THE FILIPINOS WHO CAN’T GO HOME

There are more than 2,000 un­doc­u­mented Filipino work­ers in Ire­land, many of them moth­ers mind­ing Irish chil­dren, but un­able to see their own – of­ten for years on end

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Mar­garet Ward in the Philip­pines

Malasiqui, north of Manila

Oc­to­ber 2018

Jol­libee is a red and yel­low fast food joint with a branch in every town. Ev­ery­one around me is eat­ing fried chicken, though it’s only 10am. I’m wait­ing for a small boy who hasn’t seen his mother since he was two years old.

Nine- year- old Matthew bounces in, wear­ing a green and white track­suit, drag­ging a Light­ning McQueen school­bag be­hind him. “Can I have a soda?” I’m im­pressed with his English. “I learned it through YouTube.”

Matthew’s aunt has just picked him up from school, a place he has mixed feel­ings about. “I was bul­lied for a while, so I stayed at home. Then I learned on YouTube that if you don’t go to school, you can’t be a sci­en­tist.”

He slurps his soda. “I’d like to tele­port to the past so our mum is still with us.”

I had met Matthew’s mother Alma at a Filipino fi­esta in New­bridge, Co Kil­dare. Over roast suck­ling pig and pork adobo, Alma told me she had been a teacher in The Philip­pines, but that life changed dra­mat­i­cally when her hus­band had an ac­ci­dent.

“He was badly in­jured, which re­sulted in chaos, and fi­nan­cial prob­lems. I came on a tourist visa in 2011, and I’m still here. If I go home I can’t come back.”

Alma works as a carer for a woman in her 90s – “we can still play Scrab­ble”. While there are thou­sands of Filipinos in Ire­land legally ( and many now also have Irish cit­i­zen­ship), it’s es­ti­mated there are more than 2,000 un­doc­u­mented work­ers, many of them car­ers.

Alma started off mind­ing chil­dren. “Once I in­tro­duced the Irish kids I was mind­ing to my kids on Face­time. My youngest asked me are those your chil­dren . . .” A tear es­capes from one eye. “It’s very hard. I can’t hug my own kids.”

Matthew and I head back to the com­pound where he lives with his dad and sib­lings, grand­mother and other rel­a­tives. We sit in the liv­ing room, un­der a faded wed­ding photo of Alma and Robin.

A phone rings. It’s Alma on Mes­sen­ger, in her py­ja­mas in Dublin. It’s three in the morn­ing in Ire­land.

“Hi ev­ery­one! What are you hav­ing for lunch?”

“Ma, I need money to pay my fi­nal exam on Mon­day,” says Mark, who’s 20. “Okay, okay,” “Ma, I for­got to an­swer one of the ques­tions in the exam.” Matthew is al­most in­side the phone.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “you will be fine.”

Some­one moves Alma onto the ta­ble and props her up­right.

“Some­times she will be on the phone for three hours in the evening,” says Robin.

The con­ver­sa­tions aren’t nec­es­sar­ily one on one, and aren’t al­ways con­tin­u­ous. Rather Alma is a sort of ex­tra- ter­res­trial, ex­tra per­son in the room. An ab­sent pres­ence, a present ab­sence. The screen freezes. “Con­nec­tion lost.” Robin, who’s wear­ing a pur­ple Dublin T-shirt, lifts up his trouser leg to show me his pros­thetic leg. “We have a loan be­cause of the ac­ci­dent. I’m also hav­ing dial­y­sis. There are so many loans, the let­ters from the bank keep com­ing.”

The phone rings again. It’s Alma. “The longer I study the longer she has to stay there,” says Mark. “I still have two years to go.” He looks down at the phone. “Some­times I feel bad about it, I thought she would only be gone, like, one year.”

The screen freezes. “Con­nec­tion lost.” Again.

Pa­tri­cian School Hall, New­bridge

Septem­ber 2018

Con­nec­tion is what keeps Filipinos go­ing, far from home. Like Irish em­i­grants of old, they co­a­lesce around churches, and re­li­gious events. Most of the peo­ple at this fi­esta in New­bridge are from the same small town called Tan­gub. The day be­gan with Mass, at­tended by more than 200 peo­ple, and is con­tin­u­ing with a feast of Filipino food.

Most are le­gal, hav­ing ar­rived dur­ing the Celtic tiger era when work per­mits were read­ily avail­able for work­ers from non-EU coun­tries. Ire­land needed nurses and car­ers, and Filipinos seemed par­tic­u­larly suited to the task.

Flor leaves her home in Naas for Lim­er­ick every Sun­day night and comes back on Fri­day. She’s a carer for an 86- year- old woman who has de­men­tia. “It’s a tough job, but she is very kind. The Irish are good.”

Flor’s hus­band came to Ire­land in 2002, and she joined him in 2006. They’re both now Irish ci­ti­zens. She has been able to send her chil­dren to school and col­lege in the Philip­pines.

“Life there is dif­fi­cult. You can’t build a house, have a car, pay for study.”

Cru­cially, she can travel home oc­ca­sion­ally to visit her fam­ily.

