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Desert Life
Surviving Separation

Vicente Collado Jr.
Doha, Qatar
March 18, 2009

For many Filipinos, working abroad is the only way to survive. But doing so often means leaving loved ones behind. And this physical separation in itself could be a rough road to travel.

Judy is a Filipina cashier, a close friend of Sema. Since their company relocated a year and a half ago to the other side of the city, we have not seen her that much. Only on some occasions when we need to go to a bookstore near her workplace do we get to talk to her as we make it a point to drop by and say hello.
With Judy

The last time we were there, she just came back from the Philippines after the funeral of her mother who died after a two-year bout with cancer. At first, her mother lost one hand and then a kidney until finally her life.

But, at least, I was able to say goodbye to her. She really held on and waited until I arrived,” Judy told us. “Seeing her in so much pain, I just told her: ‘Just go, mama. Don’t worry about us anymore. We will survive. We will be fine.’ After a while I just felt her grip loosen and that is when I knew she was gone. I started to cry.

But, the death of her mother was just the latest in a string of loses for Judy. Ten months ago, her father died suddenly of heart attack. It was certainly unexpected as he appeared to be a healthy man. “Maybe it was out of stress. He really worried a lot because of the cancer of Mama,” Judy explained.

Judy is now left alone with three younger siblings to care for. Her fifteen-year old brother has to stop schooling because her salary is not enough to cover for his tuition.

I have a lot of problems but every time I am with Judy I feel I am the luckiest person alive,” a colleague of hers told us.

Judy is still grieving but she now exudes an air of peace and serenity, perhaps, coming from the acceptance that in this life there are simply some things beyond our control.

Rachel has been working in Qatar as a domestic helper for four years now. Her monthly salary of QR600 remained unchanged despite the Philippine requirement of a QR1,500 monthly minimum imposed a couple of years back. When her contract expired three months ago, she took a vacation in her hometown in Bicol while desperately trying to convince her former employer to give her the release paper or NOC she needed to get a new job in Qatar. Her persistence paid off, and she is now back, having signed a fresh work contract with a newly-arrived Scandinavian couple with two children.

Her present work is infinitely better than her previous one. She receives QR2,000 a month, the normal rate Europeans pay their maids. She is entitled to a one day leave each week and, if she doesn’t avail of it, she is paid an extra QR100. A month without a day-off could mean QR400 or PhP6,000 additional income for her. She was given a state-of-the-art mobile with two SIM cards, one for personal use and the other for work, with loads free.

And her current work is also significantly lighter. With her former employer, she spent practically the whole day cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing and washing the dishes. And, as if this had not been enough, occasionally, she would be asked to render the same service at the house of her employer’s parents. During Ramadan, when her workload doubled or tripled, she could only manage three hours of sleep a day. However, with her European employer, it’s a whole new world. She is certainly not deprived of sleep. The household amenities complete, she no longer needs to wash the dishes or do other household chores manually. And the people in the house are not so demanding when it comes to food. They instructed her to just prepare any food she knows how to cook and they would eat it. She has been serving them adobo, kare kare, menudo, kaldereta and other Filipino dishes, and they like them. It seems they still have to try her bicol express.

I also have a boy as old as he,” she said as the four-year old son of her employer hugged her and complained of a grumbling stomach. The little boy is Sema’s classmate and he just escaped from the on-going birthday celebration of another classmate at Burger King in search for food. The parlor games were taking too long and the children were already hungry.
Birthday Celebrations

He and his sister have gotten so close to me. At times they sleep in my room. I really miss my own children every time they cuddle up to me,” she continued as she gave the child some fries and nuggets.

Rachel has five children. The salary of her husband was not enough for their education that’s why she took the decision to work abroad. “It should have been my husband doing this as he had a lot of opportunities and offers from foreign companies. But, he has a phobia of leaving the country,” she said.

Her new employers will be in Qatar for five years. After that they will be moving to Spain for another five years. They are so happy with her performance that they want to bring her to Spain with them if she is willing. “Of course, I am very much willing. I don’t want to take risks anymore with employers. For the sake of my family, I will do anything even learn Spanish if necessary. But, I don’t know if my four-year old son will still recognize me when I finally go home,” she smiled but suppressing some tears in her eyes.

Separation spurs people to work harder. But, it also has an ugly face all too visible nowadays. In an online forum in Qatar, Margarita (not her real name), an OFW, posted the following:

“It seems I can’t get out of this situation. I have a husband and two children who are in the Philippines. At present, I work as a secretary in a company. Because of loneliness and solitude, I ended up falling in love with an officemate who is also married and with children. We now love each other. We are always together and we are happy. If I resign and go back home, my earnings here would be a waste. What should I do?”

To those up to date with current events, stories like this are no longer shocking. It happens to many Filipinos all over the world. Broken families, children from unwanted pregnancies abandoned in orphanages, imprisonment or deportation are just a few of the grim consequences. It seems this has become the common fate of countless kabayans seeking better fortune away from their families.

As expected, Margarita got an avalanche of advice telling her to cut the relationship immediately before it got worse. Many reminded her she made the sacrifice to go abroad to give her family a better future and not to break it apart. The exhortation to disengage came strongly from a lady who suffered so much pain because of an unfaithful father who got entangled in a similar mess. Personal determination, trust in the power of prayer, abandonment in the hands of the Almighty and getting involved in the activities of the Filipino online group were some of the means suggested to Margarita.

Some others, of course, had a less serious approach, considering the problem as nothing more than an itch she herself can scratch on her own. For faster relief, others suggested calamine lotion. For a permanent solution, others suggested efficascent oil with salonpas or antihistamine tablets that not only relieve the itch but also sedate her to sleep thus allowing her to forget about everything, at least, momentarily. And, if nothing of these works, she better hit her head against the wall to get back to her senses before other people in the forum victimized by illicit affairs banged it for her.

Margarita responded she had exactly the same idea about such matters before she got embroiled and she still holds the same view. It is just that extricating herself out of it seems to be getting more and more difficult each day.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for people involved in and affected by this kind of problem. It is quite obvious that committing infidelity did not even cross their mind when they left their families behind. They certainly had the best of all intentions. But, separation has the undesirable effect of exposing them constantly to the occasion. And all it takes is one moment of weakness for them to get stuck irreversibly like flies in a sticky paper.
Nestled In Offices Away from Home

Some companies, who are all aware of the havoc prolonged separation could cause to the families of their employees, are implementing a certain work scheme that allow their workers to have at least 3 months of leave each year. The scheme consists in making them work 12 hours a day. They don’t have their families with them anyway so why not just devote their free time to work. This means that in nine months they shall have rendered the required number of annual work hours. Of course, leaves are scheduled to allow for a non-stop operation of the company.

A friend of ours is very creative when it comes to fighting loneliness resulting from being far from her husband. She brings him here regularly on family visit visa. And since family visit visas can be extended to six months she is with him practically the whole year. When the visa expires he just goes home to the Philippines for a week and then comes back again for another six months. While here, he gets busy with all sorts of odd jobs.

Very soon, though, he may not need to make a visa run because the new sponsorship law about to take effect in Qatar will now allow women to sponsor their families as long as they meet the income requirement. Previously, only men can sponsor their families and only in exceptional cases can women do the same.

There is no doubt physical separation from loved ones is a tough challenge. And whether we like it or not, we always have to give up if not lose something, big or small, precious or not. But, the challenge is not insurmountable. With precaution and a proper frame of mind, it is not impossible to cope.

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