Later on, resourceful tenants came up with yet another idea. The oldest of a unit’s occupants (meaning the person who was there first) “sub-leased” the room to two or more tenants. Ferrer said the “lessee” usually didn’t mind since he shelled out only around $200 monthly.
Despite its poor physical condition, Apartment 957 remained the best place for low-income Filipinos in the Soma area, especially newly arrived immigrants, said Ferrer. So much so that tenants usually gave up better housing offers that came their way.
In 2005, he said he qualified for a housing project by the Bayanihan Center. The new unit was much better in appearance than his present space; it was a renovated hotel room.
But he said he ultimately let go of the unit since he would have to pay a higher monthly rent of $495 for a space much smaller than his room at Apartment 957. The Bayanihan space also provided no individual toilet, unlike in 957.
Only Four People for The Job
Still, for tenants like Platero and her group, staying at 957 didn’t mean accepting everything bad about the apartment.
Not when, in the case of Platero, the empty space behind her unit’s lone window had become a repository of garbage disposed of by tenants living upstairs. On many occasions, she said water had also accumulated in the same space, instantly turning it into a filthy aquarium.
Menchavez also refused to take sitting down the constant threat posed by homeless Filipinos who had free access to the apartment. “I also pity them because they’re my kababayan,” she said. “But what can I do? Some of them have become drug addicts already.”
Like many of his neighbors, Santos was also concerned about the apparent inefficiency of the apartment’s maintenace people to deal even with simple household problems like a broken lock. He recalled that a similar problem in his unit took all of 10 months to get fixed.
Evangeline Nocon said resident managers were well aware of the conditions at 957.
“I’m also very concerned because I stay here,” she said. “I don’t want my own visitors to say that I, as resident manager, couldn’t even enforce cleanliness in my own apartment. Yes, the problem has long been there, but the tenants are also uncooperative.”
She said she had also brought up the matter to Meridian through regular memos, but got no reply each time. The building management’s apparent disregard of the conditions at 957 could be gleaned from the apartment’s grossly inadequate maintenance staff.
Left to service all 116 units of the building were Filipino Leo Navarro, the 62-year-old lone janitor, and Spaniard Juan Guzman, 42, the lone handyman.
“Imagine how big the building is and there are only one janitor, one maintenance man, and two resident managers,” she said. “We really can’t get the job done without the cooperation of the tenants.”
But why, in the first place, did Meridian assign only four people for the tough job at Apartment 957?
Nocon surmised that the management simply didn’t want to spend more on personnel, noting that Guzman had been earning only $13 an hour over the last 30 years. She said Guzman, a Spaniard, was even more unfortunate with his $9 per hour salary. “Up to now, he’s yet to receive his raise to $9.36!” [The City’s mandated minimum wage.]
Under threat from City Hall sanction, Meridian has initiated key changes in the apartment building.
Gone are the vagrants that loitered its corridors, mainly because of the single security guard posted on night duty. Nocon said they were gone also because of the expulsion of a Filipino couple suspected of peddling banned susbtances in one of the units. It was believed that many of the strangers that used to come over were their clients.
The elevator has been cleaned of graffiti and the agonizing stink of human piss. It’s still old, but tenants and visitors no longer stay away from it.
On the downside, rent has been increased to somehow get closer to the area standard. This means that newcomers will now have to pay $895 monthly for a studio apartment and $1,300 for a one-bedroom unit.
The amounts are still relatively cheap compared with the city’s unfriendly housing rates. But no longer can a multitude of tenants squeeze into a single room and share the rent. Nocon said rooms are now limited to a maximum of three occupants.
But some things haven’t exactly changed for Apartment 957. Many tenants still can’t shoot their garbage right, leaving small piles at the depot every now and then.
Father Dura looks at sanitation in the context of the Filipino identity and respectability in a culturally diverse environment such as San Francisco: “We will never be respected as a people if we do not respect ourselves and the law.”
In a community where cleaniless is still much to be desired, tenants like Menchavez hope that personal conviction—and example—would eventually rub off onto their generally apathetic neighbors, and eventually, lead to their apartment building’s resurrection.
“I am not rich, but I am not dirty,” she said. “That’s how I want people to see me.”
THEY WANT OUR TEACHERS, TOO
by Christian Esguerra
SAN FRANCISCO—A brown-skinned, Filipino kid was scolded by his white American teacher one day in class here. But instead of answering, as he had been told to do, he looked down timidly and avoided eye contact.
The gesture all the more infuriated the teacher, who thought he was being disrespected. But what Ligaya Avenida, 64, saw long ago, she realized in hindsight, was a glaring example of cultural disconnect common in the American school system.
By staying meek in the face of authority, a common Filipino trait, the boy thought he was doing the “right” thing, explained Avenida, a long-time teacher and administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District.
In the American context, he was not.
“It had a cultural implication,” she says in an interview. “Here, you look directly at the person even if you’re being reprimanded. If you don’t, that’s a sign of disrespect.”
Many school kids coming from immigrant families apparently knew very little about the American educational system and way of life, leading them to occasional troubles with mentors in the United States.
But between students and teachers and the gulf of cultural differences between them, the city’s school district, with a big lift from Avenida, saw that more had to be done from the latters’ end.
It looked for new mentors who could better deal with its culturally diverse student population. The search eventually led to a familiar face in the global diaspora: the Filipino.
Filipinos in Demand
Since the 1970s when the problem of cultural divide first came prominently into national view, hundreds of Filipino teachers have found employment in American schools, according to Avenida, who now runs a recruitment agency for international teachers.
Her company, Avenida International Consultancy, alone recruits 600 to 700 Filipino teachers annually. The number dwarfs those in Hong Kong and Mexico where her company enlists only 50 to 70 teachers every year.
Avenida says the bulk of her recruitment is from her home country because of Filipino teachers’ facility in both the Filipino and English languages. The flexibility makes them a perfect fit in school districts with a large Filipino-American population.
“They needed teachers who understood the students,” she says.
Then and now, these teachers’ basic task is to facilitate learning for students who have English as their second language (ESL). Part of their role is also to bridge cultural gaps between Filipino students and the American school system.
The steady departure of Filipino teachers for better employment opportunities here has been obscured over the years by the more prominent and alarming exodus of their compatriots who are nurses and doctors.
