Sunday, January 4, 2009

01-04-09: The sacrifice of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW)s

We post real stories of overseas foreign workers, their sacrifices and their trials as they fund the economy of the Philippines and provide for their families. Read about their hardships and why Bacolod Beat considers them the greatest citizens of the land.

The story is copied from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 2 published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW).

Just call me “Tata.”

Ever since childhood I had dreamt of working abroad, for no other reason than to help my family rise from poverty. I am the seventh of 10 children so when my older siblings got married one after the other, I became my parents’ only hope.

As a child, I had moved away from home and stayed with my grandparents. It was the only way I could go to school and pursue my education. I stayed with them until I got my high school diploma. During those days I felt resentment toward my parents fro not supporting me. Unlike my other siblings I was the only one who had to work for my own education. But just the same, I was so concerned about their needs that when I was big enough to serve as a helper in a bakery, I saved all my earnings and gave all of them to my parents. If there was extra, I would buy things we needed in our home like rice and other food items.

I got to attend college through the support of an uncle who was a seaman. Again, I lived with another family as my own parents had no means to support me. With them, I was able to finish a degree in education although not without difficulties. My aunt would pretend to treat me nicely when my uncle was around but otherwise looked down upon me as a servant who was supposed to do all the house chores most of the time. I did no t mind all these hardships for I believed the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to work abroad was almost at reach.

In college, I met friend who had similar hopes and interests. We would sit down together planning how we would go about pursuing our dreams. While reviewing for the license examinations for teachers I usually accompany my friends to the province's capital to scout for overseas job openings. I did not tell my aunt and uncle that I was not taking the exam and simply kept the money that was supposed to be paid for the review. I would leave home early as if I would attend the review so they would not be suspicious and return in the afternoon supposedly after the end of the class.

When I was able to save P1,500, I told my aunt i was going to Manila and no longer taking the license exam. Apparently, she did not like the idea. She said I was being ungrateful. Her words were painful but I was already firm on my resolve to seek employment abroad. I could not allow anything more to hinder me from fulfilling my dreams.

Together with two friends, we sailed from Bacolod to Manila without any idea of what to do or how we were going to do it. I realized soon enough that applying for a job abroad is a tedious, stressful, and heart-breaking process.

I stayed with my sister in Tagatay City for the time being. At 2 a.m. when most people were just about to enjoy their sleep, I was already on a bus bound for Manila to start my journey for the day. The purpose for being early was not only to avoid traffic but also to become among the first job seekers lining for a chance to be considered for overseas work. Even during lunch break, I did not bother getting any food just to keep my slot in the queue. If someone missed his turn, there was not second chance. He has to repeat the process all over again, from the filling of forms to the submission of copies of pertinent documents. Most of the time, I carried bottled water and biscuits to keep me going for the entire day. Money did not come easy either. I had to ask for assistance from my sister who at that time was earning just enough for the needs of her own family. I had to manage with a P100 a day for my food and transportation.

Among the jobs that I applied for I considered only two positions and both were in Taiwan. I passed the written examinations for the first but failed the interview. The disappointing experience almost crushed my hope. But it was not enough to crush my dream so I made another attempt. This time, I passed both the exams and the interview. However, there was yet one more hurdle to overcome. It was the P45,000 placement fee that I had to pay before I can be deployed to Taiwan. I had no choice but ask my sister for help since there was no one else to turn to. But given her own financial condition it was clearly beyond her capacity to come out with such amount. My sister was working in the municipal hall and she did not want to be indebted to other persons, especially those she "knew." Mustering all courage, I approached my sister's boss who happened to be the mayor of Tagaytay City. I told him my situation and gave my word that I would pay him back immediately. Fortunately, the kind of mayor lent me the money without qualms or questions.

I started to work in a factory in Taiwan in 1999. Being away from home was not new to me so homesickness did not become much of an issue. All the while I thought it would be the fulfillment of my dreams of a better life. Soon, however, I discovered it was only the beginning of many trials. The pay policy of the company I was working for was oppressive to workers and we worked almost for free. But I endured all these for the sake of my dreams. With perseverance, I was able to send my younger siblings to college and pay all the debts I owed for my deployment. After my three-year contract I went home to the Philippines with hardly any saving for myself. But still I did not give up.

Applying for another work overseas was like starting all over again. I prayed hard that I would be lucky this time. I went about job-hunting and eventually used up every single penny of what I earned in the three years I spent in Taiwan. I even had to pawn the little jewelry I bought from my hard earned money. I got a job but not for long. After working for only six months, the factory where I was working in Taiwan closed down and we were all sent back to the Philippines. I nearly lost hope, even to the point of blaming God for all my misfortunes.

I was out of work for almost two years. At that time I felt so hopeless I was already telling myself I really have no luck as an overseas worker. But something in me did not want to give up so I tried again.

In March 2004, I registered at the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) for work in Korea. I did not really expect to be chosen so when I made it to their list I could not contain my joy -- I am going to Korea! I did not even mind if I had to wait for another year to get my visa.

I left on August 23, 2005, anxious and excited. God knows how hard I prayed for a job that will suit my capabilities, an employer who will treat me with compassion, and a reasonable salary that will allow for a comfortable life.

