Monday, August 18, 2008

Made in Saudi, Made in America

About 200 million migrants from different countries are scattered across the globe, supporting a population back home that is as big if not bigger. Were these half-billion or so people to constitute a state -- migration nation -- it would rank as the world's third-largest. While some migrants go abroad with Ph.D.'s, most travel… with modest skills but fearsome motivation. The risks migrants face are widely known, including the risk of death, but the amounts they secure for their families have just recently come into view.

From “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves”, a New York Times article on OFWs by Jason Deparle, published April 22, 2007


One of my earliest memories as a child was snuggling close to my mother in a narrow, windowless corridor. The massive engine of the ship that would take us to Manila hummed incessantly. The steel walls and the small improvised cot that consisted of a thick sheet of plastic mounted on a wooden frame seemed to vibrate.

My father sat nearby, trying to sleep amidst the noise. Both my father and mother resigned from their jobs at Abuyog General Hospital (as Medical Technologist and Staff Nurse, respectively) for job opportunities in Saudi. I was six years old, and my brother Tyrone was two. Nanay, our grandmother, was scheduled to follow us to Manila as we would be in her care while our parents worked abroad.

It was a year after the People Power Revolution, and the country was still in turmoil. Coups were staged left and right, and helicopters were constantly heard whizzing past our two-room house in crowded Culiat, Quezon City.

I was enrolled in a public school near our home. While most children were fetched by their parents after school, I walked home by myself. I never quite understood then, why my parents were always away. They would just show up one day like an apparition at the door, bringing presents. Shortly, it would be time for them to leave again. I never dared ask why they would have to leave again, I was afraid I would not understand the answer.


During my preteen years, I finally mustered the courage to ask my father why we were so unlike regular families. Throughout our elementary years, only my mother, who stopped working in Saudi when she bore my youngest brother, took time to attend to our needs.

I had stacks of papers requesting the presence of my parents in school, but they all went unanswered. My father was always away, and my mother was usually too busy attending to my baby brother. Once, I had to forge their signature just so I could attend an event to be held outside school, which required parent’s consent.

My father’s answer was this:

“I am working abroad so you and your brothers can study in a good school.”

“Why can’t you work in hospitals here in Tacloban?” I asked.

“There is little pay here.” He said simply.

The discussion was over. The three of us grew up with my father working in Saudi for fifteen years. By now, I had completely understood the sacrifice he was making, only I had the feeling that somehow the solidarity of our family was being compromised.


It had become a familiar sight for me: large suitcases and melancholy faces of people as they said their goodbyes to their loved ones. I was at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and my mother was among those who were leaving.

She had been completing all international exams required, whilst working at Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, and now Global Nurses found her a job in Monroe, Louisiana. A few days prior to her departure, I had to ask again.

“Ma, how come you want to live in America? We are doing fine here. I’m already working, and Tyrone is already in college.”

“There are better opportunities for us in the States.” She replied.

What can I do? The plan was already set, my father and brothers were to follow her in a few months time. So I watched my mother walk through the glass doors, to the Check-in area. I waited outside, and watched quietly as planes flew into the horizon till they were merely dots in the sky.


To a casual observer, we seemed to have it all, and the pictures proved it: two cars, lovely furniture in a beautiful house, my brothers grinning ear to ear in front of a theme park sign, and my mother and father, all smiles at Ted’s graduation at Neville High School.

“The truth is”, my mother confided over our phone conversation while I was at the office, “life is difficult here.”

“People need cars because in small US cities, there is no public transportation. You need a credit history to be approved of a loan, a loan which you will be slaving for years on end to pay.”

When my mother lost her job at St. Francis Medical Center, my father had to work as a dishwasher. US Law required a license to practice in the medical profession, and my father had only license to work as a Med Tech in the Philippines. My brother worked as a janitor to help make ends meet. Unlike here in the Philippines, where you can run to your nearest relative in times of dire need, they faced their problems on their own in the US.

My mother soon found a job at a smaller hospital in Columbia, which also had a hospice for the elderly. They packed their bags once again, and moved from their apartment in Monroe. Because college was expensive, my youngest brother Ted opted to join the US Navy, wherein after certain number of years of service, the government will take care of his tertiary education.


I resigned from my job of four years in Makati to study Nursing. My mother assured me it would be the best way to secure the future. So I went back to Tacloban, and my parents supported my education.

There were issues in financial matters and their jobs, and eventually a rift grew between my mother and my father. Then one wintry day, my brother said, Papa moved to another apartment.