There’s one woman at the fi­esta who seems to know ev­ery­body. Ed­wine Costello, known to ev­ery­one as Gaga, first came to Ire­land in 1988. She mar­ried an Ir­ish­man and set up a re­cruit­ment agency. She reck­ons she brought 600 Filipinos to work here legally be­tween 2001 and 2009.

“Green Isle Foods, Comer­ford’s Bak­ery, Ash­ford Cas­tle . . . I am proud to say many of them are Irish ci­ti­zens now, mar­ried with mort­gages, and do­ing very well.”

Costello is aware of those here with­out papers, but says she can’t get them work per­mits. “It all fin­ished in 2009. If you are un­doc­u­mented here, and are no trou­ble, they will leave you alone. But there have been a few cases of ar­gu­ments where Filipinos have re­ported against each other, and they’ve been de­ported.”

Maria and Clay went to school to­gether in Tan­gub and dis­cov­ered on Friend­ster that they were both in Ire­land. Like Flor, they work as car­ers.

The dif­fer­ence is they are both il­le­gal, or un­doc­u­mented. Filipinos have adopted the ter­mi­nol­ogy that Irish politi­cians use to lobby for the reg­u­lar­i­sa­tion of Irish ci­ti­zens in the US, who are in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.

Maria hasn’t been home for 10 years. “My fa­ther died two years ago, but I couldn’t go home. You have to deal with it.

If I went I prob­a­bly I wouldn’t get back in. My kids have a bet­ter life here and I have to think of them.”

Clay has cared for sev­eral dif­fer­ent el­derly peo­ple in her time here, as in­evitably some go into a nurs­ing home, or die. “The last woman, I was with her when she died. I minded her for three years and it was hard let­ting her go. I’m still in touch with that fam­ily.”

The work can be tough and lonely, as many of those she has looked af­ter had de­men­tia. “You need all the tricks. You have to sing every song you ever knew. Some­times you have to dance.”

Clay and Maria are both con­scious they are car­ing for older Irish peo­ple, while be­ing un­able to care di­rectly for their own par­ents. “My fa­ther doesn’t want to see me on video call, he just wants to talk,” says Clay. “He gets too up­set if he sees me.”

The bond with home is a com­plex one, and the ba­lik­bayan gift box, shipped by sea for Christ­mas, is an im­por­tant link. “It’s some­thing they look for­ward to, says Maria. “We start buy­ing stuff in the sales on St Stephens’s Day!”

“There will be dif­fer­ent parcels for nieces and neph­ews,” says Clay. “Every time you buy some­thing, you are think­ing of them.”

Tan­gub, Min­danao

Oc­to­ber 2018

“The ba­lik­bayan is sup­posed to ar­rive by Christ­mas, but it will be here by early March.” Clay’s fa­ther is laugh­ing. “Presents for the kids, some­times things like lun­cheon meat that we can get here, but we are not go­ing to send it back! Oh, and here, look.”

He leads me to the hall in his house on the out­skirts of Tan­gub. “All my shoes have come from Ire­land.”

His eyes moisten. “We miss her, but that is her life now.”

Tan­gub is a small city on Min­danao, an is­land Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Duterte has put un­der mar­tial law. Here, poverty is soft­ened by bougainvil­lea, and cush­ioned by re­mit­tances sent back by the es­ti­mated 1,000 Tan­gubanon liv­ing abroad, many in Ire­land.

“Clay has been very good to us,” says her brother, over cof­fee and cas­sava cake. “She’s sup­port­ing us fi­nan­cially, es­pe­cially for my mother’s med­i­cal ex­penses.”

The med­i­ca­tion alone costs more than ¤100 a week, a for­tune in the Philip­pines. “But our big wish is that she could come home. A few times we’ve thought my mother is go­ing to pass away, but thank­fully she is still alive.”

Clay’s fam­ily di­rect us to Maria’s fam­ily home. Her mother greets me with cold drinks and a small, shy smile. She lives with two of Maria’s seven broth­ers, but misses Maria be­cause “she is the only girl”.

“She’s car­ing for an old woman. She moved her whole life there, to make money.” Her foot taps on the floor. “I’ve only seen her chil­dren on Skype, for Christ­mas and birth­days. I al­ways ask her when she is com­ing back.”

One of Maria’s broth­ers is an elec­tri­cian on a cruise ship, but even he man­aged to get home when their fa­ther died. “It’s hard for Maria, to be alone when fam­ily things hap­pen. Even for our dad’s wake she was not here. It was re­ally sad and our mother was very dis­ap­pointed.”

He has man­aged to get a con­tract on a ship that will visit Dublin twice next year. “I’ll prob­a­bly only have a few hours off, but at least I will get to see her, for the first time in 10 years.”

Maria’s friend Joy has also been in Ire­land for 10 years, leav­ing her chil­dren and hus­band be­hind. Joy’s house is big­ger than its neigh­bours and was built with the money she has earned in Ire­land, but she has never seen it. Her daugh­ter Chris­tine trans­lates, as we sit down to a Filipino feast of lo­cal shrimp, pork stew and rice.

