Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Glimpse from My Past

by Michael de la Cruz
(not his real name to protect the author)

(This story was lifted from Vol. 4 of Migrants' Stories, Migrants' Voices published in 2012 by PMRW.) 

As a young boy, I used to dream about seeing far places. I often wondered how possible it would be to turn my dream into reality.

After graduating from college, I worked in a government-owned bank. I observed that the monthly income is not enough to raise a family. A year later, I transferred to a private company to augment my monthly income. However, reading newspapers advertising job vacancies in other countries re-ignited my desire and interest to work abroad. Thus, with courage and determination, I started applying for an overseas job. I was able to find a good offer but I had to process all the necessary documents before my visa was finally released.

When the agency finally told me to prepare for my departure, I had mixed emotions; I was puzzled and yet thrilled that finally I can finally realize my dream of going abroad. I was only 22 years old.

While waiting at the boarding area in the airport, I observed the other passengers around me. I noticed that a lot of them were older than I am. One passenger asked me where I was going and how old I was. I told him that I am a first time OFW wanting to fulfill my dream of exploring other places. As the plane took off, I was scared of what was in store for me in Taiwan.

During my first day of work, my mind and heart were not really focused on my job. I kept on thinking about my family and the country I left behind. I had to work and send some money to my family to help in the studies of my younger siblings. I wanted them to finish college and earn their degrees as well. I often wondered what changes would have transpired after my two-year contract.

Working in a foreign country with fellow Filipinos and foreigners take a lot of adjustment. One has to be patient and understanding in order to avoid conflicts.

My first traumatic experience happened during our meeting with all the Filipinos in the company for our Christmas party. We had to plan and prepare for a joyous celebration ahead of us. However, when the meeting was over, two Filipinos started fighting each other because of jealousy and intrigue. They were fighting over a lady. The bigger and more senior of the two who was under the influence of alcohol, and possibly drugs, really wanted to hurt the younger guy, who happened to be my roommate. While we were sleeping, the drunken guy broke down our door. The two fought and all of a sudden there was blood all over. The drunken guy was stabbed and there was pandemonium. While there were those who were trying to pacify the onlookers, my roommate ran as fast as he can, trying to get away from the place because the friends of the man he stabbed might kill him. I got nervous when I heard the fight.

While I was searching for my friend in the compound, I saw a group of people looking for him also. Anger was very much visible on their faces. They were armed with a rod and a knife, but I did not hesitate to pacify them by telling that “a problem cannot be solved simply by adding another problem, and that it will only cause chaos.” I further told them that Christmas is supposed to be a time for sharing and loving each other, especially when we are far from our families.

In less than an hour, the police arrived and they brought the wounded guy to the hospital and continued the search for my roommate. They finally caught and handcuffed him. I saw my friend helplessly crying. He looked so helpless and did not know what would happen to him.

The following day, the Deputy Manager of our company called all the Filipinos for an early morning meeting. The company, according to the Deputy Manager, has decided not to shoulder the hospitalization cost because the accident did not occur during work hours, and that it was committed by another individual.

I visited my roommate at the police station. I couldn’t help but feel pity for him because while we were talking, his other hand was handcuffed to a post. I encouraged him to eat well, not to think much about his problem, and to always pray for guidance in order to find a better solution. “The management knows that you acted in self-defense,” I told him.

After paying my roommate a visit, I also visited the other guy in the hospital, to show them that I was not taking sides. I told this guy that I was there because I care for both of them and that I have no intention of trying to escalate the problem. I was surprised when he apologized and asked what had happened to my roommate. His mind was already calm by them.

A representative from the Philippine government arrived at the police station to settle the case. Everyone was expecting that they could find a solution agreeable to both parties.

However, the guy in the hospital was asking for help to finance his medication until his wound heals. The representative said they do not want to intervene in financial matters. To settle the argument, I volunteered to shoulder the amount asked by the patient. I also asked that the two parties sign an amicable agreement, whereby the wounded party would waive his right to file a case against my roommate. When I reported for work, I asked the manager for a meeting with my fellow Filipinos the following day. Fortunately, he approved my request and allowed me to preside over the meeting. We discussed about the settlement of the case but it was very tough because people had different opinions and principles.

