In my past ministry which was in Ireland, I had on numerous occasions listened to migrant workers share their stories. Some were wonderful and inspiring but sadly some were not so happy. I have witnessed some of their successes and some their failures. One thing that is most important and is truly close to their hearts is their families back home. Whatever it is they are undergoing they have in their hearts their loved ones who are always their motivation and inspiration.
One Sunday evening, as I sat by myself on the bus, the conversation of two passengers behind me became audible. Not that I was eavesdropping, but their voices were loud enough to be heard at least two seats away where I was sitting. They were sharing the challenges they face being away from their family members, the sacrifices they make for them, their seemingly unappreciated efforts and the difficulties as they tried to reconnect with their families during their vacation, especially with the young children who no longer recognized them. Judging from their conversation they were domestic migrant workers, and didn't know each other until then but they both needed a listening ear in each other to vent what is in their hearts and minds. Both shed some tears thinking about their families back home.
Nearly every family in the Philippines has at least one relative working overseas. Economic migration is a phenomena that affects hundreds of thousands of families. At times their children are the most vulnerable in this situation. The children feel the void created by the absence of their loved ones working overseas. Time spent apart loving each other in one's absence can never be mended, and the human heart longs for the lost time away from each other. Although we are meant to be together with those we love, at times people live lives apart due to the search for greener pastures or economic necessity.
At times family members are blinded by their misguided perspective. These family members want to punish the migrant workers, thinking "we deserve the money they earn in exchange for their absence at home," or "they chose to leave us to spend their life somewhere without us."
It was obvious that the conversation was an exchange between people who found in each other a listening ear. In sharing their stories they found support, and a new acquaintance on the short bus ride. Like any human beings they needed to talk and have someone to listen to them. Their burden must have been lessened as it was shared. Migrant workers are vulnerable because they do not have easy access of family or community support around them when they are overseas.
In my past experience that is just what I did – being present to people whenever they needed help or when they needed someone to talk to. At one time when I was in Ireland I offered shelter to two newly arrived nurses who were promised a job that was not there in the first place but luckily with their qualifications they landed jobs pretty soon after their ordeal.
While some stories of migrant workers are good, at times we heard stories that were not so pleasant. At times they suffer in silence. On top of family concerns, they deal with trying and terrible work situations. Some have suffered abuse, verbal, physical or both, from their employers. Some even experienced sexual abuse, and a number lost their lives trying to escape danger or violence.
We do not really know the heart of some migrant workers because at times family members see them like "banks" with whom money can be drawn anytime. What is forgotten is their homesickness, tears and sweat, and their security.
Some of the migrants' sadness, loneliness and pain is camouflaged with beautiful clothes or jewelry. For many migrant workers, their day off is a time to feel good about themselves, and they put effort in dressing up well. We can't fault them in that because week in and week out their job is to clean the house, or look after a bunch of kids, take care of an elderly or sick person – doing menial jobs that allow them very limited time to spend on themselves, like brushing their teeth, combing their hair, etc., because of the endless jobs or errands they need to do for their employer's family. Their time is spent for others, but never spent on themselves.
So, their day off is a time to feel good and look good. If you see their Facebook posts, don't conclude that they are living a luxurious life away from you because they wear fashionable clothes, make-up, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Although some are lucky, with good jobs and enjoy a reasonably comfortable life overseas (and at times with their families with them), many are not so fortunate.
The question is how can the wall of absence between loved ones left at home and those who are working overseas be bridged when reunion finally comes? Here is my advice to the families: When they come home, receive them with open arms and spend time with them. Listen to their story: ask them how it was as a migrant worker, and draw them out with your questions because they need to talk (although at times they do not feel their story is worth relating). But do not push – give them time and be patient with them. They are at times embarrassed to share their stories and ordeals, because they feel they need to protect you from their difficulties.
Take care of them, listen when you feel they are distant show your care for them because at times they feel guilty having been away. They do not know how to make up for the lost time without you in their lives. They feel they lost you being away, and they feel you may have been better off without them. Unfortunately at times they do not know how to reach out to you. Love them unconditionally. One thing they have in their hearts is that they are coming home to the only home they know, where they feel love is waiting and where the people they love live.
They dread every single goodbye and even though they were faraway, you as their loved ones were never far from their memory, because you are embedded in the most special corner of their hearts.
It is true that for varied reasons people chose to work overseas but I believe they NEVER choose it because they wanted to be away from their loved ones.
Gracia Kibad is a Filipina Columban Lay Missionary. She was assigned to Ireland from 1996 until 2014, then moved to Hong Kong in 2015 when she was elected Coordinator of the Columban Lay Missionaries Central Leadership Team.