But their quiet search for greener pastures could be just as worrisome, contributing in small or large measure to the Philippines’ continuing ‘brain drain’.
“The reason I don’t feel bad about it is because the truth is, the Philippines has a lot of teachers,” she says, arguing that it’s just a question of how effectively the Department of Education is filling positions left behind by migrating teachers.
With very few employment opportunities in the Philippines, the more unfortunate teachers are naturally forced to settle for menial jobs such as being domestic helpers in Hong Kong or Europe for bigger bucks, she says.
The issue of brain drain aside, Filipino teachers have been making important contributions in the American public school system, according to her.
“I say they are the perfect teachers,” she says. “They have what the Americans are looking for. They have a very high level of commitment.”
Since starting her business about five years ago, Avenida says she has heard mostly positive feedback about Filipino teachers from different school districts around the US. A common story is that of Filipino mentors arriving in school early in the morning and staying there way into the evening to complete the tasks at hand.
She argues that her recruits, the centerpiece of her business, would not have lasted long if they didn’t meet the standards of American education or hadn’t performed beyond expectations.
That’s why she always tells her teachers to see themselves more as key contributors to a student’s development, not as nameless mentors from the Far East perpertually indebted to America for employment.
“I always tell them that they have so much to offer to American schools,” she says. “They have shown that they’ve done great things for the students.”
These contributions were particuarly noticed around 30 years ago when the American system was struggling to devise a curriculum that would address the educational needs of children from immigrant families, according to Avenida.
At that time, San Francisco, for instance, was seeing the arrival of students in droves who were “not blond and blue-eyed,” recalls Avenida, who was then teaching in the city’s unified school district, which included 110 schools from elementary to high school. These children were mostly from Hispanic, Chinese, and Filipino families.
“There was a very clear disconnect,” she says. “The teachers were white and didn’t understand them, especially their culture.”
The cultural disconnect was highlighted in 1970 when 1,790 Chinese students, led by Kinney Lau, sued the San Francisco school board for alleged discrimination against them. Avenida remembers Lau, 12, spending a year in middle school sitting idly in class while teachers delivered lessons in English, a language he didn’t yet understand.
“That’s how we treated immigrant students at that time so his parents sued us,” she says. “But he was actually a very intelligent boy who went to school in Hong Kong and had learned everything in Chinese.”
Four years later, the US Supreme Court sided with the complainants, noting that “students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education,” according to a New York Times report.
San Francisco’s response came in new strategies for learning, taking into account the students’ respective cultural backgrounds and value systems, according to Avenida.
She was herself tapped to familiarize fellow teachers with the Filipino culture so they’d know how to deal with their newly-arrived wards.
In training sessions that were to go on for years, she would tell them, for instance, that when a Filipino child didn’t look up to a teacher reprimanding him, he wasn’t being rude. He was actually showing respect, consistent with the traits he had learned back home.
Or when a Pinoy kid didn’t engage an American adult in a conversation, it didn’t mean he was dumb or uninterested, Avenida argued. He was probably just thinking of the days back in the Philippines when kids were told not to participate in adult discussions (usapang matanda.)
“I did a training series on the values of the Filipino family and how the value system of the Filipino could either negatively or positively impact the children’s learning here,” she says.
Pinoys Want English Only
Besides sessions on cultural sensitivity, the school district also hired more Hispanic, Chinese, and Filipino teachers to deal with the emerging student population of non-English-speakers. From the 1970s to the 1980s, she says the district hired 400 to 500 Filipino mentors.
Later in the 1980s, Avenida was put in charge of the district’s bilingual education program. This time, she says a new batch of students born of immigrant parents were struggling with rootedness, unfamiliar with their folks’ native tongue.
Some Mexican students, for instance, wanted to become fluent both in English and Spanish, but the medium of instruction was still generally English. Avenida says she introduced an “immersion program” that instructed say, a Mexican kid, solely in Spanish from first to third grade.
“It’s so facinating because you had a kid who didn’t speak Spanish, but from the day he walked into class, the teacher spoke only that language to him,” she says. “Immersion is a good way of teaching because it’s the natural way.”
By third grade, she says students immersed in Spanish were already speaking the language, reading and writing in it as well, while maintaining their grasp of English.
Avenida says she came up with a similar program for Fil-Ams, but got no takers. Apparently, the Fil-Am mentality was unlike that of their Hispanic or Chinese counterparts—they preferred to lose their mother tongue and totally embrace English as their ‘first’ language.
“The Filipino families were thinking, ‘Why learn Filipino?’” she recalls. “They said they didn’t need to so we weren’t successful with them.”
Avenida’s own recruitment of teachers outside of the US formally began in 1998 while she was San Francisco’s assistant superintendent for human resources. That year, she had around 400 teachers accepting an early retirement package offered by the school district.
She filled the vacancies by getting teachers from Mexico, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. Based on the successful recruitment of non-American teachers in the 1970s, she knew this new batch of mentors, with their knowledge of a second language, would be an asset to the district.
In the Philippines, she sent flyers to select schools such as her alma mater, the University of the Philippines, Philippine Normal University, and the University of Santo Tomas. Around 150 applicants answered her call and she came back to the US with 15 new teachers.
The high attrition rate among her initial recruits was indicative of the stringent process of bringing in foreign teachers to the US. She maintained the approach when she put up her company after she retired from the school district in 2002.
At the end of the recruitment process is the promise of a huge salary Filipino teachers can only dream of earning if they stay in their home country. Avenida swears her recruits get a minimum of $35,000 annually. Others supposedly get as much as $70,000 depending on their level of education, expertise, and experience.
Recruits are placed in a variety or subjects such as math, science, journalism, psychology, and special education.
Getting to the green pasture, however, requires a lot of hard work.
Avenida tells recruits everything about the American educational system—the good and especially the bad—before formally including applicants in her company’s “database” of prospective teachers in the US.
“Students, they’re the most difficult and the most challenging aspect of teaching,” she would tell them in orientation seminars she regularly holds in Manila.
Avenida’s account seems plucked straight out of a Hollywood flick—students ignoring the presence of teachers, talking and fighting and rushing out of the classroom at the bell. Many of them ignore mentors as well when they bump into them in the corridors.
“Sometimes, students here are almost evil, they would throw things at you,” she says. “So you need to know how to control them. You can’t allow them to get to that point.”
