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The life and times of an absentee mother

  • An OFW hasn’t seen her children for 18 years
  • Moving to the US from Saudi was only better financially
  • Hopes for immigration amnesty, to visit home in PH

pinterestMISSION VIEJO, California — It’s been 18 years since Elsa has seen her children in person. The last time she embraced her son and two daughters, they were seven, six and four years old. Her youngest daughter wasn’t even in school yet.

Today, not only are her children grown up now, her daughters have become mothers themselves with little ones not much older than Elsa herself when she first left the Philippines to become an overseas contract worker.

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She talks to her children and grandchildren every day and sees them via Skype. But she hasn’t held their hands or received a kiss on her cheek from any of her precious apos. It is the sacrifice she has chosen as an overseas contract worker that indeed has a very high price.

Tears come to Elsa’s eyes when she tells INQUIRER.net what it was like to leave her children for the first time. The anguish in her eyes shows that leaving her children in 1992 still hurts like it was yesterday.

Elsa’s common-law husband had been an able provider for their little family. Hans had been working as the driver of a trucking company that carried gravel and sand across Luzon until the infamous eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 adversely affecting the surrounding provinces of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga. Hans lost his job and Elsa was forced to do anything she could to make ends meet and feed her family.

The local government assisted families such as theirs by offering them livelihood projects where they tried to plant coffee seeds in hopes of providing them crops that they could sell.

Elsa worked from the moment she woke up until she could tend to her promised crops no more, stopping only to tend to her three children. She only earned 130 pesos ($3) a day. And even in 1991, that was not very much at all.

Saudi-bound

Hans had heard of an opportunity to work as a driver in Saudi Arabia but was denied. The only available job opportunities available were for those who were willing to work as domestic helpers as a couple.

Elsa knew she didn’t want to leave her children who were barely in grade school, but her options were not good. For three months she debated and debated. Finally, Elsa and Hans decided to apply to work abroad and leave their children with her husband’s parents.

Every single day Elsa cried herself to sleep. Often, she cried even during the day. Hans and she squabbled frequently, and she missed her young children. It didn’t help that the couple they came to work for was not an easy family to work for.

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“Her eyes were like fire every time she saw me,” Elsa relates. “Every single thing I did was not right. It wasn’t clean enough. It wasn’t set right. She would yell and swear at me.” But Elsa took it in stride and thought about the money she and her husband were able to send home to her small children in the Philippines.

But the truth was, it wasn’t even a lot of money at all. The Saudi Arabian couple had brokered a deal with Elsa and her husband that instead of paying a placement fee that is common in working overseas, Elsa and Hans were to take a salary deduction for five months. After that, the Filipino OFW couple received a joint salary of only US$400 a month.

No recourse

In the early 1990s, cell phones were not common. The only way that Elsa and Hans could call and speak to their children was to use the landline of their “amo” or employer and repay them for their phone bill. More than US$50 went to that monthly expense for the homesick couple. But they had no recourse.

The postal service was extremely unreliable. Letters sent were never received or “lost” somewhere in transit. The only way little trinkets of love or money were sent to their family back in the Philippines was if another OCW was leaving Saudi to go back home. Elsa and Hans would record their voices on to cassette tapes to send to their children as they would listen to the tapes their children recorded on a daily basis. A small stash of photos, several cassette tapes, that’s all that Elsa had to go by to get her through the day while she was in Saudi Arabia, oceans away from her very young but constantly growing children.

Elsa never knew when she would hear again from her children. Even just making her precious phone calls to her children was at the mercy of her often-cruel employer.

At first, their meager salary was all that Elsa and Hans were able to send to their family. Anything else was indeed very special. Just getting back to the Philippines was a feat in itself. An enormous amount of trust had to be placed in their countrymen that anything sent would indeed make it back home. Fortunately there was such a wide population of Filipinos who worked in Saudi Arabia that it was usually easy to find someone who was going to the Philippines.

Hard life

But despite the sizable population of Filipinos, life was very hard for Elsa there. Being a woman meant she had fewer rights than her husband even if they were equally foreigners while there. Elsa was forbidden from traveling without her husband. She constantly had to carry her identification card. She had never felt like she had lost her freedom as much as while she lived there.

