A girl I went to high school with was leaving for Saudi Arabia in a week. She has been working there as a nurse for a couple of years and was only back in the Philippines for a few weeks of vacation.
We we’re right out of college when I first learned that she was going to be a part of the mass migration of Filipino workers. It didn’t come as a surprise. Our generation grew up at a time when working abroad has already been established as one of the best career options for earning a lot of money. We currently have about 11 million overseas Filipino workers, ranging from domestic helpers and oil field workers to doctors and computer programmers. It’s hard to come up with an accurate estimate of their population though; a considerable number of them are illegal immigrants.
She is working in a country with the second highest population of Filipinos next to the United States. She is also in a place that is vastly different from what she has been used to. In high school, we often went to the mall, hung out at each other’s houses and went on trips to nearby beaches. Today, she can only be in the hospital or in the dormitory where she and her fellow nurses live. They are allowed to go to the marketplace once a week for some shopping but are closely monitored by the religious police.
It’s a boring life, she said, but on the upside, she doesn’t have a lot of expenses and saves up most of her salary which she sends back home. She ends up spending most of her free time online, where Facebook at least provides a connection to the outside world. I asked why she chose to work there knowing the constraints she would have to live with. She said that it was the only available job option at the time and the processing of work papers was relatively faster than in other countries. She hopes that her work experience would give her a bigger chance of getting a job in another city, maybe Dubai or even London.
While she struggles to live with the boredom and loneliness in Saudi Arabia, a guy I also went to high school with has been trying to live through the armed conflict and suicide bombings in Afghanistan while working in a U.S. base. The Philippine government has imposed a deployment ban on Filipino workers to Afghanistan due to the high security risks but the attraction of a big salary effectively overturns the dangers of a war. The last I heard, he was posting on his Facebook wall about being woken up by the sound of mortars in the morning.
There are many more stories of childhood friends and high school classmates who have now migrated to other parts of the world; mostly for jobs that pay better than what they could get here. A lot of young people who are still in the country are only biding their time until they could get placements overseas. We were part of a generation that scrambled to get degrees in computer programming, information technology and nursing primarily because these were in high demand for overseas jobs.
Brain drain has been a long-running buzzword in the discourse of the Filipino diaspora; so is the phrase “modern heroes” which is often used to describe our migrant workers. We’ve lost a lot of our best teachers, health professionals, engineers, scientists, accountants and other skilled workers as they moved abroad to seek greener pastures. These workers however are vital in propping up a country that has been on life support; they practically keep the economy afloat with their dollar remittances. More importantly for them, these remittances put food on the table for their families. This is the dichotomy we’ve had to live with when we were growing up. Today, this is the same dichotomy we are living with and have become a part of.
© UNICEF/AFGA2009-01026/John Isaac Afghanistan, 2009