The Filipino “accent” also creates problems on some occasions.
Avenida says she’s had recruits who were asked to leave simply because their American students couldn’t fathom their English pronunciation. It’s not exactly ungrammatical, but rather lacking in the “rolling” character of the American tongue.
“It’s just difficult to understand,” she says.
Despite the scary stories, Filipino teachers continue to flock to Avenida’s orientation seminars in the hope of landing jobs in the US. From her end, she says she makes sure that those who will be tapped by her company would eventually be hired by school districts in the US.
That’s why on the eve of their interview with American school officials in Manila, applicants get a last-minute coaching session from Avenida herself.
She reminds them about little things that could spell the difference in their application. She tells them, for instance, that Americans usually start a conversation by saying “How ya’ doin’?” and you can jazz up your response by saying something other than just, “I’m fine, thank you.”
Avenida gives “insider” information too, meaning what certain school districts specifically need and want to see from applicants during interviews.
“My advantage is I know what they are looking for—you take care of the children, help them achieve, and you’ll be their most valued teacher,” she says.
FIL-AM RUNS STRAIGHT FORWARD CLUB
by Christian Esguerra
SAN FRANCISCO—A TALL, skinny, black kid entered the basement gym on Mason Street to learn the basics of the “sweet science” on a Monday afternoon.
Looking quite like just-beaten, ex-welterweight champ Paul “The Punisher” Williams, he came from arguably the most notorious neighborhood hereabouts. Ben Bautista, the 37-year-old gym owner, immediately worked on the boy’s technique.
He demonstrated the jab, explaining the importance of it being straight and snappy, in front of a wall-mounted mirror at his Straight Forward Club (SFC). Then he moved him to the heavy bag, spending several rounds to make sure the kid’s “feeling” him.
“Ya know what I’m sayin’?” he asked. The boy nodded meekly, and for the rest of the afternoon repeated everything “Coach Ben” had taught him.
Judging by the kid’s awkward punches and footwork, it’s probably his first time to step into a serious boxing gym. Like many other kids in the tough Tenderloin area, he’s probably just after a couple of hours’ sweat, courtesy of Ben’s free youth boxing clinic.
But little did he know that by meeting The Man himself, he’s in for some serious training, both in and out of the squared circle.
Ben isn’t just concerned about punch combinations, head movement, and footwork. His work goes beyond the ropes. He’s foremost a father figure, psychologist, counselor, big brother—you name it—to hundreds of kids in the city.
“I want to train champions inside the ring and outside the ring,” he says in an interview at his dimly-lit office nook at SFC.
It’s his way of bringing back to life a community he admitted to having helped “kill” about two decades ago. He does so partly through the SFC boxing gym, which provides a welcome and productive distraction for kids from the area’s nasty preoccupations.
The gym is located at the heart of Tenderloin, a place first-timers in San Francisco are often told to avoid. Described by an online travel guide as the “last frontier” of the city’s gentrification, it’s home to drug dealers, street gangs, prostitutes, greasy bums, and what-have-you.
But it’s a place Ben calls home. It’s where he grew up. And it’s where he now serves in a variety of ways: as an anti-drug advocate, motivational speaker, church volunteer, counselor; or essentially, a key community figure.
His goal is to keep children away from drug trafficking, gang wars, and the overall sense of hopelessness that have pervaded much of Tenderloin over the years. He does it by simply giving them something else to do.
Template is Himself
The template of his community work is none other than himself. Not too long ago, boxing, too, helped save him from certain self-destruction.
Born to immigrant parents who met here in the 1960s, Ben was exposed early to the dark side of the city. Blame it on his much older half-brothers and cousins, who kept him company most of the time.
“I was always the young guy in the group so I followed them all the time,” he recalls. “By seven or eight years old, I was already smoking marijuana, stealing newspapers, candy bars and selling them door-to-door. I used to go to Market Street and steal at department stores. You name it.”
For what? “Cuz’ I was broke. There were a lot of things I wanted as a kid and I didn’t get them. So I had to find other ways to get them. One of the ways I found was stealing.”
Mix of Immigrants
The group, a crude mix of Americans and children of immigrants, would later be named the ‘Skulls’. Much later still, Ben’s fellow Filipinos would be known as among the most notorious gangs in all of Tenderloin. He was, in a manner of speaking, a gangster before he even turned ten.
The Bautista home offered very little motivation for young Ben to play fair. Rented monthly at $135, it’s one of the cheapest in the South of Market district, a favorite settlement of newly-arrived Filipino immigrants.
True enough, the house was worth only its meager lease. There, the Bautistas, including Ben’s three half-brothers, competed with rats and roaches for valuable space. “We were real poor, man.”
Ben “changed” his ways by age 13. He let go of the rampant stealing, but only to replace it with something much worse. Again influenced by his group, he turned to selling crack.
It began with small quantities sold to fellow students at a school near the Mission area. Then he branched out to a much bigger clientele, the gangs of San Francisco.
So it’s no surprise that in five years, young Ben was made. At one point, he was earning $30,000 a month with seven high-end cars to boot. He got his drugs, he got his money, he got his women.
“I was living fast and I didn’t know what was going on,” he says.
Still, he says he wasn’t completely miserable. In school, despite his rampant absenteeism because of his drug business, he kept a surprisingly good standing.
He said he was never addicted to using his own merchandise. That’s why he still managed to stay in shape and pursue his childhood passion for boxing. “I was just addicted to the money and the lifestyle, but not with drugs.”
Boxing gave Ben an alter-ego to the tough and wasted guy who sold cocaine in the streets. Always “good with my hands,” he found home at the famed Newman’s gym, the city’s boxing mecca for nearly a century.
In the company of professional pugilists, including a regular named Roberto Duran, he needed no further motivation to put on the gloves. He was soon fighting as an amateur, but his thriving underground business kept him out of the ring most of the time.
Then came the cops who finally got wind of his activites and sent him to rehabilitation. He entered juvenile hall on four occasions and later served time at a county jail. By that time, his life as a drug dealer was coming to a close.
He recalled giving crack to his brothers and cousins with the vague idea that they were selling the drug, too. But unlike him, they got hooked onto it. Once, one of his brothers grew desperate and stole $4,000 from him.
