ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Far From Home

Migrant workers find solace amid hardship in Jordan

Rhea Fernando was 22 years old when she left her home country to work 5,500 miles away. She was in the middle of a nursing degree when she decided to drop out to help her parents, who were struggling financially.

“Of course, you are innocent,” says Ms. Fernando, laughing nervously and recalling her first years in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as a domestic worker. “You don’t know what is going on. I didn’t know what I would work as or what I would do.”

Ms. Fernando, now 40, is one of thousands of Filipinos who move to the Middle East every year in search of employment, signing up as housemaids, nannies, caregivers, shop assistants and cleaners. She found a job in Jordan through a recruitment agency in Manila that connects Filipinos to domestic work abroad.

“When I was on the plane, I was thinking, ‘Lord, hopefully the employer will not do something to me, like rape, something like this,’ ” she says. Her fears were not unfounded; human rights groups have documented rape among the various crimes and forms of abuse frequently suffered by migrant workers worldwide.

The recruitment agency placed Ms. Fernando with a Jordanian couple in Amman, the capital city. She adhered diligently to their requests to care for their two sons, cook, clean and, at times, give the wife and husband massages. It was more than a full-time job, she says. She worked seven days a week with only five hours of sleep each night; she was paid $150 a month.

Her working conditions were typical of Jordan’s “kafala system,” a structure of employment for foreign workers used in the Gulf nations, Lebanon and Jordan. According to the latest figures from the International Labor Organization in 2019, there are 24.1 million migrant workers in 12 states in the Middle East.

The workers, often from socioeconomically depressed countries in Africa and Asia, commonly enter a legally binding contract — for an initial two-year period, in the case of Jordan — which grants the employer full control over the employee’s working and living conditions, including work hours, time off, the terms for resignation and their movement within the country.

“When you go to church you have peace. Church is one of the only ways to ease your pain, anxiety or anything you have as a burden on your heart.”

At face value, the system seems adequate. For example, an employer will cover living and travel expenses, with most domestic workers living in their employer’s home. After the first two years, the employee has the right to renew their contract, find new employment or return to their country of origin. However, human rights groups say this system has created ripe conditions for physical, mental and sexual abuse, exploitation and racism.

Migrant worker Leonida Pagsuguiron, left, is living at her friend’s house. They are sitting on a bed.
Migrant worker Leonida Pagsuguiron, left, is living at her friend’s house and receiving assistance from the Teresian Association for her needs, as she recovers from an illness. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Jordan’s labor laws stipulate that foreign workers are entitled to one day off per week, that passports should not be confiscated and working hours should not exceed eight per day, but routinely the legislation is violated. Employees are often trapped in jobs in which they are overworked, restricted from communication with the outside world, limited in their access to food and denied personal time.

Ms. Fernando recalls wrapping up leftover bread and hiding it in the trash can to eat secretly at night. It was usual for her “madam” and “boss” — the terms she uses to refer to the wife and husband respectively who once employed her — to shut her inside the house if they went out. They would lock the windows and doors and activate the security alarm. When cleaning the windows one day, she began wondering how she would escape in an emergency. Would she break the glass and jump the two floors down to the street?

“I never left the house,” Ms. Fernando adds, except to accompany the children. She was forbidden to talk to anyone on those outings. If she did, the children would report back to their parents. During that time, Ms. Fernando turned to prayer, asking for courage from God to endure the hardships and find strength to continue working to support her parents back home.

Despite the personal toll and risks associated with the kafala system, more than 43,000 Filipinos live and work in Jordan, according to figures from the Philippines embassy there. Of these, only a minority is registered with valid work permits. This small percentage is indicative of two recurring problems: sponsors who fail to pay for the renewal of the migrant’s work permit and workers who run away from employers who prohibit them from resigning. Both situations make the worker’s status illegal and place them at risk of imprisonment.

Christianity plays a huge role in the lives of the Filipino women, who come from a country where 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Many have found comfort, strength and friendship in the work of the Teresian Association, a Catholic community of lay people long engaged in the country, working with youth as well as migrant workers. They launched a support program for migrant workers in 2018.

The association was founded in Spain in 1911 by St. Pedro Poveda Castroverde, a priest who was martyred during the religious persecutions of the early 20th century in Spain. Its members are lay men and women, living the value of “faith and reason” in carrying out their mission of contributing to human and social transformation through sociocultural and educational activities. They do so through their various professions and talents. Currently, there are two Teresian members living in community in Amman who dedicate their lives full time to this mission.

Elisa Estrada, a Teresian, has spent almost 40 years in the Holy Land, having served in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and now Amman. She is the director of the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission Library and Community Center, where most activities for migrants are held. Amabel Sibug, a fellow Teresian, supervises the activities for migrants and works with the Filipino chaplaincy in Amman.

Ms. Estrada says the pastoral care of migrant workers involves more than simply offering them opportunities to gather together while far from home. The program offers these Filipina women a safe place in which to find community and mutual support, and to de-stress while nurturing their faith.

Mass for the migrant community is celebrated once a week at each of two Latin-rite Catholic churches in Amman — St. Joseph on Sundays and Annunciation of Mary on Fridays — catering to the differing days off for the workers.

Lucy Obejas is one of about 100 faithful at the Mass on Fridays at the parish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is her day off from caring for the children of a European diplomat. She has been living and working in Amman since 2005.