But the biggest tragedy had yet to come: I received a call that my mother was rushed to the hospital for chest pains. Perhaps because she was an immigrant with no insurance, the question that remained was how the hospital bill was going to be paid- for tests to be done, medications, and doctor’s professional fees- given the fact that my mother was not working because of the hospitalization. They diagnosed pulmonary embolism, and transferred my mother to the ICU.

I could do nothing more but pray. My mother is our breadwinner, and the money she sends pays the bills here in the Philippines, along with our food and daily needs, and my 82 year-old grandmother’s medications. I felt helpless that I could not be at her bedside to care for her, and at the same time afraid of what will become of us here without her support.

On a Tuesday morning, before dawn, my brother called to give me the sad news: my mother passed away.


I wish I could say that our parents' striving for a better life sustained by years and years of work abroad was worth it, but I believe we paid too steep a price: we were robbed of our time together as a family.

The state of our country- joblessness, low wages, and increasing cost of goods leave no choice for ordinary Filipinos but to seek opportunities abroad, despite the loneliness and the danger.

The remains of my mother arrived weeks after her death. My father, my brothers, and I were together again after several years of separation. We stood before her grave, with flowers in our hands. Our relatives wept.

I touched the urn that held her ashes, and suddenly, I remembered that day when my mother held me in her arms when I was six, while we were on a boat to Manila.


Anonymous said...

thadie, we take life as they were handed out to us, much as you and your family did. the sacrifices your parents had to make afforded your and your siblings education and support. that's an enduring legacy albeit at the expense of an ideal family life. was it all worth it, time will tell. despite the sadness, it seems to have been for the better. your mom's heartbreaking passing clouds the silverlining.


dabo said...

what is an ideal family life.. im so sorry i was departing from your story.. but it does get me thinking.. and contemplating.. i feel so sad now..

Quentin X said...

Be strong. Life is not about the destiny but the journey. We live in a world that's getting smaller by the day. Think of the next person as your family. Birds never stay in the nest forever.

Anonymous said...

hi thad,

i am an RN too. Coincidentally, I was with the same agency (global nurses) that sent ur mom abroad. I was also assigned in LA (not in monroe, but in lafayette). It saddens me to know about ur mom's plight. hindi lahat ng nag-aabroad ay all good. andaming sacrifices we had/have to endure for that american dream. may her soul rest in peace.


Kiks said...

Mahirap maging OFW. And the story of a loved one whom you have not seen for a long time dying abroad is probably one of the most heartbreaking news to hear.

We dream of one day when our families need not be forcibly separated simply because we all need to survive.

jericho said...

sad. as a son and one who works with migrants, i feel for you.

scholasas said...

thad... u made me cry! '( --)

blagadag said...

no wonder this piece is well-written. it thrives from the heart. am sure your mom is proud of you and will continue to guide you and your brother. take care and keep on blogging.

Phoenix said...

thanks everyone!

Anonymous said...

You write very well. This post made me realize a lot of things.
I am also a Waray living away from Leyte.. Glad to see some great Waray bloggers.


belle said... have my heart, thad..i almost i have family stayin' abroad, as well..and i used to wonder why people had to go so far away to reach their dreams, why can't they find it here?..

jonathan said...

I like reading stories or entries about family but it makes me shed a tear or two when it is about death. Condolences to you.

I am also far away from my family. I hear of my mom getting sick and all I can do is pray.

Thank you for this beautiful entry. It is an eye-opener.

Dora Fe Bernardo said...

kuya, keep your faith.. despite what happened, life is still beautiful indeed.. we care, hope u know that too..

filhombre@yahoo said...

I can relate to your situation. I was an OFW for 12 years in KSA. When I was in Saudi, I thought life in US is good. I realized later that its hard. Damu utang, damu credit cards. Move to US if you're an RN otherwise you end up working with meager income. I still believe whatever decisions they made, it is always for the best interest of the kids. You have a good family. BTW, I like your style of writing.

Anonymous said...

"I wish I could say that my parent’s strivings for a better life sustained by years and years of work abroad was worth it, but I believe we paid too steep a price: we were robbed of our time together as a family." In choosing between two evils, choose the lesser evil, your parents have chosen the temptation of america in order for their family to survive and have better future rather than gamble the future in arab soil and life in Phils, we are in the same boat, all my relatives are in US while I opted to stay here in UAE, my parents died sadly in US waiting for us to be reunited which didn't happen, I think everything happen for a cause, without the Lord's interference I might be a loser... have faith in him always dude!


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