The Church also needs to know migrants are not milking cows

This article first appeared in the Mabuhay section of Sunday Examiner, the English-language weekly of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong in one of its September issues. BethSabado, a nurse from Pagadian City, Zamboangadel Sur, is a Columban lay missionary and has been based in Hong Kong for nearly three years as Coordinator of the Lay Missionary Central Leadership Team. She worked in Taiwan before taking on that position.

HONG KONG (Mabuhay): Migrant workers in Hong Kong frequently describe themselves as milking cows in the eyes of their government and families.

A usual Sunday crowd in HK

But Beth Sabado, a lay missionary to Taiwan and nine-year veteran manager of a migrant refuge in Taoyuan, says that the Church should be added to the list of those seeking to squeeze the bit of extra money out of them.‘People back home think that just because they are working overseas that they have plenty of money’, she told Mabuhay on 17 September.

‘It is not uncommon for them to get letters appealing for money for a new chapel or something in their home parishes, when the workers themselves are really struggling to make ends meet’, she continued.
From Pagadian in Zamboanga del Sur, Beth says that she is delighted that the Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People(ECMI) is launching an awareness programme for the families of migrants in Mindanao to make them more aware of the true situation of their relatives who have crossed international boundaries in order to try and give them a better life.

‘I love the aim of the initiative’, she said, quoting Bishop Ruperto Santos as saying that remittances should be for families to use to improve their situation, not just rely on them as their sole income.

Chatting with the OFWs

‘So many times I was shown letters begging for money for parish projects; fiestas, baptism parties, new chapels and all sorts of things. The workers would be really worried, because they did not have the money and found it just so hard to say no’, she recalled.

‘They would then try to get some money. Ask things like, “Can we take up a special collection at Mass?” Or even borrow money to send back, even though they could not repay it’, she said.

‘It is just so difficult to say no, especially if the appeal letter comes from a parish priest or parish pastoral council’, she continued, adding, ‘I would ask residents in the refuge if their families knew they had lost their jobs. Mostly they said no, but when the time came to send the monthly remittance, they would do almost anything to get the money and not admit their shame’.

Beth Sabado believes that a big part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the families at home do not understand the true circumstances of their migrant worker relatives and, since the migrants themselves do not seem able to carry out that education process, she thinks that a Church initiative to step into that role could be a God-send.

‘After five years at the Hope Workers’ Center in Taoyuan I returned to Mindanao to meet their families’, she said. ‘I showed them pictures of migrant workers on the job—walking dogs, shopping, pushing wheelchairs and carrying bags for their young wards, as well as on the production line in the factories, or in their dormitories, also their workplace injuries and when they were sick.’

Nowhere to go except to spend their day off on walkways or under the buildings in HK.

Beth added that many times the families were shocked to see the situations their wives, children, mothers or fathers were actually in, as all they had seen before were pictures of them in plush shopping centres, in beautiful parks or at the occasional fiesta.

‘They did not know about them huddled under awnings on their days off in places like Central, trying to keep out of the sun or the rain. Or sitting on the cardboard boxes in the streets or in the gutters of Chater Road’, she commented, ‘so they did not understand.’

‘Nor did they understand the financial struggle, or the agony of being asked for money when they literally were not able to respond’, the Columban lay missionary continued. ‘And the common myths migrants use to sustain themselves were not known to them.’

OFWs having a 'picnic' in their 'play house' during their day off.

Beth said that she believes that the ‘pop wisdom’ of sayings like, ‘Filipinos love their families so much that they are prepared to leave them’,” falls far short of an adequate description of the real situation.‘In some ways I think that this understanding is illusional’, she reflected.

‘At a weekend with the children of migrant workers in Davao City I asked, “When you become a parent, will you be prepared to leave your children to work abroad?” But the answer was a resounding no’, she related.

‘I found a disconnect somewhere’, Beth explained. ‘What the migrants in Taiwan thought they were doing was not recognised by their families at home. And the snapshots of the reality shocked people.’

With Children of OFWs

She added that she believes that greater attention must be paid to defining and describing what family love means, asking who it is for. Is it for the children and their true well-being, or just a parent’s dream of a child succeeding where they failed?

‘Love needs to be empowering, as well as sustaining’, she reflected. ‘Just being supported does not fill the lonely void of absence, especially in children.’

The Columban lay missionary explained that she believes that there needs to be an empowering element in family love and, by and large, this is what she discovered was missing on the home country end of the equation.

‘This shows in the perpetuation of the cycle’, she noted. ‘So many children of migrant workers become migrant workers themselves. Or they hire a domestic worker for the family locally, who in turn leaves her family to care for someone else’s. The cycle is both international and domestic.’

The lay missionary said she believes that this is a gap that a Church initiative like the Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People program can be extremely effective in bridging.

‘If it does little more than show the true reality of the migrant worker it will be a great contribution’, the 46-year-old lay missionary said. ‘But I believe that it can achieve a lot more than that in terms of promoting an understanding which can help address the alienation from family that many workers abroad experience.’

However, Beth also believes that the first place such an education program must begin is with the Church itself.

‘Parishes must stop looking at migrant workers as milking cows’, she said. ‘Priests and catechists need a much better understanding of what they are doing and truly address issues, not just play into the hands of the popular mythology that drives the addiction to the remittance culture.’

 ‘What the migrants in Taiwan thought they were doing was not recognised by their families at home. And the snapshotsof the realityshocked people.’