However, I was blessed that the majority agreed to solicit some amount for the medication of the wounded party while I will shoulder the remaining balance to pay for all the expenses. I became an instant hero and was regarded as a leader. I was able to collect the needed minimum amount and covered the remaining balance. Immediately, I delivered the said amount to the hospital. I talked to the patient and he accepted the amount and signed the agreement, in the presence of some witnesses. My heart was filled with happiness as we were able to settle everything amicably. I did not inform my family about this incident.

Days and months went by swiftly, and soon my contract was about to come to an end. My department manager convinced me to renew my contract but my decision to go home is final.

When I arrived home in my province, I was overwhelmed by the welcome I received from my family, and our neighbors. They were grateful for the gifts I brought. We shared many stories and it was almost midnight when we decided to get some sleep in order to attend mass the following day.

After Taiwan, my next journey took me to the Middle East. Working in the Middle East is not a joke for a first timer like me. The place and the weather are so different from ours, and they also speak a different language.

My company is one of the developers of the famous Pearl Qatar, a huge construction project situated in middle of the sea and they needed a lot of workers from the neighboring countries. I was assigned in the finance department, in charge of the preparation of wages and salaries, as well as other benefits for the workers The Company employs more than 5,000 workers and there were only two of us in charge of the preparation of the workers’ wages. Every pay day, I would leave the office and head to the sites to hand the workers their pay.

Whenever I see construction workers on sites as tall as 40-story buildings, carrying loads of steel and cement, my heart would beat fast. This reminded me of the film The Ten Commandments.

Overseas workers, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, work hard and have to face work-related risks to earn money. The Filipinos are even luckier than other nationalities because their rates are higher. I wish that families of OFWs are able to spend the remittances being sent by their family members from abroad wisely.

However, there are families that are not able to budget well the amount they receive from abroad and so in times of emergency, they don’t have money. Some workers would come to me in the office to ask for cash advances and that adds to my work load because I need to accompany them to the Manager to translate their requests. In some cases, the Manager turns down their request. I couldn't help but pity the workers who are almost on the verge of tears.

The Filipinos would then ask for my help. Seeing the worries on their faces, I couldn't help but do something about their situations. Sometimes, I would give them cash advance from the petty cash without the office’s knowledge or at times I would shelve out some personal money. Thus, I would always be on alert days before the next pay day lest the Chief Accountant decides to check the daily invoices I prepared. Fortunately, until I left the company, it has not happened.

The Filipinos in my company were grateful for the little help I have extended to them. Thus, whenever I go to the supermarket to buy my foods and some Filipinos see me standing on the bus, they offer me their seats or help me bring my groceries. Whenever I receive news that one of the family members of a fellow Filipino worker has died, I would carry a small box with me during pay day to solicit some financial support for the bereaved.

Many Filipinos, and even some foreigners, donate some money after I explain to them the purpose of the collection. After collecting some amount, I would then call the worker and hand over the amount solicited from the other workers. The words of comfort I offer them and the small amount solicited from other workers somehow ease the grief of the worker. It’s not part of my job, but I derive pleasure in being of service to the lonely and unfortunate, especially those who are most in need.

When summer came, the humidity in Qatar was high and the temperature reached about sixty degrees. I found it difficult to breathe and often times my nose would bleed. Thus, I decided not to renew my contract even if my Manager guaranteed me an increase in my salary. Even my friends and the skilled workers in our company tried to convinced me to stay so that they have someone to turn to in the finance department but I already made up my mind. It’s a really tough decision I made to go home. My siblings were still studying and needed my assistance but I also considered my health.

When I arrived home, my family welcomed me with open arms. They were glad to see me back. I stayed with them for a few months then went back to Manila and stayed at the SCPM while scouting for a job overseas. It was not that easy to get a good job with a good salary. It took me quite a while to find one that was desirable. With God’s mercy, I got a good offer to work in the African continent.

In April 2009, I left the Philippines for Libya. This time around, I was prepared for a long trip because the agency purchased the cheapest available ticket for my trip. As expected, there were a lot of stop overs, the most memorable of which was in Egypt. Being in Egypt reminded me of stories in the Bible. While there were passengers who chose to roam around the airport, or go to see the pyramids up close, I chose to stay at the airport and prayed that my new working environment would not be hostile.