A now engaged Ben came close to killing him, had it not been for their mother’s plea. “He’s your brother,” she told him. The remark got him thinking: “Yeah, he’s my brother and he has a problem. And I’m killing him because I’m giving him drugs.”
The full extent of his indiscretions blew up right in his face one afternoon in the late 1980s.
Acting on a tip, a police task force raided the Bautista shack and arrested Ben right in front of his mom, cousins, and other relatives. The family was then agozing over the death of his uncle.
“The police (pow-lis) came and turned the house upside down, trying to find anything,” he says. “I got arrested in front of my mom, aunties and cousins. It was crazy.”
On his way to the county jail, Ben was having a gradual epiphany: “I almost killed my brother. I was killing my community by selling drugs. Wow! What the f*ck is going on, man? It’s all because of me!”
His probation officer at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center referred him to a teenage fathers’ program and later to a drug rehabilitation program. Both opportunities brought out another facet of Ben’s personality. He’s kept the new person ever since.
Considering his recent past in the San Francisco underground, he became a runaway choice for a motivational speaker for kids in trouble. “I realized I had a talent for reaching out. A lot of people were listening to what I was saying.”
There was no turning back from then on. Especially now that he was expecting his first baby, Ben Jr.
Bent on making a career as a community activist, he enrolled at City College and earned a psychology degree in 1997. At the same time, he returned full-time to boxing, now serving as coach for highschoolers at a basement gym in the Fillmore area.
“Even if I was doing negative things, I was doing positive things too,” he says. “So when I left the negative things behind, it wasn’t difficult for me to get my life together. I was in college. I had hope. I had my son. I had a lot of positive people around me at the same time.”
Ben started SFC in 1999 and found a home for it last October in the basement of a residential hotel near the corner of Eddy and Mason Streets in downtown San Francisco. It provides free boxing to kids in the area if only to steer them out of problems like drug addiction.
Back to Serious Boxing
The program got a lift from the Tenderloin Economic Development Project and a handful of like-minded inviduals who agreed to help finance SFC’s operations.
Ben has only grand dreams for his neighborhood. Through his gym, he wants to resurrect the glory days of boxing in all of San Francisco. He says it vanished when Newman’s gym shut down in 1992. He says it’s time for the city to get back to some serious boxing.
For his pupils at SFC, he knows values like discipline, hard work and perseverance are effectively taught in the ring and they’ll come in handy in real life. “All these things will help kids sooner or later,” he explains.
Ben also dreams of becoming a top-notch trainer and manager. His current protege is Adrian “A-Game” Gallon Jr., a bright featherweight prospect. He’s been tapped as a Manny Pacquiao sparring partner in Pacman’s next bout versus Juan Manuel Marquez.
Gallon, 22, almost quit boxing following a disappointing loss at the nationals in 2006. Ben, who saw how the boy fought, was convinced he had the goods, but lacked only the right motivation. He knew he could bring out the best in the young amateur.
Now awaiting his first fight as a pro, Gallon owes his transformation from what he called a one-track haymaker to a more or less complete boxer. “He’s a father figure to me. He’s a good man.”
Gallon’s experience is pretty much the same with hundreds of other kids Ben has inspired through the years. Ben talked, they listened.
“I would take nothing away from my life experiences because they make the total sum of who I am today,” says Ben. “Now I am able to give back to these kids because I’ve been there, been down the dark road, and now I can help them.”
THREE LIVES AND A PINAY CAREGIVER
by Christian Esguerra
NEW YORK—“SO HOW’S your new employer?” Evelyn Macasaet, 60, was asked from across the table at a Chinese restaurant in Long Island by a short-haired, Judi Dench look-a-like one Sunday afternoon in March.
There was a look of genuine concern in the face of Judy Della Ratta, 65, for whose mother Evelyn had worked for more than three years as a caregiver. Judy and her husband John, 71, wanted to know how their “little sister” was being treated, and more.
“Work is light,” the Filipina assured them and went on speaking highly of her new boss, a 91-year-old Italian painter in the Flushing area. Her afternoons, she told them, were usually spent with her listening to the artist’s “lectures” about Michaelangelo.
Ordinarily, the Della Rattas no longer have business with their former caregiver, especially since her employment ended technically after Judy’s mom died a year ago. But the husband and wife were no ordinary bosses.
Like a Sister
They’ve kept the close relationship even though Evelyn has moved on to another employer. To them it is a natural attitude toward someone they’ve come to value, love, and embrace as part of their family.
Evelyn found in the Della Rattas a relationship akin to that of brothers and sisters. It’s quite uncommon in this part of the world where—at least in her experience—not a few employers see caregivers merely as paid attendants to old folks their children don’t want to look after anymore.
“She’s our sister,” Evelyn declared in an interview at the Della Ratta residence in Glen Head, Long Island.
The story of their lives together was centered on “Mommy,” Judy’s late mother Myrna. The couple says they owe so much to their “sister” Evelyn for attending to their 93-year-old mom in her final years. They loved Evelyn because she loved Mommy.
Evelyn got the job in 2004 after Judy realized that she and John could no longer take care of Mommy by themselves. Never mind the Alzheimer’s disease, but Mommy’s hip problem had kept her in a wheelchair. Her dead weight was too much for the couple’s aging bodies to carry.
So they looked for help, interviewing three applicants, among them Evelyn.
Evelyn, by then already working in the industry for two years, got the call, apparently because of the couple’s affinity with Filipinos.
Judy, especially, had been around with a lot of Filipinos while working for 13 years as a medical assistant to a Filipino doctor. She would have continued working there had it not been for her mother’s condition.
Just days into the job, Evelyn made the couple realize that they had made the right choice, says Judy.
They certainly didn’t feel that the new caregiver was only after their money, a common prejudice faced by third-world immigrant workers seeking higher-paying jobs in the United States. They swear Evelyn, a court stenographer in the Philippines for 21 years, was different.
Beyond the lure of dollars was the genuine care Mommy got from the Filipina. Judy says it showed in the way Evelyn gave her mother bedbaths, prepared her meals, fixed her room, and generally made life still worth living for the nonagenarian.
Evelyn did the woman’s make-up and would sing and dance to cheer her up, too. In turn, Mommy would give her a mild slap on her rear as her gesture of appreciation.
Once, Mommy bit off a glass while Judy and Evelyn were administering a pill. Evelyn kept her cool, calmly probed into the old woman’s mouth, and recovered the broken glass. Mommy was unscathed.
