Migrants’ Stories: No plan to work abroad

Posted at 01/03/13 6:25 PM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 4" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) or the Italian Bishops' Conference. The book contains a collection of 10 stories of the realities of migration as faced by Filipinos abroad and their family members in the Philippines. ABS-CBNnews.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.

I am a third generation overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in my family. I realized this while I was being interviewed by somebody from a real estate company for their marketing strategy which aims to tap the increasing buying power of Filipinos working abroad.

I remembered that my grandfather along with my uncles all went to Bahrain to work there building ships in the early 1980s. My father followed suit, but when he saw better opportunities in Dubai, he decided to go there. I was in high school at the time.

Now it is my turn. I may not be building ships in Barcelona but the OFW tradition in the family continues. I got ‘stateside’ chocolates when I was young; now it is my turn to make the situation of our family sweeter. It seems it is already inculcated in Philippine society that the best way to give one’s family a better life is to go abroad. This explains why our kababayans migrate even to countries that are more dangerous and less economically developed than the Philippines.

I had no plans of working abroad. I had the best job a Political Science graduate could get. Right after completing my studies in 2002, I landed a teaching and research job which fetched a good salary. At that time, I was earning as much as my father who was working in Dubai. There was indeed no compelling economic reason for me to migrate. When I was attending my Saturday Spanish classes at the Instituto Cervantes Manila, I heard of some students who got a scholarship from the Spanish government.

It has always been my dream to study abroad and I thought getting a scholarship was more than ideal. While looking over the graduate courses of universities in the major cities of Spain, I saw that the University of Barcelona was offering a good Social Science program and the tuition fees were well within the scholarship program’s allocated amount. I got accepted at the university and I qualified for a scholarship. Before leaving the country, I told myself that I would finish my MA in International Cooperation and Development Studies and return home.

But when I arrived in Barcelona, many people convinced me to stay. They told me that many people were ‘almost dying’ to reach European soil. It is true many Africans lost their lives in the sea to reach the Canary Islands. I have also heard of stories of Filipinos who risked their lives and their life savings crossing borders to reach Spain.

I was lucky it was easier for me. I was fortunate because I had that scholarship when I started my degree. But I realized my monthly allowance was not enough to make things easier. It was my first time to live abroad, to live thousands of miles away from my family, my friends and my support system. I thought going to Spain would not be any different from my life when I was working in Manila, that every month I could go back to my hometown and see my family. But obviously, that was not possible.

During the first few months, I realized I was not emotionally prepared. One morning, I woke up and I saw a lot of people from the balcony where I lived. All of them were white. It came to me as a shock. I was living in a totally different place. I felt displaced and homesickness set in.

For more than three months, I was depressed and got even more depressed because it was winter when I arrived in Barcelona. I got really sick maybe due to depression, of having to go through many adjustments, and feeling uprooted. Things were moving too fast for me.

Looking back, I was not prepared to leave the Philippines. The primary reason was money. The scholarship required us to pay for all the costs first, which amounted to almost P200,000 to cover tuition fees, the plane ticket and pocket money. We were promised the reimbursement once we arrive in Spain. I didn’t have enough savings to cover the initial costs. I had to ask money from all the people in my cellphone - my professors, classmates, and even from top officials of UP Manila. It was like looking for my father’s placement fee every time he went back to Dubai.

My boss was very optimistic that I would raise the needed amount. I was not sure whether I could push through. Luckily, I was able to raise the funds and was surprised that some people had trusted me and were willing to help me.

I was not prepared mentally for the changes that I would go through. People think of migration as life-changing. Back then, my idea was just to travel, to go abroad for some time, and to return home. I was too naive to realize that my life would drastically change the minute I decided to migrate. It was hard in the first few months. I used to cry myself to sleep. I had difficulty understanding the new society that I found myself in. It was just hard for me to comprehend the attitude of the people around me.

Initially, I thought they were not nice; they seemed cold and cruel. They were too frank. I could not help comparing them with Filipinos who are more concerned with our interpersonal relationships. I felt they were uncaring, very individualistic, and selfish.

This is a generalization, of course, since there are exceptions. Or maybe I cannot use my Filipino standards in evaluating their value system. I realized that there are things which are universal, but there are also issues which are particular to cultural contexts.

To add to the drama, I also had to learn Spanish. Like many Filipinos, I thought English was enough. If one were just visiting for a few days, yes, but once you decide to live in a country, speaking the language is important. I watched Television Española every single morning trying to comprehend what the newscaster was saying. After three months, I was able to understand Spanish. After six months, I could converse in Spanish. After a year, I was already confident in speaking Spanish, although I had an accent.