When we arrived in Tripoli, the capital city of Libya, I was surprised because Manila is more developed. I think even my own province is more developed than Tripoli. Libya is a vast country and its population is not that big. Unable to restrain myself, I asked my Libyan office mates why Libya is behind its neighboring countries. They said that the UN sanctions imposed in the country for the last ten years have put the entire country in total darkness. Now, they need to develop and they need thousands of manpower to help them build country. They also told me that was one of the reasons why I am in Libya. Such a remark put a smile on my lips.

Our company was engaged by the Libyan Government for a project that will last for over twenty five years. My work here is almost the same as the one I had in the Middle East but there are more people in our department. There are only two of us Filipinos in the department while the rest are Libyans and people of other nationalities. Internet connection was provided to our respective computer units to ease our homesickness because no roaming services are available in that country. The internet was our way to communicate with our families back home.

The months rapidly passed by, so fast that I hardly noticed the passing of time. Once a week, I would go to the Catholic church along with other Filipinos to hear mass.

Then one time, we heard over the news that Tunisia had a demonstration and the people toppled down their leader. Neighboring countries followed suit - Algeria, Egypt and Libya. In February 2011, the opposition gathered in Benghazi for a demonstration that became uncontrollable and resulted in total chaos in the entire country.

We have twenty seven site offices in Libya and every office had many Filipinos working there. Our company employed a large number of Filipinos. I was assigned in the head office based in Tripoli. My friends in the site offices asked about the plan of our company and I told them that I had no idea because we have not received any instruction yet. However, some of our site offices were located near the more problematic areas were scared because their accommodation was sprayed with bullets. I felt pity for them as I imagined the difficult situation they are in. They asked me to inform their immediate families about what was happening to them.

At first, I thought it would be easy but I found out how difficult it is to relay the messages concerning the status and condition of their loved ones. It was like being employed in a call center. I would be handling messages for up to twenty five families. The families kept on asking me for more information but there is nothing more I could tell them. I was just asked to relay information to them. The situation in Libya worsened and our internet connection would be cut off from time to time. For more than a week, we heard gun fires and ambulance sirens every ten minutes. We were all frightened, especially during the night. During the day, few Libyans reported to work compared to the Filipinos who were housed inside the company and thus obliged to report to work.

When the Libyan authorities declared to clear the rats, i.e., to kill the opposition, we had to brace for more fightings. I often prayed to the Lord to keep all of us safe because fighter planes were visible in the skies. They were always looking for targets, for places where the demonstrations were being held. Sometimes during lunch break, we would hear screaming everywhere. Some would say that our office will be the next target of the rebels for looting. Running with no direction, we got traumatized and scared.

At night, we used to gather in the mess hall for fear that the rebels would come to take our valuables. We would rather be together in the same room should they come. We hid our personal things in the ceiling of our room, our baggage under the bed covered by the carpet, others things in the toilet, or even outside our room. We couldn’t sleep well at night. During meal time, all of us are quiet and could not eat due to fear and exhaustion, thinking about our situation.

My family was anxious and eager for me to go home immediately. But such possibility was very dim because the UN troops have declared the area as a “no-fly zone” and we were frozen in our area, while our people in the site offices had to evacuate immediately and try to reach the nearest border. The Philippine government ordered for the immediate evacuation of Filipino citizens in Libya. I was reminded of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. We waited for fifteen agonizing days before representatives from the Philippine consulate arrived in our head office to talk to our director.

After their conversation, twenty seven buses were readied to transport us to the border. Three days earlier, most of the foreigners in our office, especially the European and Korean staff have left the premises as their governments were smart and ready to pull out their nationals because they have the money and means to carry it out. As the representative of our government instructed the Filipinos to bring our baggage in the bus, the immediate response was to praise the Lord because we can finally leave the compound and head to the nearest boarder in a safe way. The company provided our convoy with security escort because of the twenty seven check points, until we reached the border of Libya near Tunisia.

Before getting inside the bus, I bid farewell to my manager. He told me not to go and join my fellow Filipinos who are about to leave and told me that I am safe in the compound. Our company requested the government troops to guard the compound. Thus, military men guarded every corner of the compound. They were armed with high caliber guns.

