It could be that being away from home somehow causes creativity to spring forth in people. After all, it was the diaspora Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century BC, who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek – and that was the translation familiar to Jesus and the first Christian generations. The diaspora Irish helped build the skyscrapers of many American cities and the motorways in the U.K., and for many years the Philippine diaspora has been achieving fine results across the globe.
Even if the Philippines is composed of just over 7,000 islands, still, it is a remarkable fact that, of all the sea-faring people on the earth’s oceans, a full 25% are Filipino (or Filipina, to include the ladies). There are indeed countries with larger populations than the Philippines, and with far larger numbers of islands (Indonesia is one example), yet the fact remains that of all the sea-farers on earth’s waterways, one-quarter of them are of Philippine origin. Pretty impressive.
Apart from those working nautically, there are millions of Filipinos working abroad: in their native country they are called OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers). Their number can only be estimated, because a good number are in their current countries without any legal status. But whether card-carrying legal emigrants or back-door entrants, many of them provide great support for their families in the Philippines (the money they send to the Philippines annually is in the billions, whether you compute in euro or peso). Abroad, they practise a type of austerity as a way of economising, so that they can remit even more to their families. They share accommodation, simplify their food budget, hold down two jobs, and so forth, so as to save precious euros or dollars, dinar or yen.
And the benefits at home are almost instantly apparent. Drive along any rural highway or around any rural town and immediately it is obvious who has a spouse or a child abroad: the new house stands out by a mile. Not only is it built of sturdier materials than the neighbouring houses (which would have used coconut lumber, timber, thatch, simple masonry), but it appears as a veritable mansion, often with Ionic columns, double garages for the cars – even turrets, for goodness’ sake! This is euros and dollars and sterling gone a bit mad. And often, the irony is that those living in the new extravagant manor houses are actually of a very humble nature, brought up in & used to much humbler circumstances. Their new found affluence is due solely to the efforts of family members working abroad.
It can’t be denied that the very rare husband in the Philippines puts remitted monies to mischievous uses. His wife will be valiantly toiling in some foreign country, and regularly sending home the financial help (euros, dollars, dinar), all for the construction of the new family home. She will regularly be sent photographs of the new house under construction, from the laying of the foundations to the fitting of the first blocks, and so on. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the hard-working beleaguered wife, there is actually no new house being constructed, but her happy-go-lucky husband is busy spending the hard-earned money entertaining his buddies: drinking, gambling, and looking for building sites from which to take photographs of houses being constructed!
And what benefits do Filipino OFWs bring to their host countries? I think especially that those in the caring professions (HSE, nursing homes) have earned a deservedly good reputation. (If there are rare exceptions to the contrary, they simply confirm the rule). Generally, Filipinos are of a gentle nature, kind, patient and loyal.
Apart from any physical services rendered, the Filipino community in Ireland has over the years conferred blessings, often in conjunction with Redemptorist chaplains. Catholic faith takes various forms in the Philippines, from the simply devout to the vibrantly charismatic, to the dogged search for justice (this last mentioned was the undoing of my colleague Rudy Romano, who was abducted in 1985 and never seen again, so I never met him, arriving as I did in 1986). The faith of Filipinos brought to Ireland is certainly of the former varieties – and it has enlivened and renewed many otherwise somewhat dormant parish communities.
Returning to the theme of the contributions of the Filipino diaspora, a Filipina friend of mine, who is a specialist nurse working at a London hospital which caters exclusively to patients with Huntington’s disease, told me that it is an especially tragic condition. It is a rare and incurable neurological disorder, which is hereditary and for which, so far, no cure has yet been found – even though the causes have been isolated. It causes its victims to suffer involuntary spasmodic movements and so can lead to social isolation or ostracism, and can, indeed, be fatal. And so patients and their families tend to hide the condition or deny it altogether.
In 2017 a meeting was held in Rome to further the development of possible treatments for the condition. Part of the agenda was a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. It was a truly memorable gathering, historic and exceptionally moving in parts. The Pope spoke to the gathered crowd of almost 2,000, and he was the first pontiff ever to utter the words “Huntington’s disease”, and further to say that anyone suffering from this condition was unequivocally welcomed and loved by God. That, in itself, would have been enough, beginning to undo centuries of folk-beliefs that the disease was the result of some occult force, or, God forbid, a curse from on high! Then Pope Francis spent time with each and every patient, chatting with them and embracing them.
But there were even more moving scenes to follow. Before the event, the organisers had asked two of the Latin American patients as to what would “make their day”. In response, the boy, Anyervi from Venezuela, was presented with a football used in a champion’s league game and a Barcelona shirt signed by his hero, the Brazilian Neymar. He returned to his seat thrilled that his dream was coming true. Even more moving was the girl Brenda from Argentina.
Her father had died of the disease when she was a young teen, her mother had abandoned her with the onset of the condition. Brenda had dreamed of meeting her musical hero, the folk singer Axel. As she sat on stage with her neurologist, unknown to her, Axel approached from behind, strumming his guitar, intoning one of his popular tunes. To quote from one report: “As he began to sing, she was struck by such cartoonish awe you could see the back of her mouth and whites of her eyes from a mile away. It would have brought a tear to the eye of even the most hardened science correspondent”. The reporter continued:
“As the families with Huntington’s disease left the Aula Paolo VI and dispersed into the throngs of tourists milling around the Vatican, they did so with their heads held that little bit higher”.