By Susan Ople
In every nook and corner of the world is an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) longing for home this Christmas and an OFW family celebrating Christmas Eve with one or more empty seats.
Christmas away from home accentuates the loneliness and isolation in the life of an OFW. Filipinos are known to spend Christmas in a holistic way, preparing shopping lists weeks in advance, no matter how short or long, and attending Holy Mass at dawn as part of a long Yuletide tradition. To be alone in a foreign land, waiting for the right moment to start a video call or post Christmas greetings on Facebook and exchange a barrage of text messages, makes the season just a tiny bit bearable.
For the past 12 years, 38-year-old seafarer Melpe Sespene spent Christmas Eve surrounded by the sea in his tiny air-conditioned cabin aboard a huge international cargo ship. His work took him everywhere but home, especially for the Yuletide season. This year is different. Melpe’s shipping company has deferred his return to the ship for early next year, giving him the opportunity to spend Christmas with his wife, Jenny, and children, nine-year-old Clem and five-year-old Kyle.
“Last year, I greeted my family through a video call while our ship was going through the Suez Canal in Egypt. We had a Christmas tree aboard the ship and access to the Internet but it’s still not enough. I missed home. I missed Christmas in the Philippines,” he said.
This Christmas is especially meaningful for Melpe and his family because for the first time, they will be spending it together in their new two-storey house, the product of nine years of the family’s scrimping and saving for monthly payments. “We will have a simple Christmas celebration but it will be full of gratitude because this is our first Noche Buena under our own roof. I don’t miss my tiny cabin window at all.”
Longing for her husband’s presence this Christmas is Mary Siriban, who is pregnant with their fourth child. Mary sought the help of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-government organization that assists distressed OFWs, a week ago. Her husband, Melvin, ran away from his abusive employer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She couldn’t sleep, worrying about her husband’s safety and the baby that is due this month.
“He had to leave to work abroad as a driver because it was just too hard to make ends meet here at home. We have so many expenses including our apartment rental and food for the kids. With another child on the way, my husband reluctantly decided to accept a job offer to work as a driver in Riyadh. Unfortunately, his Saudi employer would hit him whenever he gets angry and Melvin, my husband, just couldn’t stand it anymore,” Mary said.
Celebrating Christmas was the farthest thing in her mind. She was scared for her husband and anxious that all her worrying had started to affect the baby. Mary described her ordeal of trying to get a concrete response from the recruitment agency that deployed her husband. “I sought the help of the agency but they simply ignored my request for help,” Mary said. She decided to turn to the Ople Center for help.
The Ople Center sought the help of fellow OFW advocate Joel Quiaoit who is based in Riyadh, and he was able to verify the whereabouts and physical condition of the distressed OFW. Mary’s husband is awaiting repatriation at the embassy shelter in Riyadh and is in good hands. The OFW’s family has notified the legal assistance division of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which promised to look into the case.
Efforts are now underway to bring Melvin home hopefully in time for the birth of their fourth child. The Ople Center will also be assisting Mary and her husband in obtaining livelihood assistance from pro-OFW institutions such as the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration and the Villar SIPAG Foundation. “Christmas will always be about family. Despite what happened, we still have so much to be thankful for. My husband will be home soon and we are glad that there are people willing to help us recover from this ordeal,” she said.
An OFW in Taiwan said that seeing people going to church near her place of work makes her cry and long for home. Another OFW in Saudi Arabia keeps a Christmas tree in a secret and hidden corner of his house while his friend uses the pine tree-shaped air freshener as his own version of a Christmas ornament. Being alone or co-mingling with other nationalities in a multi-cultural work environment has become the norm for many OFWs. They survive the loneliness with the help of modern technology that enables them to be part of family traditions even from afar.
Let us include our modern-day heroes in our Christmas prayers. Though they may be far, distance will not prevent them from expressing love and gratitude to our Creator for the birth of Jesus, and to the loved ones left behind. Christmas will always be about God and family for millions of Filipinos around the world.