“When you go to church you have peace,” says Ms. Obejas, standing in the crisp air of a sunny winter’s day. “Church is one of the only ways to ease your pain, anxiety or anything you have as a burden on your heart.”

After Mass, many take the 10-minute drive to gather at the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission Community Center for a weekly community lunch. They enjoy a mixed buffet of Arabic dishes, such as spiced chicken and rice or a sweet dessert, called “knafeh,” as well as Filipino dishes, such as noodles, pork broth and mango salad, all prepared by the women who attend church.

The atmosphere is jovial and warm; women are chatting or participating in a choral group. Ms. Fernando, who is very pleased with her new employment as a domestic for a European diplomat — a sought-after position, since such employers are known for their respect of labor laws and adequate compensation — volunteers to help prepare activities each week; she regards it as a way to demonstrate her appreciation.

Elisa Estrada, a member of the Teresian Association, chats with two migrant workers from the Philippines.
Elisa Estrada, a member of the Teresian Association, chats with two migrant workers from the Philippines, Leonida Pagsuguiron, right, and Aurea Perlas, left, in the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission Library in Amman. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

“It makes you feel different,” she says of the day, “away from, what do you call it, sadness?”

She takes a moment to recall the word she had been searching for: homesickness.

“It is very special,” she reiterates of the weekly gathering. “It is my medication.”

The Teresians have played an important part in Ms. Fernando’s faith life as well, arranging for her to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and marriage to Ismail, her Filipino husband, in Jordan.

The library and community center are at the heart of the care offered by the Teresians, serving the local population, in addition to the Christian community and migrant workers. The library — one of only a handful of public libraries in the city — holds more than 30,000 books and magazines in Arabic, English and French.

Ms. Estrada and Ms. Sibug, both librarians and both Filipina, run the library, which doubles as a community center that hosts seminars, Bible study, counseling sessions and workshops for spiritual development, as well as English classes for Iraqi, Syrian and African refugees. The community also holds intercultural and interreligious activities, and people of all ages, religions and nationalities are welcome.

Programming specifically for migrant workers includes talks by lawyers and human rights experts on the workers’ legal status in Jordan. Ms. Sibug holds weekly sessions to help women who have been abused by employers or who are in difficult situations.

The strict conditions in the kafala system mean women can be helpless if they are in an abusive work setting. Often, they will resort to running away from their employer. In a desperate state and too frightened to take any belongings — including their passport, which is sometimes in their employer’s possession — they turn up at the embassy or seek help from other Filipina women or churchgoers.

Over time, the embassy of the Philippines has increased its initiatives and interventions on behalf of migrant workers, slowly improving the lives of these workers. For example, the embassy offers legal support and coordinates with Jordan’s Ministry of Labor in legal cases brought against Filipina women by an employer. An orientation day for new arrivals now ensures Filipino citizens know the embassy’s contact details, their rights and the cultural differences and customs of the Arab and Muslim-majority state.

Ms. Estrada explains why many women choose to leave their homes and families behind: Work options are scarce in the island nation and access to higher education remains financially exclusive, leaving people stuck in cycles of poverty. These factors push many to seek jobs abroad that offer compensation in a strong foreign currency. However, they make huge sacrifices in doing so.

“Normally, the Filipina comes here to earn money to pay for the tuition fees of her children — that is the number one reason,” says Ms. Estrada. 

She explains the round-the-clock tasks involved in caring for these women, who often call or text for help.

“For example, if they are sick or they need help with medication or maybe with their papers,” she says.

She shares the precarious situation of one woman, who has been working without a legal permit for four months; her new employer has failed to update her papers. If the police catch her without a permit she will be jailed, Ms. Estrada explains.

“Once they [Filipina women] are in prison, they will not have contact with us anymore … until the staff of the Philippines embassy intervenes,” she explains.

A migrant worker Alma Mutuc hugs Elisa Estrada, a member of the Teresian Association in Amman.
Migrant worker Alma Mutuc hugs Elisa Estrada, a member of the Teresian Association in Amman. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Arlene Sanchez, 51, has spent the past 16 years working in Amman as a housemaid to fund her children’s schooling. During the first 12 years working for the same family, the single mother never saw her monthly salary. Instead, her employer, whom she refers to as “sir,” would transfer her income directly to her children in the Philippines. Ms. Sanchez started with a monthly salary of $150.

“But my ‘sir’ [was] very good. Every six months he raised my salary,” she says.

“Even if you work hard in the Philippines, it is still not enough,” she adds. “If you have five kids [and] if you are poor like me…[you] cannot send kids to university.”

She now works as a housemaid for another family. Despite the challenges, she expresses gratitude for her work that allows her to support her family in the Philippines, as well as for the activities of the Teresians.

“It is like family; you forget all the stress,” says Ms. Sanchez of the home away from home environment created in Amman by the Teresians.

“You work all week and you come here happy, enjoying talking and singing here in the library.”

Rosabel Crean is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. She writes for The Telegraph, The New Arab and New Lines Magazine, and reports for the Catholic weekly The Tablet.

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA has partnered with the Teresian Association for decades, supporting its work among the local churches, underwriting operational expenses and funding new programs. In doing so, CNEWA helps the Teresians expand programs, provide catechetical support and offer psychological and social counseling to displaced families, migrant workers and refugees.

The Teresians are lay women and men committed to a mission of education, culture, human development and social transformation. In Jordan, they support migrant women who are unjustly and illegally recruited by local employers. They provide a venue for them for encounters outside their regular work.

To support this vital work, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit

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