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Lament of an OFW child at forum on migrant workers’ plight

10 January 2019

Xyza Cruz Bacani

By Daisy CL Mandap

Twenty-three years on, and Xyza Cruz Bacani still remembers the time her mother left their home in the Philippines to work as a domestic helper in Singapore.

“I woke up one day and she was gone, just like that,” the celebrated migrant worker-turned photographer said at a forum on migrant workers’ plight held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre on Dec. 16.

For the then eight-year-old Xyza, her mother’s unexplained departure left a wound so deep it took decades before she could come around to understand that it was more an act of sacrifice than of abandonment.

It did not help that her father, a construction worker who came home only on weekends, made no effort either to explain why her mother, who had been working as a laundrywoman, had to leave.

So, at a very young age, Xyza was left alone to look after two siblings, one five-year-old, and another three.

“For an eight-year-old child, that was not easy to handle,” said Xyza. “I had to grow up fast, even if all I could do was cook noodles for my siblings.”

Another memory that stands out was when Xyza had her first monthly period, and not having any adult to explain to her what was happening, she assumed she was about to die. “So I went over to our neighbor and said, ‘I think I am dying.’’

Her resentment was cemented when, just a month after leaving home, Georgia sent home a picture of her smiling beside a Christmas tree, with several gifts lying around.

“She left in November then sent a picture in December of her surrounded by Christmas gifts. So I said, ‘I hate you!’ and that resentment built up over the years.”

Little did she know that her mother was having her own problems, having been trafficked to Singapore and mistreated initially, until she found her way into the home of a rich and caring employer in Hong Kong, with whom she has been working for more than 20 years now.

Eleven years after her mother left home, Xyza decided to drop out of a nursing course, and work as a domestic helper for the same kindly employer, Kathryn Louey.

But Xyza says she was driven more by the desire to help send her younger brother and sister to school and not to be close to her mother.

“So when I came here I did not know my mother. I kept pushing her away,” she said.

It took three years before she saw how her mother had sacrificed through the years so their family would have a better life.

Xyza first noticed that her mother did not go out during her holidays, which she says could be a throwback to her first employment in Singapore, when she was not allowed to take a day off. Xyza also learned that during those difficult days, her mother was fed only noodles twice a day.

Georgia’s frugal and simple ways have persisted despite being in Hong Kong for two decades.

“Can you imagine being in Hong Kong for 20 years and not having gone into an MTR station, or a bank?”, Xyza, now a globe-trotting photographer, asked her audience.

“That’s when I realized she did not leave us. She has sacrificed a lot.”

One of the speakers at the forum, renowned journalist Sheila Coronel, academic dean of Columbia University’s Journalism School, tackled the ‘profound impact” of migration on the children left behind by the migrant workers.

She said a study shows that three million Filipino children have been left behind by migrant worker parents who have passed on much of the child-rearing to other people. Most affected by the separation are children 8-12 years of age, and its impact is felt more by boys.

Coronel said the Philippines’ labor export program was started as a stop-gap measure to help the country recover from the oil crisis in the 70s, but it has lasted for decades so that there are now second-generation migrant workers like Xyza.

The exodus has continued because remittances from Filipinos overseas remain as the country’s biggest source of much-needed dollars.

But despite the huge dollar earnings from overseas Filipinos, the Philippine government has failed to improve public education and health care.

“So in a way, the government is escaping responsibility for the most vulnerable sectors of the economy,” said Coronel.

Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, spoke on how the Hong Kong government has also failed imported workers by enacting policies that diminish, rather than enhance, their rights.

Journalist Zoher Abdoolcarim served as moderator.

The forum was part of a series of activities held to launch Xyza’s  book, “We Are Like Air,” and an accompanying photo exhibit. Xyza says the book’s title refer to migrant domestic workers who play an important role in society yet are often invisible.

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