“We didn’t have to worry about anything,” says John. “We would leave her alone in the house with Mommy and you just knew that everything would be fine. Nothing would go missing and Mommy would be taken care of.”
Evelyn needed just that, the reciprocity of good will from her American employers, which seemed to have come rarely during her first two years as a caregiver in the Big Apple. Before finding John and Judy and Myrna, she’d been under tough bosses, too.
She swears she never made one previous employer smile, a 91-year-old woman she took care of in Syosset, Long Island. “She always carried a straight face, spending the whole day staring at her late husband’s picture,” she recalls.
She left the house, a mansion housing only the old woman, after eight months. She was convinced that “I would die of boredom there.”
The next employer was no better. The old woman from the Bronx would force her to do chores other than those expected of caregivers. Once she ordered Evelyn to put up new curtains.When Evelyn hesitated, she thundered: “You’re paid to do that!”
Evelyn says she would have let the incident pass, but not when her honesty came under scrutiny later on. The woman accused her of stealing her clothes when in fact she was hanging them to dry in another room. They were leftovers from a recent laundry and she simply didn’t want to make the return trip to the laundromat.
Another employer, the 75-year-old wife of a jewelry store owner on Fifth Avenue, didn’t exactly think of Evelyn as a thief, but twice when she misplaced her diamond earrings she blurted: “I’m going to call the police!”
Evelyn was alarmed because if the cops came, she would be the usual suspect. Only the two of them were in the big, Manhattan house on both occasions. Each time, the woman found the missing jewels in her coat.
Apparently, her memory was failing her and she begged Evelyn never to tell her husband. Evelyn left for a new job if only to spare her from further, albeit inadvertent, insult.
Evelyn had other employers, but they weren’t anywhere near the Della Rattas in terms of hospitality. As was the case with many caregivers, Evelyn was often kept in her “place” in these homes. She ate in the kitchen, well out of the view of her bosses during meals.
Not that Evelyn resented it. She knew that in an environment like New York, bosses were bosses and workers were workers.
But it was entirely different in John and Judy’s company.
Evelyn says the couple represents what she calls a “rarity” in the American job market. Never did they make her feel a second-class citizen in their quiet, Swiss Chalet Ranch atop a hilly part of Long Island. She ate with them and shared jokes with them.
“It’s not every day that you meet people like them,” she says. “They made me feel that I was really part of the family.”
Judy recalls the time when Evelyn was about to move in after spending several days as a “live out” caregiver (meaning one who went back home after a day’s work).
“We were so upset that we could not please her,” she says. “We were so nervous, not the other way around.”
John and Judy kept asking if she was okay; little things like food, accommodation, and her overall feeling about staying in the same house with an elderly couple, taking care of their mother in her 90s. She had a free hand in the kitchen, too, and acclimated the Americans’ palate to the Pinoy taste in the process.
What She Cooked, They Ate
The couple came to love Evelyn’s own favorites such as adobo and lumpia. They ate everything she prepared, though politely stayed away from the dreaded dinuguan and balut. “Everything but those,” John says in jest.
On many occasions Evelyn found herself falling asleep while watching over Mommy in their room. And guess who’s pulling the blanket up for her? Judy. “San ka makakakita ng ganung kabait na amo? Kinukumutan pa ako,” she says.
Not only that. John, for his part, often took care of Evelyn’s laundry. It’s his way of easing her work load.
“I want you to know that when I folded your panties, I kept my eyes closed,” he jokes with Evelyn during the interview. She replies: “It’s okay. You’re my brother in law.”
Teamwork was key in taking care of Mommy.
Evelyn, despite being the paid caregiver, was never left to do all the work. It was equally distributed among her, John and Judy throughout the three years that they were all around Mommy. As Evelyn and Judy combined to take care of matters like arranging the bedbath, and making sure Mommy looked good and had something to do the whole day, John took care of the laundry and washed the dishes.
The set-up, combined with their good humor, made life easier for all of them and, especially, Mommy.
One time before Christmas, Evelyn went home very upset over a missing papaya. She’d bought one and was planning to serve it to the couple. But while aboard a bus, it probably rolled out of her bag and someone else picked it up.
Having learned about the unfortunate incident, John went around several stores to look for papaya. But apparently none of the merchants had heard of the fruit before. A few more tries brought him success and the task was almost complete.
He placed the papaya in a box and wrapped it like a regular Christmas present. It was replete with a card that said: “To Whom It May Concern, We regret the unfortunate incident with your papaya. We apologize for it sincerely.”
John made it appear that the message was from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which was in charge of New York buses and trains. It was alternately a joke and a warm gesture that Evelyn didn’t see coming.
“How did they know (about the missing papaya)?” she asked the couple in disbelief. John and Judy pulled off the stunt and they all laughed hysterically.
Since then, the “papaya incident” has become part of the trio’s growing compilation of funny moments. Evelyn’s younger sister Connie apparently had a similar experience.
Runs in The Family
Also riding an MTA bus, Connie lost a bag of chicken barbecue she was to serve to her sisters Evelyn and Tess and their friends for dinner. Rice was ready and all but the barbecue was set for the sumptuous meal. Connie was upset.
“I guess it’s a sisters’ trait, losing barbecue and papayas in the bus,” John quips in the interview.
The couple salvaged the evening for Connie and company by preparing a chicken meal just like the one that had gotten away.
John and Judy’s deep affection for Evelyn extends to her family, way into her family. It comes in the form of regular checks on her loved ones, from her parents to her siblings back home. Judy in fact talked with some of them over the phone whenever Evelyn called them.
Evelyn’s mother once sent Judy a Christmas card, thanking her for “taking care of my daughters” in New York.
John and Judy know about the unfortunate stuff, too, her failed marriage that tormented her for 30 years and her struggles to raise her six children. That’s why they’re somehow protective of their “little sister” here, hoping that she won’t commit the same mistakes again.
“Nobody hurts my Evelyn,” says Judy.
A PINOY WORKER'S SECOND FAMILY
by Christian Esguerra
WITH more than eight million Filipinos now toiling in distant lands, it’s never difficult to notice the so-called “social costs” of labor migration.
The signs are everywhere—in schools where many children of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) constantly fail, not because of poor academics, but largely due to parental absenteeism; or in households where relatives, grandparents most especially, struggle to make up for a missing parent and simulate an unbroken family.