Elsa would wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to prepare for the huge dinner parties that the Saudi Arabian couple would throw three to four times a week. She would prepare lavish meals for the couple and their guests, and then prepare a second meal for the dozen or so Filipino staff members that tended to them.

Elsa and Hans were promised a vacation home after two years of working for the Saudi Arabian family that had five children of their own. But help that agreed with their employer wasn’t easy to come by. And so other couples and staff members came and left while Elsa and Hans stayed. It was only after three years of working overseas that they were able to return to see their children.

The couple had planned on staying with their children for two months before going back to Saudi. But staying in Manila and not earning was more expensive than they could afford. Once again, Elsa forced herself to leave her children to make ends meet.

While she and Hans had comfortable living quarters in Saudi Arabia, Elsa knew in her heart that she wasn’t making enough to make their sacrifice worthwhile. All she could think about was how to make just a little bit more.

Every summer, Elsa flew to the United States with the Saudi Arabian couple while they enjoyed their annual vacation there. Elsa’s job by then had been elevated to that as their main family cook, who would help clean the house and prepare their belongings when they were overseas.

More freedom

While in the United States, Elsa enjoyed much more freedom than she ever did. Since there was no need for a driver while they were in the US, Hans stayed in Saudi Arabia while the family was on vacation. That meant Elsa had her servant’s room to herself. She also prepared meals only for the family and herself. And she savored the annual summer trip as two months of freedom.

Early mornings she would walk to the local grocery and pick up things intended for the family’s meals. Things were much easier for her since the Saudi Arabian family often went shopping all day or visiting with friends or tourist spotsl so she didn’t need to cook as much.

It was on one of these walks that she happened to meet a fellow Filipino, who knew of a couple who was looking for a full time helper and nanny.

When Elsa flew back to Saudi Arabia, she talked about the possibility of finding work in the United States with her husband Hans. He was open to the opportunity and had no misgivings about going back to the Philippines. The question was how was Elsa going to find a job in the United States and stay there.

Job opportunity

The second summer that Elsa returned to the United States with the Saudi Arabian family, she ran into the Filipino friend who knew of a job opportunity for her. The family that was looking for a helper had just found out that they were on the family way and were very eager to find help.

California was on the other side of the world from the Philippines. She was no longer looking at a five-hour time difference. It was a very big step. But it was the opportunity she needed. The young Filipino couple was offering her a monthly salary of US$1,000. That was more than double what she and her husband were earning together in Saudi Arabia.

The third summer she visited California with the Saudi Arabian family, she had made up her mind. She made contact with the Filipino friend and took a leap of faith, having never even met her new employers. She prayed day and night, cried herself to sleep when she was unsure, and decided to make the move.

One summer day, while the Saudi Arabian family was out shopping, Elsa made her move. She packed her few belongings, among them, her Filipino passport, and left the vacation home of the Saudi Arabian family for the last time. She did not even leave a note. She also did not look back.

It was her gracious luck that the young new parents that she came to work for were very kind and treated her like family. It was an immediate fit, and Elsa truly couldn’t have found better employers. The young couple treated her 110 percent better than the sharp-tongued Saudi Arabian woman she had left behind.

Strangely enough, the Saudi Arabian couple didn’t put much effort into looking for her. Elsa thinks they did not want to be entangled with the legalities of violating her US visa. Upon returning to Saudi Arabia, they asked Hans to return to the Philippines and never return.

Disappointed kids

When Hans did return to the Philippines however, no one was more disappointed than their children. While they indeed loved their father, Elsa’s little brood longed for her warm embrace. There is just nothing like growing up with your mother’s unconditional love.

With Elsa earning a steady income, Hans did not find the need to seek employment. A year after he had returned to Manila, he had turned to gambling, drinking, and eventually womanizing. Elsa’s children resented his presence, and a gap began to grow between them and Elsa. They couldn’t understand why she was not the one who came back to them instead.

Still, Elsa called her family on a regular basis. She spent US$150 a month on phone cards when she first relocated to California just to talk to her children as much as she could. Yes, she was spending more on phone calls than when she was in Saudi, but she was also sending home much more.

