ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Far From Home

Filipino migrant workers make untold sacrifices for their families

On Fridays, Mass is standing room only at the English-speaking Sacred Heart Latin Catholic Church in Amman, Jordan. Friday is the Islamic day of rest and it attracts the largest number of parishioners, most of whom work the rest of the week in and around the capital.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem established Sacred Heart parish in 1996 to serve Amman’s swelling Catholic migrant community.

Among the families are a scattering of Europeans and North Americans, most of whom work in the foreign embassies of the posh Jabal Al Weibdeh neighborhood that surrounds the church. A few wear bright salwar kameez, the traditional pajama-like trousers worn by men and women from the Indian subcontinent. The vast majority, however, are Filipino women.

“It was a little strange for me in church at first,” says Father Kevin O’Connell, who has led the parish since its inception 15 years ago. “You’d look out to an entire congregation of women.”

A congenial 67-year-old Jesuit priest from Boston, who wears slacks and sandals under his vestments, Father O’Connell, looks and acts the part of a wise, friendly grandfather.

He helps the choir and he holds the lease on a house where the choir rehearses and other church groups gather. Father O’Connell also oversees the Sacred Heart youth basketball team and helped a group of youngsters from the church secure a space in the Jesuit Fathers’ center where they can breakdance.

Most important, Father O’Connell spends much of his energy responding to the spiritual, emotional and material needs of his predominantly Filipino congregation and other Filipino migrants in the country.

“I understood that the first task was to give people a place where they could be at home,” says Father O’Connell. “For these people, just the ongoing, regular liturgy — with Filipino music, with people reading, with them being able to participate in whatever way they want — gives a strand of consistency and continuity. It’s their home. It’s their place. In most cases, there’s no place else they can gather.”

Though some have jobs at the Philippine Embassy or in international organizations, most are domestic workers. They live in their employers’ homes and work long hours. Many experience intense feelings of loneliness and homesickness. They often have families back home whom they miss desperately.

With few job opportunities in the Philippines and families to support, these women come to the Middle East, where jobs in the “care-giving industry” are plentiful. Motivated by the promise of comparatively high earnings, most of which they intend on sending home to their families, they often accept without complaint long hours, little personal time or freedom and substandard living accommodations.

When the Filipino women attend Mass at Sacred Heart, they make the most of it. Friday’s celebration is usually their only free time all week. They embrace it as a chance to connect with others, speak their native language and openly practice their faith.

Some use it to earn a little extra money. In the churchyard, a woman sells secondhand clothes off a blanket. Nearby, a few others offer snacks, rosaries and bottles of water from the Holy Land. On the street, a couple sells traditional Filipino food from the hatchback of their old, blue Renault.

The Filipino parishioners of Sacred Heart count themselves among the lucky ones. They at least work for employers who allow them to take time off and go to church.

Many Filipino migrants in Jordan work for families who do not allow them any personal freedom. Some workers are victims of abuse.

The church raises money to purchase blankets, mattresses and other basics for domestic workers who have fled their employers’ homes and taken refuge at the Philippine Embassy.

Sacred Heart is the only church in Jordan with a significant number of Filipino parishioners. On Christmas and Easter, as many as 3,000 Filipinos attend Mass.

Jordan’s Ministry of Labor records some 14,000 Filipino guest workers, only about 500 of which are men. Officials at the Philippine Embassy, however, estimate at least twice as many undocumented migrants live in the country. Most are observant Latin Catholics, yet only the tiny fraction at Sacred Heart and a few in other parishes attend church regularly.

“There was a whole other group of them that I never saw, and I only gradually became aware of how many there were,” says Father O’Connell. “There’s a lot of Filipinos here whose employers do not allow them personal freedom.”

The Jordanian government issues a legal work permit to an individual “sponsored,” or recruited, by a Jordanian employer. These permits stipulate that the foreign national can work for only the sponsor and no one else.

For the most part, Jordanian families sponsor Filipino women to work as live-in nannies and housekeepers. Families often require the women to make themselves available around the clock to care for infants and small children in addition to keeping the home clean and cooking meals. Most have very few, if any, personal days.

“Employers have absolute power within the household,” writes Elizabeth Frantz, a program officer for the Open Society International Migration Initiative in London, who has researched migrant workers in Jordan since 2006. “Guest workers can be disciplined by the threat of deportation and lack the right to quit, strike or organize.”