But you really can’t understand the repercussions of labor migration unless you are a party to the misery. Or, in the case of Minerva Seneres and her family, deal with them, 24/7.
In a run-down office on Taft Avenue in Pasay City, Metro Manila the Seneres family extends help in many forms to OFWs and their suffering loved ones. They run the six-year-old OFW Family Club, a foundation working as an invaluable support group for migrant workers.
Minerva says it’s a private-sector initiative to help empower hapless OFWs and their families amid a multitude of problems here and abroad. The group extends free legal and medical assistance, and a general “family” support system to its more than 600,000 card-bearing members all over the Philippines.
Minerva swears she and her family have heard them all—problems ranging from husbands whose long stint overseas gave rise to infidelity, to spouses wasting the fruits of their partner’s labor to vice and bad decisions back home, to domestic helpers mistreated by employers.
Still, there’s always a new challenge each time the family opens Unit 101 of the Taft Office Center Building near the corner of Buendia Avenue.
Once, there was a man in his mid-30s who walked into the room, carrying only an anguished face. Unlike most of the OFW relatives who trooped to the office that morning about four years ago, he didn’t seem eager to speak with any of the Senereses, Minerva recalls.
Instead, he waited until every one else had left and approached her. Moments into his story, the man began weeping. “I remember it too clearly because he was among the very few men who cried in our office,” she says in an interview.
A former OFW himself, he had just discovered that his wife, a domestic helper in Hong Kong, was involved with another man, also a Filipino worker in the former British colony. And from all indications, he told Minerva, the wife was ready to abandon him and their two young children.
“What should I do?” he asked, explaining that he couldn’t afford to let his wife go. Over the years, she had become the sole breadwinner and he, solely in charge of running the household. He was jobless.
Husband and wife had agreed to alternately work as OFWs on an biennial basis so that one of them would be left tending to their children. The wife hadn’t come home for four years straight, but never failed in her dollar remittances.
In the process, the husband lost his voice, if not his bargaining power in the house. If she left for good, he feared their children would have to quit school, and that, he said, he could not allow.
Besides, he admitted that he still loved her. He said he was willling to forgive and start over, never mind if the signs all pointed to a home about to collapse. Consider: his wife always found reason not to sleep with him even though they had not seen each other during the previous four years.
Curiously though, she stocked brand-new, porno-type lingerie in her luggage. She always kept her mobile phone close to her, too, bringing it with her even in the shower and hiding it under her pillow whenever she slept.
So, what could the OFW Family Club to do for the agonizing husband?
Minerva recalls giving the man a reality check—he better find himself a job and start all over again, and leave his adulterous wife out of the equation. “You’re the man of the house so you should be supporting the family.”
As of January this year, Minerva hasn’t heard from the guy. She doesn’t know if he allowed his wife to leave for Hong Kong again, despite knowing that the woman would only be joining her paramour. But to be sure, the man left her office that afternoon with a certain relief. At least, he found someone willing to listen.
No Template Solution
Minerva says the OFW Family Club offers no template solution to its members’ miseries. What it can only promise, she says, is its tireless effort—win or lose—to help an OFW in need. Fortunately for those who came for relief, the group often delivered.
On quite few occasions the club—primarily through her husband Roy Seneres’ enduring clout in diplomatic circles—has rescued OFWs in distress or forced a philandering husband to resume financial support to his family in the Philippines.
Roy Seneres established the club on August 10, 2001, about three years after he completed his tour of duty as Philippine ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. By then, he was already chair of the influential National Labor Relations Commission, the Philippine government’s main arbiter of labor disputes in the private sector.
“Sometimes, you can tell right away that a case is a lost cause,” the ex-ambassador admits. “But while I explain this to an OFW, I also make sure that we do what’s best for him under the situation. We can’t win everything. But it’s important for him to know that there’s someone that he can hold onto.”
The groundwork for the OFW Family Club began much earlier when, in the early 1980s, Roy Seneres started “rescuing” Filipino workers, mostly domestic helpers who had escaped from their employers in Abu Dhabi.
With no one to turn to in a strange land, they all trooped to the Philippine embassy there for temporary shelter. Before that time, Filipino diplomats would turn away compatriots, says Roy Seneres, then labor attaché in Abu Dhabi.
He says the embassy was apparently wary of an existing “circular” requiring its officers to turn over “runaways” to the local police. Unfazed, he says he decided to keep his compatriots in his official residence in the UAE.
Soon, word was out that he was providing shelter to tormented OFWs in Abu Dhabi. Word spread from Ifugao to Zamboanga, apparently because those who had found a roof in his UAE home came from all over the Philippines.
So they all came, as many as 20 at a time, seeking help from the labor attache. Roy Seneres’ “stock” further grew when he figured in three high-profile cases of OFWs in the UAE—Tarhata Akaz, John Aquino, and Sarah Balabagan.
Akaz, a nurse, was married to a powerful Arab who treated her more like a slave than a wife. Beatings by the husband were commonplace; on other occasions he would “step on her food and force her to eat it,” according to an account in an OFW Family Club publication.
Aquino claimed he had killed his Indian employer in self-defense, but a UAE court didn’t buy his story. He was sentenced to death and had to deal with his victim’s unforgiving relatives who wouldn’t settle for blood money.
Balabagan, a domestic helper, had also slain her employer, an octagenarian who had attempted to rape her. She was found guilty of manslaughter and slapped with a death sentence.
All three OFWs found a savior in Seneres, a talkative, moustached lawyer whose looks resembled a popular anti-hero (“kontrabida”) in Philippine movies. Never mind if he was occasionally perceived as a media hound—he got the job done.
Long after he left his UAE post toward the end of the 1990s, relatives of OFWs continued to approach him for help.
At his house in Las Pinas City, Roy Seneres recalls waking up to the sight of agonizing faces, rattling off a litany of abuses in foreign territories. He says he took them as a sign of a higher, lifelong calling: “So I told my family that helping OFWs must be our role in life as a family.”
“I often told myself that I was even lucky not to have a child working abroad,” he says. “If that were so, it would not be impossible that he or she, too, would have been a victim of these abuses.”
With their father’s prodding, all six siblings—Jay Thomas, Hans Christian, Roy Jr., Christopher, Hazel, and Hannah—got down to business and helped set up what would later be called the OFW Family Club.