I replied that if the troops start fighting with the rebels, then what would happen to us inside the compound. “Instant death awaits us,” I said.

“When you die, Allah will save you,” my manager replied back.
“I’m sorry but I have decided to go home. My family is eager to see me back home alive, even if our salary is not yet paid,” I told him.

I left the company compound with mixed emotions and fear. Every time we reached a check point, my body would start to shake, especially when they stop us and look at all of us inside the bus. I looked up in the sky and saw sunset. Night time is about to approach.

I noticed the group of Thai and Vietnamese nationals sharing a pack of uncooked noodle. They passed the noodle to everyone and every one would tear a small portion and eat it and then sip some water to fill their empty stomachs. I was moved by such a sight. I think there were about 25 of them sharing whatever food they have. I was reminded of Jesus who prayed in order to feed thousands with fish and bread.

Immediately, I opened the big plastic bag of food I brought, full of different breads and a cartoon of soda. It was more than what I needed for the journey to the border. Thus, I shared my food with them. They were all surprised because each of them had a piece of bread, a soda and nine liters of water to sustain our journey towards the border. They were filled with joy and gladness. Truly, I learned what it means when people say that “out of small means, great things shall come to pass”.

We reached the boarder at 21:30 in the evening of February 28, 2011. Some government men got inside each bus and asked for our passports. They were supposed to put an exit stamp on our passports. After ten minutes, the same group asked for our mobile phones with camera, laptops, and digital cameras to check if we got footages of the war as well as the casualties. We were informed that it is forbidden to bring out such items outside of Libya.

As early as 06:00 in the morning, the law men ordered us to get off the bus and bring our baggage with us. We were told to follow the line leading to the highway. They commanded us to move as quickly as we can and some of the elderly ones fell on the ground due to fear, exhaustion and hunger. We were treading on rough road and it made our journey more difficult because we were carrying our bags on our shoulders. Others were also carrying crying infants, aside from their baggage. To make things worse, the temperature was almost zero degrees centigrade. We walked for almost two kilometers before we reached the Tunisian boarder, where thousands have arrived earlier awaiting assistance from their own governments.

We arrived at around 9:00 in the morning at the Tunisian boarder and waited for the Philippine government representative. We waited for him for hours. Eventually, he arrived at 3:00 in the afternoon together with a member of the UN council and gave us further instructions. They brought with them supplies such as fresh milk, water, yogurt, and bread. However, we felt like we were treated like dogs. Food was thrown to us. People were struggling to get some form of sustenance. We told the authorities to properly distribute the food in a respectable manner, and not to throw it in order to prevent accident and injury. Every time the authorities arrive carrying a sack of food, the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Indians, Thais, Indonesians and other nationals would rush like mobs to secure food. UN troops would then start striking them using a baseball bat in order to try and put order. The troops had to understand that these people, especially the little ones, haven’t eaten for days and are very exhausted. I observed that most Filipinos were shocked to witness such a scenario. We were just watching while people were rushing and struggling to get food and get beaten.

When we entered in Tunisia, we felt a bit of ease as we have finally left the boarder. But when we arrived at the shelter provided by the Philippine government, we felt disappointed because the room provided was not large enough to accommodate all of us. We relayed our concerns to the Undersecretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs who was present then. We were almost close to a thousand but the maximum capacity of the room they provided us is for a hundred fifty. They knew how many of us were coming because we had contact with them and they have a list of the names of the Filipinos from our company. They could have prepared a bigger place to accommodate all of us.

As the skies begun to get dark, we felt sad and pitied ourselves because when we go to the toilet at night, somebody might occupy our space and we might find ourselves standing. I looked around me and felt pity for my fellow countrymen who arrived late because they had no place to stay. I remembered that Christ also had nowhere to stay when he was born. There were also sheep roaming around where Christ was born. In our case, there were also sheep roaming around while the others slept. The smell around was also not pleasant but we had to endure that.

