Sat, 25 Jan 2003

`Disappeared' families of OFWs

Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asia News Network, Manila

Just before Christmas, the time when overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) came home in droves, the airport arrival section was packed with families eagerly waiting for their homecoming loved ones.

That scene is repeated year after year, even every day in a smaller version. It never fails to move, it always tugs at the hearts of onlookers. It's mushy, it's tearjerking, it's heartwarming, it's so Filipino. It's so family.

In the ongoing Catholic Church-sponsored fourth World Meeting of Families in Manila, are OFW families represented? Have they been invited? Or are the "complete" families, the very closely knit, the only ones that could be celebrated? What about families visited by violence and tearing at the seams? What about families that are devastated but trying to be whole?

A study on migration by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) speaks of the "disappeared" or "invisible" families. These are families of OFWs that are not there, simply because their members are not physically present for each other. The father is a seaman working in a tanker in the Arctic Ocean, the mother is a domestic helper in Rome, the children are with grandparents, aunts, uncles or are being cared for by surrogate parents. There is no home of their own to speak of while the parents are away.

These families are also referred to as "absent-parent families" and the children are called the "left-behind children" or the "parent-absent children." Children are defined as those aged 17 and below. So many labels have been coined to describe the pathetic situation.

Just a few days ago, a government official, proudly Filipino and eager to market the Philippines' best, talked about sending more of our best out there. As if we have not been doing that already. But a repackaging seemed to be what he was going for. Like, we have more to offer than just the best maids, entertainers and desert workers, now other countries are salivating for our teachers (who will teach and not be maids), health workers and caregivers.

Some church officials have kept stressing that the OFWs are also evangelizers, bearers of the gospel, missionaries. Saying that seems to elevate the OFWs, it adds luster to their menial jobs. The OFWs are being exhorted to make saints of everybody in their overseas milieu while their own children back home are flirting with the devil because there is no one to guide them.

The oft-repeated refrain of caregivers overseas is food for thought: "I care for and sing to sleep someone's child in this strange land, while there is no one to look after my own children back home."

In 1999, a CBCP study said that some nine million children (or 6.8 percent of the population) had at least one parent working overseas. In 2001, the Department of Foreign Affairs estimated that 3.05 million OFWs were away from their families. This estimate probably referred only to heads of families, not to singletons. This did not include some 1.62 million undocumented Filipinos overseas. There are more than six million OFWs out there. Filipinos are found in 193 countries all over the world. OFW remittances peaked in 1998 at US$7.367 billion.

The CBCP's 2002 research on the impact of migration revealed that children generally appreciated and understood the efforts of their absent parents. They were aware of the reasons their parents were away: To earn more and provide them with a good education. But while the children appreciated the material benefits, they felt the break in family unity.

The impact of the absence of a parent or both parents is often manifested in the children's performance outside the home. The children, the study found out, generally ranked lower in class and received fewer awards. This is so especially among those with absent mothers. Many had behavioral problems that required disciplinary action in school.

A third generation of OFWs is already on its way to foreign shores. More than 20 years have passed since the first wave of OFWs left for the Middle East and Hong Kong. Many studies have been done to determine its impact. The material gains have surely been a plus for individual families and the country as a whole, but the negative emotional and psychological effects far outweigh the material benefits.

It is starting to show. A whole generation of children has grown up without their parents.

And so these OFWs have been called economic heroes, evangelizers, labor martyrs, dollar earners, hope of the homeland. Accolades have been poured on them for their earning power, pluck and resistance, dedication to work and duty and courage amid danger, but most of all, for their love of family.

Ironically, while families have fed on the fruit or the oft- mentioned katas (juice) of the OFWs' hard labor, they have also borne the effects of the absence of parents, particularly that of the womenfolk, from the home.