The quality of her life improved. Modern appliances such as washing machines, dish washers, coffee machines and the like meant that Elsa easily transitioned to taking care of her young Filipino couple and their growing family.

But Elsa missed the first tooth that her children lost. She was not there to kiss scraped knees. She was not around to read bedtime stories. But her children all had enough to go to school and finish their education. Even more than Elsa was ever able to obtain herself.

Elsa would send home balikbayan boxes four to five times a year. She sent home enough money that she was able to buy the land that her family had been renting from her in-laws.

They were eventually able to build not one but two homes for her extended family. She was able to even help her niece who was pursuing a nursing degree. Eventually she would hire that niece to take care of her ailing parents.

But each birthday, when Elsa would call home, her family would ask of her. “Please come home. Never mind whether or not we have money when you come home, just be here.” They continue to beg, to this day. But Elsa is stuck.

Hoping for amnesty

She is staying in California, bent on the promise that one day she might be granted amnesty as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Elsa tried to go the legal route once, splitting the US$3,000 lawyer fee with her employers to see if she could apply for US citizenship. It simply was not possible given her situation.

Estranged for over seven years from her husband, Elsa had an American boyfriend last year who wanted nothing more than to marry her.

But having lived alone for so long, she felt suffocated by him. Should she have just married him for citizenship? “I refuse to use him or use anyone. I have made enough mistakes for this lifetime. I will not hurt or use anyone for my own gain,” says Elsa quietly.

The little baby that Elsa had once tended to as a nanny is now a teenager. Her siblings are now grown up and no longer need a babysitter. They are old enough to prepare their own lunches at school and no longer need Elsa to walk them there like she did when they were in elementary school.

Elsa’s starting salary has grown only a little over US$300 since she started working for the Filipino family over ten years ago. But still, she cannot and will not leave. For as long as they still want her around, which they still do, she will not leave. Elsa is part of their family now.

Her family in Manila, though, continues to grow and have growing needs. Both of her daughters are stay-at-home moms while their significant others have likewise decided to seek employment overseas. Elsa helped them with their plane tickets, passport and placement fees. “One does that one has to do”, she says.

In her spare time, while the children of her employer are at school, Elsa has taken up a sideline job for US$12/hour working for a neighbor who has two very little children. Between the two jobs, she is able to make almost US$3,000 a month on a good run.

Never enough

Still, it’s not enough. It’s never enough. In fact, as soon as Elsa is able to make the money. Someone needs the money. Her parents have been hospitalized over and over again. Hans’ parents have passed, and it was her sole financial responsibility to put them to rest.

Elsa looks at me and her happy face cannot hide that there is indeed regret in her eyes. “When I was little, I had only one school uniform and I washed it every day. I borrowed books from friends for school and took care of them. I took nothing for granted and worked extremely hard,” she recalls.

“With my children, they have never wanted for anything. I always sent money when they needed it. But in the end, all they really needed was me.”

Elsa’s voice becomes quiet as she admits that there was a long and painful rift between herself and her daughter who still has not completely forgiven her for leaving in the first place. Elsa wants to go home to the Philippines, but she is torn.

What if she leaves now forever, only to find out a year later that the US government indeed would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants like her. It’s too late for her to give up all that she has invested in her life, away from her family and those she loves.

If there is one lesson she has learned, it is this: “Be content with what you have. Even if you don’t have a lot, it will always be enough.”

Life choice

Her life choice to be away from her family has cost her everything. Her marriage. Her children. Life the way she knows it. Going back to the Philippines is a completely foreign idea to her now, having been away for more than 20 years.

Elsa blames herself for not leaving her Saudi Arabian couple without asking their permission. She blames herself for not raising her children on her own. She blames herself for not being there to care for her aging parents. Is it karma?

Maybe it is not. But it is the result of the pursuit of happiness and money at any cost. Elsa prays daily for forgiveness. She goes to hear Mass daily hoping to seek answers.

Elsa now knows for a fact though, “You may give everything to get what you are seeking, but there is a price for everything. The question is whether it is worth it.”

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