There is a quote from “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien: “It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Sluggish employment opportunities here at home, a desire to be, or earn something, greater beyond the limited horizons of locality, maybe a sense of ambition or a feeling of despair: whatever the reasons, personal and systemic, we find many of our countrymen looking to distant shores for a second life, being swept off to becoming overseas Filipino workers.
In “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers,” our Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship student-OFW interviewees (seven women, three men) expressed all those personal reasons—and the challenging journey they faced as their journey took them to Italy. Certainly, the greener pastures of Europe beckoned, offering at least on the surface prospects of a better life. The higher incomes would be useful to support families back home. Thess Borje and Rhodia Amodia typified these expectations—the former looking out for her daughters, the latter, her parents and siblings.
A new land would also offer the promise of ambition and renown for others: college graduates seeking expanded horizons, provincials and slum dwellers seeking to break out from the familiar, and even starry-eyed dreamers. Hazel Ycaza, who described her emigration (initially to Israel, before Italy) partly as rebellion, and who even as a child marched to the beat of her own drums. Marieta Gonzales, running away from home and the expectations of being a housewife, seeking the life of a professional woman. Mary Jane Cruzat, whose own mother worked in Rome, who wanted to prove herself, to break out of being second-best, as she described her childhood.
The promise is almost seductive—and to be fair to the nations we emigrate to—not all of them, to be certain—in many cases the opportunity is present, the money is good. Yet the corresponding price can be its own cross to bear. As many migrants are, at the least, bachelor’s degree holders, serving as caretakers, domestic helpers, servants, or otherwise in blue-collar industries initially feels like a waste of talent. “Sayang ang talino mo,” Mary Jane quotes those who commented on her work as a janitor.
Batangueńo Ronie Hernandez grew up among migrant-worker families, witnessing Balikbayans coming home bearing gifts, dreaming of life abroad. Coming to Italy became both the proverbial eye opener and kick in the pants: a faster pace of life, a harder burden of work. It was a burden he carried gladly for his family, he said, but it certainly was far from his childhood expectations.
Even just the attempt to emigrate can be its own dangerous business. In escaping a planned life she didn’t desire, Marieta had to steal away in the predawn darkness without anyone noticing; her initial attempt to emigrate to Japan met with the unfortunate, but common, fate of recruitment racketeers who ran away with her money, leaving her dry, and her hopes broken. Indeed, illegal recruitment remains a scourge that panders and seduces unfortunate Filipinos into the hands of abusive employers, suffering workplace and sexual abuse, among others.
In recalling these challenges and tribulations, these blood drops and sweat stains that mark some of the stories of our LSE students, I am reminded of Psalm 137: 1: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Though poor economic and personal prospects in the Philippines drove the choice to seek their fortune in Italy and elsewhere, our migrant workers could still recall some happy memories of home, and tell of the sadness of being separated from family and friends, from a social support group necessary to withstand life’s storms. Renato Gipan, who was moved to Rome in order to escape the temptations of vices back home, had to leave a promising job in the Italian countryside after two months because of that “silence”: he didn’t know anyone, nor was he well-acclimated to the local culture.
If this second column of the three-part series on the LSE focuses on the “Blood” and “Sweat”, it is because it remains necessary to remind everyone here in the Philippines that the life of a migrant worker is no picnic. The greener pasture requires a harder uphill climb; the expanded horizon, a longer journey. The decision to emigrate for work may seem a “no-brainer” compared to poorer prospects at home. Yet it is not without painful cost.
The Ateneo School of Government has formed LSE in order to help migrants bear the cost of their exile, and to make it fruitful. The ten overseas workers of “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers” give the program credit in providing not just skill, but inspiration and strength to take charge of their respective overseas destinies. I would rather say that we in ASoG and our partners are glad to have given them the skills, but the strength is all theirs. The toil that brought them to Italy, the blood and sweat, is proof of their strengths; LSE only gave them the opportunity to exercise them.
In the following column, I conclude happily with the “Cheers” of these OFWs: the transformation of exile in Babylon into a new life.
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