More drama happened when I had no funding support during the months when I did not have classes. Up to now, I think there was a misunderstanding regarding my scholarship. I found out that some scholars were receiving their allowance even if they were on vacation. That was not my case. As scholars, we were not allowed to work.

Nonetheless, I looked for a job to support myself. That time, the only people I knew in Barcelona were Filipinos. Filipinos in Barcelona usually work in restaurants or in domestic work. It is complicated to work in restaurants since I didn’t have experience, I was not that fluent in Spanish at the time, and I knew I was not allowed to work. My friend recommended me to her señora to work as a weekend guardacasa, somebody who does domestic and security guard work. I cried when I started scrubbing a toilet bowl.

More than the hard work, I cried because it was a humbling experience. After years of acquiring a degree from a good university and years and years of building my career, I could not accept the fact that the only work I could get was cleaning somebody’s house. Then I realized that some of our kababayans are happy with their jobs. They had good jobs in the Philippines, but they sacrificed them to earn more abroad and to give their families a better life. Domestic work is a very dignified job. Unfortunately, domestic work is treated as a second class work. It is sad but that is how society views it.

There is really something wrong, something unjust with society when people who are capable of contributing more are only relegated to domestic work. Many of our kababayans who are engaged in domestic work had supported the college education of their children or siblings with the hope that they will have better occupational options someday.

In my case, I figured that sometimes we have to be practical and hopeful that things will change for the better. To my surprise, after some time, I came to enjoy my work. Most of my señoras at least treated me well, contrary to the contravida mestizas in Philippine telenovelas, though I must admit there are horror stories as well. It was a delight to clean houses I could only see in magazines. For a few months, I felt like they were mine. It was also interesting to see that what they had in the fridge were the same food that I had in mine. This suggests that in Spain, whatever class you are from, you can afford the same brand of yogurt.

I enjoyed my work so much so that when I resumed to finish my degree, I continued doing extra work as a house cleaner.

One day my employer asked me about my plans after I have completed my master’s degree. I told her that I wanted to work in an international organization or an NGO. She asked me if I would not mind doing clerical work and offered me to work in her company. This opportunity changed my plans to return home.

Perhaps I did not have plans and I just followed where destiny led me, or perhaps it was a matter of things falling into place. Maybe there is a reason why I have to stay in Barcelona. I worked in her company and my employer promised to fix my working permit. After more than a year, I had to go back to the Philippines to apply for a working visa. Finally, I was able to see my family after three long years!

The processing of all the requirements was tedious. I spent enormous time, money and patience to complete the process. I almost lost my patience with an employee in the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. I could not remember her name or what she did exactly. What I remember was that she was obnoxious, not deserving to be a public servant. She did not treat our kababayans well. I planned to file a written complaint, but in the end, I was just too tired in processing my requirements that I let it pass. I also remembered the pre-departure orientation seminar. It was fun but it needs to give more substance and practical information to OFWs.

When it was time to go back to Spain, it was hard to say goodbye to my family and friends. It is still hard until now. It is painful. It is something that I will not get used to. Sometimes I prefer not to go home lest I will leave again. I try to be tough, sometimes even cold, but I cannot help but cry, especially in the departure area, the typical tearjerker airport scene. I did not look back to see them waving goodbye. Just imagining it brings me to tears.

It was also painful to have to pay all kinds of fees before leaving. Why do we have to pay a terminal fee for an international airport that is considered as one of the world’s worst airports? Isn't it that the country is already benefiting from our remittances? Isn't it that the country earns from the consumption of OFWs every time they visit the Philippines?

The decision to go back to Spain was mine. My parents didn’t oblige me to be the family’s breadwinner. Being the eldest son, Filipino society expects me to help my family. I don’t have any problems with it. In fact, I’m happy doing it. I am happy I am able to send half of my salary to my family and they are happy and healthy. There was a time, when my father lost his job in Dubai, when he got really mad and demanded that I come home. He felt that I was wasting my time and my career in Spain.

Other than this incident, my family has been very supportive of my decision. My parents always call or send messages via Facebook. Thank God, technology has made things easier. Skype now gives me the chance to monitor my mom’s weight and my niece’s height and see that my parents continue to be young at heart. We can see each other even though we are thousands of miles apart.