An alarming number of domestic workers find themselves literally held captive in abusive households. Women may not be paid the full wages promised before their arrival. Some are not paid at all. Others do not receive adequate room and board as defined by law. They may not eat regular meals and their sleeping quarters may be nothing more than a mattress on the kitchen or laundry room floor.

“When they hire a domestic who comes from Indonesia or Sri Lanka or the Philippines into their family, this is a woman who is doing something that they find is demeaning in the extreme,” explains Father O’Connell. “It’s easy for them to mistrust the maid and to assume she has low sexual boundaries, because that’s what they’d be afraid of for their own daughters if they were in a similar context.”

Mass media spotlighted the mistreatment of Jordan’s Filipino domestic workers for the first time in 2005, when 23-year-old Filipino worker Jennifer Perez fell from a window of her employer’s home. The fall broke her spine and left her paralyzed from the neck down. The young woman had just arrived in Jordan hours earlier.

According to her account, she said the wife tried to confiscate her cellphone, which she brought with her to stay in touch with her family. When she refused, the two struggled and the woman pushed her off the balcony.

The employer claimed Ms. Perez attempted suicide.

Ms. Perez returned to the Philippines shortly after her release from the hospital, but died a few weeks later of complications from her injuries. Her parents filed a suit in Jordanian court against the employer, but found it unfeasibly difficult and expensive to pursue.

The incident sparked intense scrutiny of the status of migrant workers’ rights in Jordan. Independent investigations revealed a shocking number of allegations of abuse against migrant domestic workers. Jordanian authorities, however, did little to remedy the situation.

In 2008, as reports of abuse continued to mount, the Philippine government instituted a ban on its citizens from working in Jordan. Experts, however, believe the ban has backfired.

Filipino migrants still come to Jordan in droves, but now most do so illegally. In general, they enter on tourist visas or clandestinely by way of a third country. Neither registered with the Jordan Ministry of Labor nor with the Philippine consulate, these migrants are even more susceptible to abuse. Fearful of deportation, many silently endure human rights violations.

Other parties to the problem are the international staffing agencies, through which Jordanians recruit Filipino domestic workers. The agencies charge considerable fees upfront for their services, sometimes as much as $2,800. These high fees make some employers fearful the domestic workers they hire will run away before they have worked off the initial investment. Such fears often contribute to a family’s decision to restrict the worker’s personal freedom as well as to extract as much labor from the individual as possible.

The situation in Jordan is by no means unique in the Middle East. Families in countries throughout the region sponsor foreign migrants, especially Filipinos, to work as nannies and housekeepers under similar circumstances and with comparable incidences of abuse.

These days, more Middle Eastern women hold advanced degrees and participate in their countries’ workforce. In an effort to juggle their careers with their roles as homemakers and mothers, many rely on domestic laborers.

However, few Middle Eastern women can or are willing to fill these positions, since, culturally, members of all social strata frown on the domestic workforce; even if a woman considers taking such a job, her husband or relatives will usually prohibit her. As a result, families generally turn to international staffing agencies when seeking a nanny or housekeeper.

I think it’s important not to just think that Jordanians are terrible people,” says Father O’Connell. “The difficulty of this type of labor is that it’s done where the government cannot supervise it. In any country, it’s going to be difficult.

“There are people who have worked here 20 or 25 years, who have either initially or eventually found employment situations as domestic workers which are terrific,” continues Father O’Connell. “They don’t like being away from their family, but they’re treated with respect. They earn sufficient money that they can send home. They have, maybe, some independence here as well. They have leadership roles within the Filipino community. So there are some people for whom it’s a wonderful experience.”

One such worker is 53-year-old Betty Hizon. Originally from a small town on the Filipino island of Luzon, she has lived and worked in Jordan for nearly two decades. Though she has struggled with living away from her family, she never experienced abuse by her employers.

After high school, she studied at a two-year college. At the age of 20, she married her husband, who worked as an engineer for the Philippine government. A year later, she gave birth to the first of her six children.

She first thought to leave home to work when her husband lost his engineering job and could only find low-paying work as a driver.

“How could we raise our children if I let my husband work alone?” she recalls. “But in the Philippines, it’s hard to find a job.”

One day, she received a message from a cousin, who had been working as a nanny in Jordan and wanted to return to the Philippines. The employer still needed a live-in domestic, and her cousin recommended Mrs. Hizon. The family immediately hired her.