Our Tunisian neighbors were deeply touched with our situation. They saw the difficult situation we were in. They shared with us the food they cooked, gave us bread, rice, utensils, stove with gas and other supplies we needed. During our first night, my friends and I tried to look around the city and representatives from our government were unable to recognize us. Four of them asked us if we were Filipinos and we answered yes in a chorus. They then asked us if there’s a bar where they can drink. We told them that they are representatives of our government and should look after our needs but what they wanted instead was something not related to their current mission. They were surprised at our reply and apologized to us. They asked us if we had eaten dinner and invited us to join them. We refused and told them we are looking for an inexpensive inn where we can stay for the night. We left them at the restaurant but we remembered their faces. We continued looking for an inn so that we can take a rest and have a bit of comfort after our traumatic experience since the start of chaos in Tripoli.

Finally we found a lodge suited to our needs and begged the owner to reduce the rate. He asked where we are from and we told him that we are Filipinos working in Libya. He was curious about us because it was the first time for him to encounter guests from the Philippines. He understood our situation and gave us a big discount. We couldn’t hide the joy we felt in our hearts.

The following day, we visited the shelter where our fellow countrymen were staying. It seemed to us that the Tunisian people were more generous and concerned than our representatives from the government, specifically those from the OWWA. They have resources to provide us with our basic needs while under distress. However, it seemed they only care for themselves and even had the guts to go on a drinking spree in times of distress. They knew about our situation. If not for the Tunisian people, many would have suffered from desperation and starvation. Fortunately some of us still had enough money to spend for our food. Not everyone though was able bring money with them because all of us did not receive any allowance prior to our exit from Libya.

On the third day of our stay at the inn, we had to leave because we did not have enough money to pay the owner of the inn. We returned to the shelter even if the situation there was not good. But a few minutes later, my friend who stayed in the house of the Tunisian neighbor invited me together with my friends to join him. When we arrived, we were amazed to find out that the owner of the house prepared for us an air conditioned room which can accommodate more than fifteen persons. The owner talked to us and welcomed us profusely. We were strangers and yet he welcomed in his house. The following day, the owner of the house asked us what else they can offer us because they’re not familiar with the food that we eat. They went to the grocery and purchased three kilograms of beef and fish to feed us. They surprised us with their hospitality. Their gentleness and compassion brought great joy and smiles on our faces. We could not express enough gratitude for the hospitality they have shown us. Whenever we say thank you to them, they would reply with a delightful smile on their faces.

One morning, the sole lady representative from the Philippine government made an arrangement for our possible flight back to Manila. We returned to the family who cared for us for several days and gave what was left in our pockets, including the Philippine peso bills as souvenirs from us. They told us that if ever our flight was postponed, we are welcome to stay with them. 

We proceeded to the airport of Djerba, hoping that we would soon be heading home. After successfully checking in, we were surprised to learn from the representative of our government that our flight was cancelled. We were shocked and disappointed. As our baggage was already checked in, they told us not to take them out because would be safer inside conveyor. Instead of boarding the airplane, we boarded a bus to return to the shelter provided by the government. Inside the bus, an argument erupted because a guy from the government told us to unload our stuff at a nearby house which is not suited for all of us. There were more than a hundred of us and because the house was so small, sleeping may be a problem. Sleeping in the garden would be an option with the sheep roaming around at night.

Everyone reacted and quarreled with the representative from the government. Some of my office mates confronted him saying, “We’re all professionals in the bus and if you treat us like sheep we will dig a grave for you in this area.” That must have knocked some sense in him. He changed his mind and instructed the driver to bring us to our previous lodging area. We knocked on the door of the same family in Tunisia who gave us shelter earlier and they welcomed us once again. It was three days before they told us that our flight home has been scheduled.

At the airport, we saw some Filipinos who opted to stay and wait at the lobby of airport instead of returning to the shelter. They were afraid to go with us because the list might be changed and cause further delay in the flight back home.

There was a huge crowd at the airport waiting for their respective flights, and thus the toilets at the airport started to smell. We were glad in a way because the UN personnel were efficient. They gave us enough food. However, we could not use the toilets because we were already called to board the plane.

A few minutes before our boarding time, one of my office mates had a sudden argument with another person and it erupted into a fist fight. Most of us tried to pacify and control their anger. The other nationals were surprised to see the Filipinos fighting. It was a good thing that some European men called the Filipinos to form a line because the plane was on the tarmac and we were told to prepare for boarding. Shouts of joy erupted from our lips and we thanked God for answering our prayers.

