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Monday, October 27, 2008

Sheltered Lives

By Luis Carlo S. Liberato
Ruben Jeffrey A. Asuncion

The following article was part of OFWJC's special publication 'Move.' The magazine was given to all delegates of GFMD Philippines.

QUEZON CITY, PHILIPPINES—RAIN is pouring in buckets as Imelda Rebate steps inside the office of Kanlungan Centre Foundation, the oldest nonprofit group for abused women migrant workers.
Across the drenched porch, a younger woman is at a peach-colored table, her head slightly bowed and eyes fixed on an open tattered and yellowing folder.
Her mouth moves while she reads, as if praying silently that this case will not add to the folders of cases –some 248 of them– that remain open.
“Good morning,” Rebate says and the woman, her fellow social worker, waves her fingers in acknowledgement.
Rebate eases forward to the garage that Kanlungan transformed into a conference room where one of the people in those folders, Jennie, is waiting.
Rainwater is seeping on the walls of the 30-year-old bungalow housing the institution that, for two decades, has been helping migrant women in distress like Jennie.
While remittances of these migrant workers shelter the Philippine economy from shocks, Kanlungan has been sheltering those getting shock treatments from their employers.
It has never been an easy work for those like Rebate, a mother of two.
Her pocket planner is filled with appointments, except for Sundays which are saved for her family.
“My schedule is full from Monday to Saturday, especially on Saturdays, when I visit the families.”
Rebate belongs to the latest generation of Kanlungan’s manpower. While the staff of Kanlungan remains small, the bulk of work they do has risen in proportion to the number of women that have left the country for work overseas.
Those whose mothers left two decades ago are now in their teens or nearly as old as Kanlungan.
“While migration may be financially rewarding, it leaves a large gap in terms of family relations.”
Ironically, she adds, these workers try to fill in this gap only through money.
“These workers may earn enough money from their overseas job but the money they sent does not compensate for their absence. Sending money is a short-term measure to fill in the gap in their families.”
Kanlungan tries to fill the gap when the migrant workers’ attempts at compensating that absence don’t work.
“LET’S buckle down to work,” Rebate says to herself before greeting Jennie with a smile that seems she only gives to clients and dispels whatever gloom Jennie has brought together with the rain.
Today, Rebate will review Jennie’s and other “open” cases, some of which date back to the time when Kanlungan’s founder Virginia M. Alunan was still alive.
Alunan, a native of the southernmost Philippine city of Ozamiz, formed the center in 1989 after the increase in the number of Filipino women going abroad for work upped the number of reported cases of abuse.
That time, the Philippines was still recovering from an economy that collapsed after being plundered by President Marcos’s family and cronies.
Had it not been for money sent by overseas Filipino workers, the government of President Corazon Aquino, which replaced Marcos’s, wouldn’t have survived, economists have said.
Pressured to lift their families from the claws of poverty, women left in droves, eclipsing the number of male migrant workers. This characterized the start of the country’s third wave of migration, called the feminization of labor export.
With that, the number of distressed women calling for help also poured like rain in buckets, prompting Alunan and other women activists to rent a house and establish a crisis center.
“We were getting calls up to and long after midnight,” Alunan’s friend and Kanlungan board member Nena Fernandez has said.
“Gina and most of us sometimes just went home to get fresh clothes and come back to the office; the phones ringing even before we place our bags down.”
Gina’s mother, Eufemia Alunan, has said that her daughter would stay out late at night waiting at the airport for hundreds of Filipino domestic workers flown home during the 1991 Gulf War.
The names and files of these workers are still in a computer database of cases that Kanlungan began building in 1990.
It was only five years later that lawmakers would establish formal welfare response structures via Republic Act 8042.
THE story of Jennie, 28, is one of those cases.
This rainy day, she huddles with Rebate to check her progress in getting over her experience in human trafficking.
Jennie, not her real name, was only 16 when she was flown to Kuwait in 1995.
After her rescue and return to the Philippines, Jennie was adopted by a family in a Quezon City village where Kanlungan is active.
“Listen, Jennie, can we at least look at things from a broader perspective? Let’s step back, shall we?” Rebate asks.
She wants to go into business, a burger stand, Rebate will explain later.
But Jennie’s traumatic experience in trafficking is impeding her progress. Her last business, a variety store, went bankrupt.
Rebate says Jennie is asking for P15,000.