“It is really difficult to make the decision, especially when your children are still young,” she says. “My oldest was only 12 when I left.”

Though the family treated her well, they paid her only $150 a month. After a number of years, she landed her current, better paying position as a nanny for a different family.

“I treat the children as if they were my own, because I am a mother,” she says, as her voice cracks and her eyes fill with tears. For the first seven years in Jordan, she never once visited home. At the end of every two-year contract, her employers have always offered her a round-trip ticket to the Philippines. Instead, she preferred to send home the value of the plane fare in cash.

“I needed to save the extra money, for the sake of my children,” she says.

For many years, she did not have access to international calling, much less a cellphone. She communicated with her family exclusively by mail, which required a month for delivery.

“Every time I read the letter from my children, I always cried,” she remembers.

The money she sends home, however, has allowed her family to live reasonably well and has helped put her children through school.

“I cannot say we are rich. But, we certainly eat three times a day,” she says with a laugh.

As soon as her last child finishes school, she hopes to return to the Philippines. Her children have promised to take care of her in retirement. Until then, she intends to continue working in Jordan as long as she can.

“If somebody needs me here to work, then O.K. I’m still going to grab whatever opportunity comes my way,” she says.

Though she is close to her children, the years of separation have affected their relationship.

“Sometimes they don’t treat me as their mom,” she says. “I am more of a big sister. But it’s O.K. Even if I’m far from them, I’m happy because I know they are growing up well.”

An active member in Sacred Heart parish, Mrs. Hizon directs the choir and helps organize the collections. She takes her duties seriously and always wears her finest clothes to Friday’s Mass.

“Without prayers, I probably would have left by now,” she says. “I am all alone. It’s really hard: thinking about your children and working in someone else’s house — until midnight, even when you are tired. And sometimes, people yell at you. So maybe God has given me the strength to stay for so long, to work for my children.”

On Thursday nights, Father O’Connell heads across town to the Tla’a Al Ali neighborhood. He arrives at a plain stone building nestled on a windswept hill.

An extension of the Philippine Embassy designated for cultural affairs, in reality it serves as a shelter. At any given time, anywhere between 100 and 200 Filipino migrant workers, mostly female domestics, reside in the building.

Some have fled abusive employers, but most cite nonpayment of wages as the main reason why they left their jobs. As runaways, they are considered in breach of their work contracts under Jordanian law and no longer have the right to work in the country. Repatriating them is a complicated process, involving possible hefty fines and other legal and diplomatic wrangling. Some have lived at the shelter for years, waiting for official clearance to return home.

Father O’Connell proceeds to one of its administrative offices. He heads to an old desk at the front of the room. Atop the desk sit several small statues of the Virgin Mary in between an outdated computer monitor and a cheap, cardboard desk calendar.

The priest smiles at the some 35 Filipino women who have gathered in the small room. Some are middle-aged, but most are very young. Sitting on stackable plastic chairs, they gaze eagerly at the priest. From behind the desk, which also serves as an altar, he begins Mass.

For these migrant women, Mass offers them the spiritual solace they need to cope with the despair that otherwise can fill their daily routine. During the Rite of Peace, the women hug each other and laugh freely. At the celebration’s end, they applaud and cheer. New arrivals often cry, moved by the joy of their first Mass in months.

In recent years, the Philippine Embassy has served as a community center for Filipino migrants in Jordan: a place where they can meet and socialize as well as share information, such as job and housing opportunities. Its staff often collaborates with church members to organize activities, such as the summer sports competition held at the local Catholic school.

“This place is desolate. There is no place to have fun,” says Noli Pugay, a Filipino man, who manages the embassy’s small basketball league. “It’s burdensome and tiring and many people get homesick. We just try to lessen that.”

Years ago, before the embassy took the lead, the Teresian Association, a religious and lay institute of men and women, ran a shelter for runaway Filipino migrants. Today, the Teresians, some of whom are Filipino, still offer counseling in their apartment. They also run the library of the Pontifical Mission in Amman, CNEWA’s operating agency in the region.

As leaders in Sacred Heart parish, the Teresians teach catechism as well as job skills to the congregation’s many domestic workers.

“We teach them how to cook, set the table, those sort of things,” says Teresian Elisa Estrada.

“But more important, we guide them spiritually and psychologically. We teach them how to integrate into a new culture — one that is completely different from their culture.”

Contributor Nicholas Seeley covers events in the Middle East.

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