To ease the burden on Roy Seneres who was also heading the NLRC at that time, his wife Minerva occupied a strategic place in the foundation. As board chairperson, she was her husband’s alter-ego: while Roy was the face of the organization, she gave it a distinctive “touch” that made OFWs feel all the more at home.
The board comprises all six children, and includes Balabagan. The family is assisted by four volunteer lawyers and a staff of less than 10 people. Together, they handle around 500 cases a month.
Minerva says the foundation survives on the P100 fee each member pays for an identification card. It bears a picture of Seneres and a signed message that reads: “Hindi ka nag-iisa, kapamilya kita (You’re not alone, you’re part of my family).”
As not a few members have found out, the statement is no empty promise from a political figure like Roy Seneres, who once ran and lost in a senatorial election.
One time, a domestic helper in Abu Dhabi escaped from a virtual prison that was her employer’s house. She went to the local police with nothing to show but her OFW Family Club ID. Seeing the face on the card, the cop on duty became very accommodating: “I know this guy! He’s my friend!”
The cop summoned the abusive employer, an Egyptian couple, and scolded them. The domestic helper, just a few hours before a friendless Filipina in a strange land, smiled. She knew she was in good hands.
Roy Seneres says such instances were the product of “investments in human relations” within diplomatic circles. It’s something, he says, every Filipino diplomat should do, especially in areas where compatriots were more prone to abuse.
In his case, he says he did so by keeping in constant contact with key officials in the Middle East. He paid visits to fellow diplomats, judges, policemen, immigration officers, and many others who, he felt, could sooner or later be of service to his fellow Filipinos.
Oftentimes, he says he would also send them gifts made in the Philippines. It’s his way of putting the country and his fellow Filipinos on their radar so that when the time came, they won’t find it hard to help.
“These investments in human relations come in handy,” he explains. “We have to make them feel that we don’t go to them only when we need something from them.”
My Uncle, My Husband
Work at the OFW Family Club is not for the faint-hearted—to say that many of the problems handled by its staff are shocking would be an understatement.
One day in 2002, a mother in her 40s came by the office. She was desperate for advice on something she had never imagined would ever happen to her family.
Her husband’s departure to be with another woman forced her to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. She was left with no better option in her hometown in the Visayas where jobs didn’t pay much.
She left her son, 14, and daughter, 12 to her younger brother’s care. The uncle, who was in his mid-20s, promised to look after them.
Three years later, the mother went home and made a shocking discovery—her brother had been molesting her daughter. To further complicate things, the girl, now 15, found nothing wrong with her uncle sleeping with her. She thought it was “normal,” as her uncle had led her to believe.
The furious mother kicked her brother out of the house. She didn’t want to return to Hong Kong, but doing so would violate her employment contract. If it was any consolation, her children were not as young when as she first left and could probably tend to themselves.
She was wrong.
Soon came more bad news from Manila: her daughter was pregnant. Her relatives theorized that the pregnancy was probably the handiwork of some boy the girl met in school. She feared it was the uncle; he could have sneaked back into the house.
Back again from Hong Kong, what she discovered was unimaginable. It was the 18-year-old brother who had impregnated his own sister.
“It’s not actually my fault,” the elder brother reasoned when confronted by their mother. “It was she who often crept into my bed and asked for it.”
The mother didn’t know what hit her. The daughter had apparently had so much of the uncle’s sexual intrusions that she, in the words of her brother, really “asked for it.” To her mind, it was indeed “normal.”
Minerva admits the foundation doesn’t have all the answers to OFWs’ troubles, especially in this case when things could no longer be undone. But the mother, who decided to keep her daughter’s baby and keep everything a strict family secret, didn’t go home empty-handed.
Another problem of hers was her employer in Hong Kong. She was in danger, not only of losing her job, but also of being sued for supposedly “abandoning” her post. The employer was also demanding a hefty monetary settlement.
The foundation, through its volunteer lawyers, managed to free the poor woman from any legal obligation to her employer. She decided to put her daughter in a convent in the hope of “rehabilitating” her. Minerva isn’t sure it worked, but the foundation could only hope for the best.
Four years later in 2006, Minerva got another visit from a grieving mother in her 50s.
Like the woman from the Visayas, this mother of two grown children was also at the other end of a bad relationship. Her husband, an engineer in Saudi Arabia, had stopped sending money, admitting that he already had a new family there.
His philandering was the reversal of a promise he had made to his family not long before. He had told them that he would work overseas to prepare for the children’s college education. He asked his wife to quit her job as a teacher in a private school in Manila and focus on the household.
She did as she was told, only to find out that the hefty dollar remittance wouldn’t last for long. Now left on her own, she asked her children to transfer from a middle-class university in Manila to schools with lower tuition in the nearby “University Belt.”
Son and daughter, 17 and 18 respectively, agreed, showing no sign of anguish or regret.
Months later came the bad news, prompting the mother to go to the OFW Family Club. The son had been arrested for snatching a mobile phone, a common petty crime in the streets of Manila.
Confronted by his mother, he said he wanted only to pay for his tuition. He said he had also been failing to attend his classes lately because he had no money even for transportation.
Later, the mother discovered that her daughter was in a similar fix. She had resorted to prostitution to support her schooling. The mother was stunned.
Minerva says the foundation managed to get the son out of jail, the least it could do for yet another family destroyed, though indirectly, by labor migration.
Minerva, however, does not always ascribe the problem of broken families to the great distance between OFWs and their loved ones back home. As another sad story shows, constant company between couples does not guarantee fidelity.
To make sure that their relationship won’t go astray, a couple in their 20s tried their luck working in the same country and in the same firm. They soon found a job in a software company in Dubai. The husband was a computer engineer, the wife an executive assistant.
In a company that also hired professionals from India and Pakistan, they were paid handsomely.
When the couple was about to have their first child, a boy, the mother decided to go back to the Philippines and deliver the baby there. Later, the boy was placed under the care of the husband’s parents in Manila.
Five years later in 2005, the wife was pregnant again. And in what had become a practice for the couple during pregnancy, she went back home and joined her in-laws. But to their surprise, she gave birth to another baby boy who resembled anyone but the father.
“He looked very Indian,” Minerva recalls the husband’s mother telling her in a visit three years ago.