I don’t know if my monthly remittances have changed their lifestyle. I hope they will change my youngest brother´s life as I send him to college. But I think my way is different from my father’s, which I observe is common among OFWs. I don’t send my family a new TV every year. I don’t buy the latest I-phone my brothers want, which I cannot even afford for myself. I told them they are not a necessity, but just an urge to be in, to give in to the demands of our consumerist society. I always tell them to save lest I lose my job given the economic crisis and high unemployment rate in Spain. I left them a small amount to put up a small sari-sari store, which was what my mom wanted. Although it is small, this can be a source of income.

I also try to save as much as I can because sometimes I end up using my savings when I travel. For me traveling is a necessity; it is another way of learning. I consider it as a postgraduate course in history, cultural tolerance and world appreciation.

Every now and then, I think migrants like me need to have time for ourselves. I respect the decision of others to work 16 hours a day. I also did that when I worked in a restaurant. It was a good experience and I was happy to receive a lot of money at the end of the month. But I also want to live. And Filipinos back home also have to consider that. Filipinos abroad are not milking cows. It’s sad that some OFWs seem to derive pleasure from being the tireless and endless providers of their families.

Aside from traveling, I also spend time with the Filipino community. I am very lucky there are many Filipinos in Barcelona. Like in other Filipino communities around the world, as usual, there is a lot of inggitan, chismisan, pataasan ng ihi, politicking, etc. What I have in mind is to share what I have learned, especially lessons that I have learned from my seven years in Spain. I have been doing volunteer work in Centro Filipino, a Filipino non-governmental organization in Barcelona, which has been in existence for more than 25 years, offering various programs to help Filipino immigrants in Barcelona.

I am now concentrating in giving free Spanish classes to Filipinos in Spain. I believe language proficiency gives them more edge and more opportunities in the labor market in Spain. Knowing Spanish will also make their lives easier when it comes to integrating in society. It will also be easier for them to defend themselves if they know how to express themselves well.

I also thought that providing information would empower our kababayans, which is why, other ex-graduate students and I who decided to stay in Spain put up a blog, angbagongfilipino.wordpress.com and its printed news magazine Ang Bagong Filipino providing relevant information to Filipinos in Spain. And recently, I was lucky to be selected to serve as the voice of the Filipinos in Barcelona, serving as one of the Europe-based correspondents for ABS-CBN, particularly its news program, Balitang Europe.

These involvements mean many pressures and much work. However, as long as I can serve the people who have made my life a lot easier when I was starting out in Spain, I will give it a go.

I still don’t find my situation ideal and I always think that there’s a greener pasture out there. My life as a migrant is not a bed of roses. It is a bed of roses with thorns. It is an everyday struggle. I should be happy because I have a good and stable job in an international company, especially in crisis-stricken Spain.

I should be happier because I have extra jobs and free time to do volunteer work and travel. But there is still a desire in me to aspire for something better, which runs in the blood of most immigrants. I am not happy to be marginalized, to be blamed as the cause of the economic crisis, cultural conflict, and joblessness among locals or deteriorating health services.

As much as we try to be grateful and optimistic, migrants are always the target of blame. Migrants are the easiest scapegoats and have been used in electoral campaigns and political manipulations.

Stupid and ignorant people from top to bottom have prejudices against migrants—from the Opera house administrator who sent my friends out of their RESERVED seats, to security guards who followed me around the supermarket, suspecting me of stealing. Just for the simple reason that we are not like them. We are not white. As I have told my Filipina friend, wherever we go, these people will always be around. It will be an eternal struggle.

It is also an eternal struggle back home, where elitism and class system are pervasive. To get decent treatment, which everybody deserves, one has to look rich, from the color of your skin to the model of your cellphone. Masa is bakya. Poverty is a big problem but people are too busy to solve them, too busy getting rich or appearing to be rich.

Seven years living away from home had given me a profound understanding of things. It has made me realize how important the family is, that persons are more important than things. (Ironically, things are given more liberty to move than persons). And that the family in the Philippines should make an effort to value more the provider than what he/she provides.

OFWs are in nirvana every time they send money to the Philippines knowing that this will help to make things better. Migrating is a great learning experience. It is also a life project. It can fail or it can succeed depending on all the people involved.

I am young but sometimes I get frustrated every time I see how some of my colleagues have fared in their career in the Philippines. I could have achieved more and have done more. There are regrets but I chose this path. It was my decision. I know that not all have real options. Some are forced to migrate due to necessity.

Hopefully in the next generation, migration will be more of an option than a necessity, a choice rather than a social imposition.