PRAGUE (PRAHA), Czech Republic – They stepped outside the moss-covered stone-church in cadence with the white flakes falling languorously from a mint blue sky.
Most of the 382 Filipinos are in no hurry to leave; not because the Church of Our Lady of Victory parish in Karmelitska Street in downtown Prague keeps out the cold, which has fallen down 8 degrees below zero in recent weeks.
But the Catholic Church has also warmed the hearts of these Filipinos, some of who fear their growing numbers may chill them like strangers.
“The few Filipinos who were here during the nineties were in good communication and relation,” Victoria Nokeo told the OFW Journalism Consortium.
Nokeo, residing here for 2 decades now, has had her memory frozen: she still remembers her long-time friends, but not anymore the names of “many” other Filipinos who are recent arrivals in this central European country.
“Now the number of Filipinos in the Czech Republic is growing; that is good but we do not know each other, especially by name, because we are now ‘a lot,’” Nokeo, who hails from the northern Philippine town of Baliuag, Bulacan, added.
She recalls the time she came here on October 1988 as a 17-year-old scholar under an exchange program.
“There were already Filipinos here, also scholars, when I arrived,” she added.
Nokeo, currently a secretary for the Thailand embassy here, said she and other Filipinos often meet after attending classes in a Czech (or ceština) language school 50 kilometers outside of Prague.
But the links have chilled since then, especially after the 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” which toppled the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
Nokeo has since married to a Lao national, but she says she misses the time when the small number of Filipinos provided some sense of urgency to keep friendships warm.
However, compatriot Ives Lusung thinks otherwise and says the increase in the number of Filipinos here can provide the opportunity to solidify links.
Lusung said the Filipino community is “now ‘too big’ that we can’t hold a meeting inside the embassy.”
So Sunday meet-ups at churches and at Prague’s tourist sites —the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square included— are the means they use to catch up with each other.
Filipinos are a small dot in the Czech Republic’s estimated number of half-a-million immigrants and foreign workers, mostly coming from Ukraine, neighboring Slovak Republic, and the Philippines’s Southeast Asian neighbor Vietnam.
After a nonviolent revolution ushered the Czech Republic, the entry of Filipinos regularly trickled from 3 in 1998, 20 in 2007, to 127 a year later, data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) showed.
Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas data show Filipinos from the Czech Republic sent home US$0.277 million in remittances in 2009, an all-time high.
Filipinos have been hired as office and administrative personnel for some of the 165 foreign embassies here —getting salaries that, Philippine Ambassador to Prague Regina Irene Sarmiento thinks, make them a part of an “’elite’ group of overseas Filipino workers”.
Lusung, for one, was hired through the recommendation of a friend of the Spanish ambassador in the Philippines.
She was flown to Prague in 1992, together with 3 other Filipinos. One of them was niece Jocelyn Lusung, who she says is now in the United States.
Lusung, who hails from Batanes province, became an administrative staff of the Spanish embassy here.
Eight years later, she organized the Pamilyang Pilipino sa Czech Republic, where she acted as founding president until in 2008.
Lusung said that the group has helped maintain the ties among Filipinos.
But the ties also extend to the home country, as US-born Roberto Tongo who arrived here in 2008, has regularly recruited technical and administrative workers from Roxas City, Capiz and Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, for his company, Netherlands-headquartered IT repair services giant Teleplan International.
Teleplan Prague s.r.o. (s.r.o. means a Czech limited liability company) now has 189 Filipino workers in its plant at Ricany-Jazlovice, some 20 kilometers, or an hour’s ride, from downtown Prague.
Tongo told the OFW Journalism Consortium he will continue hiring from central Philippines.
In fact, he adds, fresh batches of Filipino workers are on queue to fly for their gaming business unit here.
Consul Mersole Mellejor said the Czech market demand for Filipino workers has been growing, albeit slowly.
Such demand prompted them to add a new focus for the Philippine embassy here: a change not felt since it was established in 1997.
That time, Ambassador Sarmiento said, embassy officials focused on trade deals and strengthening diplomatic relations with the young republic.
But with the entry of more Filipinos workers, especially the mass hiring by Teleplan, the government saw the need to fly in Mellejor as “labor attaché”.
He said that he personally screens Teleplan’s contracts and visits the worksite.
Recently, Mellejor said, he had to authenticate working arrangements for some 22 masseuses being hired here for hotel-operated spas and massage parlors.
The review is meticulous, Sarmiento claims, especially after 4 Filipinos became victims of illegal recruitment.
The case document said that the Filipino paid close to P350,000 each to a Czech in exchange for work as drivers, but the recruiter has long disappeared with the money.
Sarmiento told the OFW Journalism Consortium added job orders posted by some Filipino recruitment agencies from December 2007 to January 2008: for at least 525 laborers did not push through because of the global economic crisis.
A recent Filipina visitor here, Reggie Capuno, told the embassy that she was able to talk to some Filipino workers who were sent back home by their Czech employers, but are re-hired here for work.
Another set of Filipino workers of a manufacturing company here were also laid-off as the recession in the United States grew far and wide in scale.
Sarmiento said the Czech government spent for the trip home of these workers.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Czech Republic is witnessing the influx of foreigners as migrant workers or asylum seekers.
By 2020, foreigners population can make up nearly 8% of the population, said Tomáš Kucera of Charles University.
This is even if migration is not a “priority issue” here, says Kucera’s colleague Dušan Drbohlav.
The 2 credit this phenomenon of migration (or stehování in Czech) to the embrace of capitalism by the former communist-controlled country and which has seen a robust manufacturing sector.
For how long that and migration becoming a “non-priority,” only the Czech people can tell.
For now, Nokeo can only advise fellow Filipinos “to be patient, strong, and happy.”
OFW Journalism Consortium