The husband later extracted a confession from his wife. All the while, she had been sleeping with an Indian co-worker. She didn’t expect to conceive the other man’s baby because she made sure to also sleep with her spouse.
Minerva says the husband’s mother went to the OFW Family Club to seek legal remedy. The man wanted to keep his five-year-old son, but was aware of the Philippine legal system’s preference to award custody to the mother.
Again, the foundation’s volunteer lawyers went to work. The father got his wish.
Roy and Minerva Seneres are convinced that in addressing the viscious cycle of OFW miseries, one has to view the wider picture of why Filipinos are forced to leave the country.
No, they can’t be kept from exploring the grass outside the Philippines—it’s their right. But one has to ask why so many of them are doing so, and whether they are driven by the same reason of seeking greener pastures.
The couple’s reasoning leads to the conclusion that at the very least, the government is not providing enough job opportunities to keep its people, its labor force, at home. And worse, it is encouraging them to leave so it could be spared the greater responsibility of developing the domestic job market.
This is not to say, though, that the government is doing nothing, the Seneres couple points out.
The problem has ballooned to immense proportions and addressing it naturally requires some serious engagement by other Philippine institutions. Here, groups like the OFW Family Club are expected to contribute.
In the absence of sufficient job opportunities developed by the government, the foundation encourages self-reliance so that OFWs won’t have to be stranded abroad for the rest of their lives. And for others planning to follow suit, to at least reconsider their options.
The group holds free livelihood seminars, which are usually attended by families of OFWs. Sessions open opportunities for them to become entrepreneurs by putting up, say, their own food cart business, burger joint, or ink refilling station.
It’s really difficult to start a business, says Minerva, who holds a business management degree from the Philippine Women’s University. It may have to do with acumen, but a lot of it requires focus, dedication, and tons of hard work.
“You can actually earn money without capital,” she says. “How? You can start by earning on a commission basis. And when you have enough money, you can use it as capital for your own business.”
Easier said than done, but she says it’s one concrete way of keeping Filipinos in their own country and helping them avoid the concomitant dangers of overseas work.
All for P9,000
Many OFWs, like a former private school teacher from Cavite province, have been short-changed in the trade-off between a higher paying job abroad and having to leave the family back home.
In the case of the teacher, she and her teenage son paid dearly.
Having been abandoned by her husband, she was left to tend to their only child, who had a year left in high school. She had only big dreams for him, wanting him eventually to take up medicine. So she left her teaching post and worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong.
“It would only be for a short time,” she promised her son. “I just want to save for your college education.”
The salary difference was not big. As a teacher, she earned roughly P15,000 (around $360) monthly. The maid’s job offered only P24,000 (roughly $580). Still, she took the gamble, convinced that she won’t earn the P9,000 difference in the Philippines.
A year after her departure, she got word from relatives that her son was fading fast. He was losing focus in school and was spending most of his time with friends. Later, she learned he was into drugs.
The son’s domestic set-up provided the perfect environment for delinquency. The boy was basically alone in the house; he had only housemaids to care for him. He got everything he wanted—expensive clothes, new gadgets, and money to spend.
Like many other absentee parents, the mother, who would later run to the OFW Family Club for help, was reduced to a generous provider of material wants to her child if only to make up for her absence.
One day in 2003, she got a distress call from a relative. Her son had been left for dead, apparently due to a drug overdose. In the words of the relative, he was almost in a vegetative state.
“Everything the mother had dreamed for her son vanished,” Minerva laments. “She was very remorseful for leaving her only child.”
Acting on the mother’s request, the OFW Family Club had the boy admitted to a drug rehabilitation center.
Almost every case handled by the foundation presents a persisting reality: the prevalence of husbands abandoning their wives and kids. It has become so common and alarming that Minerva came up with a special support group within the OFW Family Club.
The group is aptly called “Kinalasan,” which stands for “Kababaihang Iniwan Na ng mga Lalaking Sumama sa ibang nililiyag” (Women abandoned by husbands to be with another woman). Minerva came up with the coinage considering the rampancy husbands who “jumped over the other fence.” She calls them “asawang sumakabilang-bahay.”
In times of despair, grieving wives sure need a touch of creative diversion.
Since it was established in October 2007, Kinalasan has gathered at least 300 registered members. Minerva is expecting more, judging by the number of cases the foundation handles on a daily basis.
“When spouses are working abroad, the temptation to go into an illicit relationship is always there because of homesickness,” she says.
But the foundation, especially Kinalasan, is not about to raise the white flag. Four months after it was born, it has brought justice to several families abandoned—and denied financial support—by philandering husbands.
Complaining wives are asked to fill up forms, detailing circumstances of abandonement. The accounts are basically the same. The husband reneges on his financial responsibility and stops communicating with his family. The wife finds out he’s gone home, but to a different family elsewhere.
“It’s the same old story,” says Minerva.
The group initially writes husbands, reminding them of their obligation and citing possible violations of the law. They are often given a grace period of between three and six months, during which they are expected to resume financial assistance. Or better yet, come to their senses and return to their original family.
If the strategy does not work, the foundation will proceed with filing a legal case against them. But here, Minerva says, volunteer lawyers work with certain caution.
The goal of a complaint is not always to strip the man of his job or land him in jail. Minerva tells wives that either of the options would be disastrous to the family in the long run.
“We explain to them that if husbands run into problems and their job overseas is affected both the husband and the family will be left empty-handed,” she says.
So Kinalasan came up with a clever solution. Through the wives, it finds out when husbands are set to return to the Philippines and when they are scheduled to fly back overseas.
A civil case is filed against them in a local court, a copy of which is sent to the Philippine Bureau of Immigration. On the day of a husband’s departure, he is “ambushed” by his wife, accompanied by a Kinalasan lawyer.
Knowing he cannot leave the country, he’s left with no choice but to settle; the wife then drops the case.
“It’s a win-win solution,” says Minerva.
The people behind the OFW Family Club can only hope that society, especially the government, can also find a “win-win” solution to the myriad of problems besetting Filipino workers abroad and their families.
The stakes are high, Minerva points out, especially when more and more relationships are broken and more and more children go astray as a sad result of labor migration.
And we’re not even talking about the other big repercussion, which is the steady departure of Filipino expertise and workforce from a country in bad shape and in more need of them.