Upon entering the plane, the cabin crew requested us to keep quite because the crew couldn't hear each other. The only thing I remembered at that time was that we were all grateful and praising God at that moment. There were also some who questioned the crew if indeed the aircraft will bring us to the Philippines. The crew replied, “yes!” The plane was small, like the ones we use in our domestic flights.

It was a long flight ahead of us. We are flying from one continent to another. Regular flights from Tripoli to Manila take about fifteen flying hours, excluding the flight going to Doha, Qatar for a stopover.

During the flight, we experienced a strong turbulence and the captain instructed us to stay in our seats and to fasten our seat belts. Unexpectedly, the oxygen masks from the compartment dropped down. A lot of us started praying, asking God to deliver us to safety. A few minutes after, there was less turbulence and we safely reached Abu Dhabi for a stopover in order to refuel. From Abu Dhabi we flew again and had another stopover at Sharjah for refueling. We flew over sunny skies and reached New Delhi, India to load on food and fuel. After four hours of stopover in New Delhi, we were again cruising above the clouds and we were served meals. We Filipinos are not that familiar with the taste of Indian food but we had to eat after a very long journey. Five hours later, the captain announced that we are approaching Philippine airspace. All of a sudden, most of the passengers loosened their seat belts and were shouting for joy, thanking the Lord for bringing us back to the country in one piece. There were those who were praising God loudly, dancing, and clapping. It seemed like we were freed from the agonizing worries of the exodus that we’ve been through. There was unending thanks and gratitude to God who delivered us from those trials and hardship we experienced. Finally we are close to home. The plane Captain told us to remain seated and to fasten our seat belts for the final approach. The noise became more joyous and we were all clapping with our hands.

After a long sojourn, we finally landed at twelve midnight. Before disembarking from the plane, the captain opened the curtain and congratulated us all and thanked us for all the prayers while we were passing a turbulence. As a Catholic himself, he understood our faith and trust, which led us to a safe journey.

We entered a special passenger lounge provided by the Philippine government exclusively for OFWs from Libya and we were met by government representatives and media persons. They were taking our photos, videos and asking about our experiences. They also served us food at the airport, and this somehow comforted many of us. However, the temporary shelter prepared by OWWA was not enough to accommodate all of us. Others went straight to their homes, while the rest remained seated, standing or roaming around because the number of arrivals from other airlines who came from Libya cannot be accommodated in the area provided by the government. Most of us not were not able to sleep even for a few hours because of the mixed emotions we felt.

In the morning, we proceeded to the World trade center to receive our financial assistance from OWWA in the amount of ten thousand pesos, as well as transportation fare going to our provinces. I myself stayed at the Scalabrini center. Upon entering the ground, I felt bad. I wouldn’t know what to say if someone asked me what happened. I didn’t know what to do, whether to shout for joy, kneel in front of the grotto or kiss the ground I was standing on because I returned to the Philippines alive. I wanted to hug someone who knows me, but I controlled myself or they might think that I am insane. I stayed at the SCPM for two nights in order to rest for a while. But every night, I found myself having nightmares, screaming while carrying my baggage and shouting for help. I would wake up soaked in tears. My roommate did not know of the trauma I experienced, not until in the morning when I forced myself to pray to the Lord asking for guidance and comfort.

Days passed and it was time for me to go home to my family. They were surprised when a bus stopped in front of our gate. As they were wondering who was alighting from the bus, they noticed me and they warmly welcomed me. I felt sick because of the attention on me. They kept asking me many questions which I couldn’t answer. Inside my room, tears again started flowing from my eyes. I was unable to sleep in my room thus I decided to lay down on the sofa because the fears and imagination were still fresh in my mind.

For more than a week, I constantly dreamed of the exodus experience we had in Libya. Often times, I would find myself re-living the agonizing experience I had from Libya to the airport in Tunisia. I am thankful to the Lord that He gave me a strong heart, and eventually I was able to manage my trauma. Indeed, God is great all the time! One thing I learned from this experience is to have a strong faith in God. No matter how painful the situation, He will be there every step of the way with us, providing us with courage to move on. To this day, I continue praising God for delivering us all to safety. All these experiences, I believe, have made me a stronger person. I thank God because he has always been with me through all my ups and downs.

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