Coming home: Fears, prayers and hopeBy Casiano Mayor Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
JEDDAH—We are coming home for good after more than a decade of working in Saudi Arabia. Like many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) getting ready for their final homecoming, we have worries and fears. How do we start life anew in a country which has become more of a place to furlough than home? For the past 14 years, my family and I have adopted Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s trading capital, as our second home where we have been living in financial comfort and enjoying living standards we sorely lacked when we were in Manila.
I came here in 1999. The following year, I took my wife Marilyn and our only child Maria Angeline back with me to Jeddah. It was a promise I made to my wife that if I couldn’t bring them here a year after I left, I wouldn’t renew my contract with the Saudi Gazette, where I worked as an editor. My wife and I understood the perils of families breaking up when separated for a long time.
When I left, we could hardly make ends meet. I was working then as an editor with the now-defunct newspaper Today in Makati. My wife had resigned from her job as a nurse at the Perpetual Help Medical Center in Las Piñas to take care of our daughter. To compensate for her lost income, we set up a store in front of our house in Bacoor, Cavite. Although the store was earning as much as her lost salary, our combined income still couldn’t catch up with the rising cost of living in Metro Manila.
I decided to go overseas when we started to miss payments on the monthly amortization for our home which we acquired on a Pag-ibig loan. Our telephone would also get cut off every now and then when we could not keep up with the monthly bills. I also remember those times when I had to rummage the shoe racks of SM-Bacoor for a new pair of shoes that would fit my shoe-string budget in order to replace the worn-out pair I was wearing. I often ended up buying second-hand shoes peddled on the sidewalks.
Those haunting memories give me cold feet as we prepare to go home for good after our child graduates from high school here in Jeddah next year.
She was our primary reason for working overseas. Like other parents who care for their children, we wanted to pave a comfortable future for her. Our daughter, who was two months short of her first birthday when I left, is now 16.
Many OFWs have similar ambivalent feelings when they think of the final homecoming. Eli Arciaga, who has been in Jeddah for the past 31 years, says he and his wife Lita had planned to go home several times but always changed their minds.
“I had planned to quit working here when I was 45, 50 and 55, but there were always reasons to come back. One reason is financial,” says the 59-year-old chief analyst and programmer in a construction company here.
The Arciagas have acquired a fish pen and a rice-trading business, which they have left in the care of trusted kin. They have built their dream house in Cavite and have saved enough to make their retirement comfortable. But the financial ease they still enjoy in Jeddah and the fact that two of their three sons are now also working here give them reasons to stay longer. Their two children and their families are staying with them in one compound.
“Eventually, we will go home. My sister in Canada wants us to migrate there, saying that life is much better over there. But for me there is no other country that is better than the country of your birth,” says Eli. “Probably, we will go home within the next two years but, again, it depends.”
Like the Arciagas, Virgilio Mejia and his wife Nene, who have been in Saudi Arabia for the past 32 years, have also longed to go back home where they have a son, or join another son in New Zealand. But they, too, always change their minds because their two daughters, Karen and Jane, followed them here after their graduation from college. Jane got married a year ago and lives separately but Karen still stays with them.
On our part, we have not saved that much. Overseas work is not always smooth sailing. There are many contingencies. I lost my job in 2005. Working with people coming from so many countries with different cultures makes for strong currents of office politics. I believe I was a victim of office politics when was I fired in 2005. I was sacked a month after I was named among the company’s 12 outstanding employees of the year.
If that happened in the Philippines, I could have filed a strong case with the labor department. But in Saudi Arabia, where expatriates cannot take another job without the consent of their employers, it would be foolhardy. Although Saudi labor laws provide some protection for foreign workers, the ground realities are stacked against expats. I took the side of prudence and asked my employer to allow me to work for another company.
I was then forced to take a clerical job in a construction company that paid a third less than my previous pay. This affected our savings. Still, we opted to stay rather than go home. I looked for a new job although it meant spending whatever amount I got from the Gazette as severance pay. My wife was also forced to look for a job and got one that paid just a little more than what we had to pay for a household helper, a Filipino we hired to look after our child who was then in grade school.
We were able to start saving again when the newspaper rehired me in 2007, with a bigger salary than what I got before I was let go. My wife had also been able to move to another hospital which gave her better pay.
But in 2010, my mother-in-law suffered two successive strokes that left her comatose and eventually led to her death. Her confinement on a respirator in a private hospital for more than a month drained all our savings—and even got us into debt, which took a year to repay.
Unlike the Araciagas and the Mejias, we have no compelling reasons to stay any longer after our child finishes high school. We have decided, though, to extend our stay for another year after her graduation to keep my wife from breaching her contract, which she renews every two years, and losing part of her end-of-service pay. Our daughter has also agreed to enroll in an online course until our homecoming. The extension would give us a little more time to save a little more.
The past leaves bittersweet memories. Still, looking back, I have no regrets over my decision to work overseas. Having married late (in my 40s) to a woman 14 years my junior, I am now in my autumn years while our daughter is still in her teens. If we did not leave, we could not imagine how we could send our daughter to college. Now, with our home in Cavite fully paid and with our little savings, we find hope with our plans to start all over again, including possibly going into a food-franchising business.
We once dreamed of migrating to yet another country. It did not prosper. But as a man of faith, I have come to believe that everything happens for a reason and I do not rue things that do not go my way. Instead, I pray for divine guidance; for God to continue letting the chips fall where they should and, when there are gaps, to keep on bridging those gaps. We can only do as much.