“We were a poor fam­ily. We could never have gone to col­lege if our mother stayed here.”

Joy’s hus­band Wil­frid ex­plains that she tried to go to Ire­land legally when work per­mits were still avail­able, but says she was scammed by a lo­cal re­cruit­ment agent he called “Joe”.

“Joe” later ar­ranged a tourist visa for an-

If I went I prob­a­bly I wouldn’t get back in. My kids have a bet­ter life here and I have to think of them

other large fee. “We took out a loan for that,” he says.

On the dresser are pho­tos of two of their sons in mer­chant marine uni­forms. They both stud­ied sea­far­ing. Chris­tine is study­ing med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy. But the youngest, Kurt Jay, has only started high school. He was only three when his mother left.

Wil­frid ruf­fles his son’s hair, as Chris­tine cal­cu­lates. “Five more years of high school and four of col­lege. Maybe she will have to stay nine more years, less if the older ones can help.”

More than 12 mil­lion Filipinos are “Over­seas Filipino Work­ers”, and many of them are women in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. “Cul­tur­ally, it’s the role of the woman to save the fam­ily,” says Dr Sylvia E Clau­dio, dean of the Col­lege of So­cial Work at the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines.

“There is a lot of mis­ery and home­sick­ness, but this is not aban­don­ment, but a ful­fil­ment of the role of the mother. You will see to the sur­vival of your fam­ily, no mat­ter the cost to your­self.”

A woman who works with the fam­i­lies of mi­grants in Tan­gub tells me there can be a high so­cial cost. “Many of the men are in other re­la­tion­ships, and the chil­dren know it. We have a say­ing here, ‘suma ka­bi­lang buhay’, which means some­one has died and moved on to the next life. But they say their fa­thers are ‘ suma ka­bi­lang ba­hay’ – gone to the next house. It’s not a good model for chil­dren.”

And she says it’s tough on the over­seas women in other ways. “They will tell me that peo­ple will call them when they need money, but they won’t ask how they are feel­ing. Some­times they just need some­one to call them to say hello.”

Flight: Manila-Dubai-Dublin

Novem­ber 2018

Trav­el­ling home, on the same route most women use to get to Ire­land, I’m very con­scious I had an op­por­tu­nity to visit their fam­i­lies when they can­not, and to come and go as I please.

“Lots of peo­ple want to go home,” says Alma. “They can’t bear the pain. When we meet in our church group, some­times we cry and cry.”

Mi­grant Rights Cen­tre Ire­land (MRCI) is call­ing for a scheme to al­low those here for more than four years to come for­ward and reg­u­larise their sta­tus.

“In th­ese par­tic­u­lar cases, it’s about how much do we value car­ing,” says He­len Lowry of MRCI. “This is es­sen­tial work and th­ese jobs are not be­ing filled by Irish or EU/EEA work­ers.”

“The re­al­ity is that mi­gra­tion is reg­u­lated to suit the needs of ad­vanced cap­i­tal­ism,” says Clau­dio. “States may have an anti- im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, but in this case they need ac­tual women to cross bor­ders to take care of ac­tual peo­ple. You can’t get a ro­bot to do it, and you can’t send your old peo­ple here.”

Cur­rently, the only op­tion for an un­doc­u­mented per­son is to ap­ply to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice for per­mis­sion to re­main, which is de­cided on a case- by- case ba­sis. MRCI says this isn’t a so­lu­tion, as it essen­tially means trig­ger­ing a de­por­ta­tion or­der.

The per­son can then ap­peal on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds, but this is com­pletely at the dis­cre­tion of the Min­is­ter and can be a high-risk strat­egy. How­ever it’s one Alma has now de­cided to pur­sue.

MRCI says there is pub­lic sup­port for peo­ple in this sit­u­a­tion. “Irish fam­i­lies are cry­ing out for so­lu­tions for their car­ers,” says Lowry. “Peo­ple want to die at home.”

I can’t help but no­tice one gap­ing cul­tural dif­fer­ence; in all the Filipino fam­i­lies I vis­ited, older peo­ple were liv­ing with one or more of their chil­dren. Nurs­ing homes, or the idea of a stranger car­ing for a par­ent, are vir­tu­ally un­known.

As the plane lands in Dublin, the im­age in my mind is of Alma’s mother, sit­ting in her yard in her pink dress, hold­ing a cane topped with pink flow­ers.

She worked as a do­mes­tic helper in Hong Kong when she was younger, but at least she could come home once a year to see Alma and her other chil­dren.

The cy­cle is con­tin­u­ing but at a greater cost. Says Alma’s mother: “I re­ally want her to come back be­cause I am sick. So many years I haven’t seen her.” There’s one fat tear on her cheek. “I want Alma to come home be­fore I die.”

Some names have been changed

Above: Joy’s fam­ily, in­clud­ing 13-year old Kurt Jay, who was three when his mother Joy left for Ire­land. Below: Alma’s fam­ily at their home in the Philip­pines, in­clud­ing nine-year-old Matthew

This ar­ti­cle was sup­ported by a grant from the Si­mon Cum­bers Me­dia Fund

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