After an hour of negotiations, she relents and gives the office the go-signal to release P10,000 to Jennie.
Only three-fourths of that amount is needed if Jennie puts up the business in front of her house and P9,000 if she rents a space, Rebate explains.
After Jennie leaves, “Wilma” arrives. The two women exchange glances briefly but knowingly; the older Wilma, 42, also survived human trafficking.
After working as a domestic helper in Bahrain and Kuwait on slave-wage, I got fed up, Wilma says.
When she got a chance to go home, Wilma did in November 2006.
Like Jennie, she also put up a small business, an eatery, to sustain her family’s daily needs.
“We asked her for a business plan because what she told us over the phone is vague,” Rebate says.
Kanlungan plans to help 80 women victims of trafficking in tapping other sources of income by giving grants or extending loans.
Since starting the program in 2007, Kanlungan has extended help to 24 women.
Funded by the Japanese government, the project will end in January 2009.
Kanlungan helps applicants to be psychologically and emotionally prepared and draft a comprehensive business plan.
KANLUNGAN’S three-bedroom bungalow could be considered a landmark in this tree-lined street in the neighborhood across the bridge from New York Street, Cubao.
The sweet soya factory across the center’s street has long since closed even before Kanlungan expanded its service from crisis intervention to community organizing.
Later on, Kanlungan bought the house and built a second floor where migrant workers can stay for free for a week or two while preparing for their eventual return to their families living outside the city.
Taking cue, the Philippine government’s Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration bought a building and allocated some floors into a halfway home of sorts for both outgoing and returning migrant workers.
While Kanlungan operates on foreign funding, the OWWA uses the money migrant workers pay for insurance and welfare benefit coverage for the government agency’s daily operations.
Rebate has been commuting 60 kilometers everyday to and from her home and the Center. This was not part of her original plan for work after graduation, she says.
With a degree in social work from St. Joseph’s College, Rebate first worked with nongovernment Tanglaw Family Healthcare Project and Philippine National Red Cross for seven years. It was only in 2001 when she joined Kanlungan.
Tanglaw is an advocacy center for children’s rights and welfare while the PNRC is a charity group. Rebate says she applied for the current position she holds today because it was the only one vacant when she was looking for work in 2001.
It takes a lot of experience and interpersonal skill for a person to become an advocate of women migrants’ rights and welfare, she says.
“Also, the work requires us to have an adequate grasp of the laws and issues pertaining to migration; likewise, a great deal of patience in managing migration-related cases.”
That patience allowed Rebate and the Center to organize what they call “Structures of Care” in each of the eight communities in three cities within Metro Manila.
“Structures of Care” are groups that Kanlungan organized in the communities that have high populations of migrant workers’ families, and whose leaders support the move to organize such type of groups.
“The residents help us whenever we face problems during our community organizing activities. In fact, they also refer our group to other nongovernment organizations if the situation is complicated,” Rebate says.
The only major problem that they encounter in their field work is when they are faced with a hostile neighborhood. This was the case during their organizing project in the Salam Mosque compound in Culiat, Quezon City, when, in the course of their reaching out to the residents of the area, they found out that majority of them were illegal recruiters.
THE rain stops and sunlight hits the mural on one of Kanlungan’s concrete walls.
Some of the colors have faded. Chips of cement and cracks on the wall are also noticeable.
Still, it captures the indefatigable spirit of women migrant workers and Kanlungan, the group that tries to shelter them from the storms of labor export.
With several hours still open on her work day, Rebate excuses herself and sits behind a peach-colored table where she places two tattered and yellowing folders.
Her head slightly bowed, she fixes her eyes on one folder and begins writing.
Maybe it is about her talk with Jennie and the other folder about Wilma. The files are kept confidential and only case workers and the lawyer assigned to the case can read these folders.
Her mouth moves while she reads, as if praying silently that this case will not add to the folders of cases that remain open.
Outside the seven-foot walls and the green gates of Kanlungan, the tree-lined neighborhood stirs to life as the sun keeps the rains at bay.
Today, that is a welcome sign.
OFW Journalism Consortium, with the support of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the Philippines

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