I thought my prayers were answered when I was employed immediately after I arrived. Just after six months, I was able to buy a lot and have our house renovated. It was also at work where I met my boyfriend. However, we were not able to spend a long time together because his contract had already expired and he was already about to go back to the Philippines. But before he left he told me about his plans of settling down and spending our future together. In an instant I knew my dreams were coming true at last.

Suddenly, something unexpected happened - something that will haunt my memories forever.

It was July 2, 2006, around 9:20 p.m.. I was walking home on my way to the dormitory when all of a sudden a stranger blocked my path. He was Korean and he was very drunk. I shouted and started running but he ran after me and grabbed me. I struggled furiously until a fist caught my stomach and left me squirming in pain. My attacker grabbed my hands and dragged me behind one of the buildings. There he bound my hands and drowned my wailing with packing tape. He brought me in an empty lot behind another building where he raped me several times. I could not do anything, afraid that he would kill me. The only thing I could do was pray.

He violated me many times - I died as many times. Not contented, he beat me so hard my jaw literally broke to pieces. Afterward, he threw me into a manhole and left me for dead. I do not know really how I was able to survive. The only thing I am certain is that faith kept me breathing. Indeed, nothing is impossible with God.

I had to stay in the hospital for a month. My jaw had to be reconstructed as the violent beating shattered it to pieces. Until the man was caught, I feared being alone. All Korean men seemed to look like him.

The Filipino community in Korea, however, gave me moral and material support. Filipino workers from around the country who heard the news came in droves to offer their sympathy and care. Some Koreans also came to offer their apologies and express their regret about the horrendous act committed by one of their fellowmen.

For some time I felt completely helpless, frightened and angry. Yet somehow something inside me was telling me not to give up the fight. With the help of social workers from Moyse (Daejeon Diocese Migrants' Pastoral Service Center) and the Cheonan Women Center, I brought my battle for justice to court. I was also given professional counseling to help me overcome he trauma and depression.

Nevertheless, the tragic events continued to haunt me, especially at night. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night sweating and struggling to breath. My attacker is still strangling me in my nightmares. I am scared to go out alone at night. I cannot even go to the toilet on my own.

I met my attacker again, this time in court in the summer of 2006. It was not yet time to confront the culprit but the social worker handling the case thought it better for met to have a feel of how it is to come face to face with my assailant. I agreed for I also wanted to make sure that he was under the control of the authorities since they did not approve our previous request to see him in jail.

When I saw him again I could not contain myself. The tragic events that fateful night became so vividly clear again as if reenacted before my eyes. I felt so afraid even though dozens of policemen and security personnel were escorting the criminal. I knew I had to prepare myself psychologically and emotionally for the next encounter.

I requested a closed-door session for my oral testimony. A social worker and an interpreter assisted me in my narration. Except for the social worker, an interpreter and the defendant, only the judges and the lawyers were allowed inside the courtroom. I gave my testimony in between sobs but persisted knowing that I was fighting for my honor and dignity.

My attacker was meted with 10 years of imprisonment. Afterwards, I decided to take a month-long vacation in the Philippines. Inevitable, I had to relive the horror once more as I recounted my ordeal to the people who mattered most to me. Learning about what happened, everybody felt strongly against my going back to Korea. Admittedly, I myself was having second thoughts.

But seeing how life has remained harsh for my family - the monthly medications my aging father had to take, our unfinished house, my plans of settling down with the man I love - making a choice ultimately became easier. I will never allow my family to wallow again in poverty or to be humiliated and looked down upon by their own kin for being poor.

Sometime after I returned to Korea, I landed a job that was not as physically demanding and stressful. Slowly, I was able to cope with the trauma. But no matter what I do, things are no longer the way they used to be. I am still gripped by fear every now and then. I became overly suspicious of strangers. I cannot go out at night without a companion, especially in the evening.

I also became sensitive and reactive to comments by people who cannot understand what I had gone through. Wounds may heal but the scars remain. If I would have my way, I would wish none of these to have happened. All I want now is to put the tragic event behind me.

Looking back, I realized that the dreams I have now were the same ones that made me hold on to life when I was being violated. In my mind I pictured my boyfriend and our future, my family who was all depending on me, and my dreams of a life out of poverty. My death would have meant the end of everything. "No, I cannot die - not in his hands," I told myself. I had to live so my family may continue to live.

For those who are planning to work abroad, perseverance and endurance are very important. Not everything we hope for will happen the way we wanted. On the contrary, many things can happen unexpectedly and they can easily weaken our resolve. We have to believe in God and keep our faith in him despite all the difficulties.

My fiance is now an overseas contract worker in Canada. We continue to find ways to fulfill the dreams we shared together. Now, I only wish for nothing more than to be reunited with him, settle down for good, and raise a family.

My father is very proud of the home I built from my sweat and blood. I even provided my siblings modest sources of livelihood. The brother I sent to college is now a seaman and is helping me support our family. Together we are supporting the education of two nieces. From time to time, I give financial support to a younger sister who is applying for a job overseas. Migration has become a familiar aspect of our family now. It has brought us a life of dignity and economic fulfillment.

Of late, however, I am feeling exhausted. Sometimes I feel it is time to work for my own future. But in the meantime my journey continues, moving on until I find that place I may finally call home.

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