Letter from Manila

Iris Gonzales joins a repatriation flight bringing home Filipino workers – a bittersweet rite of passage.

Illustration by Sarah John

Whenever a plane filled with returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) touches down at Manila’s international airport, a loud, thunderous applause reverberates around the cabin.

Elsewhere in the world, travellers may roll their eyes over the lack of sophistication in clapping, or even see it as an insult to the pilots. But not in Manila, where the yearning for home among returning workers who have been away for years – decades even – is so intense that nothing can stop them from cheering at the exact moment when the plane’s wheels touch the runway.

I heard it on the return leg, when I joined a repatriation effort to bring back 317 distressed Filipino workers from Beirut. Many in the cabin had not been home for more than 10 years.

There are 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers toiling in distant lands as domestic helps, chefs, nurses, caregivers, mechanics and what-have-you. But since the Covid-19 pandemic battered economies worldwide, many have lost their jobs in their host countries. They have no choice but to return.

When the government’s repatriation team invited me to cover the trip to Beirut, I knew the case was a bit different. Lebanon had already been on the brink of economic collapse even before the virus, putting the Filipinos there in a much more difficult situation.

Weighing up the risks of travelling during the pandemic, I spent days considering whether I should join the trip or not. I would have to take a swab test before the flight and upon arrival, and undergo quarantine when I got back. But a voice inside me kept saying that I should go and tell their stories. It was the least I could do.

I knew something of the hardships faced by the workers because at one point in my life I had been at the other end. My mother had worked abroad for a while in order to send my younger sister to school. It had been a sad time for our family.

In the end, I decided to join the turnaround repatriation flight. We spent only five hours in Beirut. We fetched the OFWs at the Philippine Embassy in Lebanon where their friends and employers joined them in a send-off ceremony.

As the sun set over the city, they boarded the plane, their lives packed in suitcases of varied shapes and sizes.

On the flight back, I met 35-year-old Maricel, who had worked as a cleaner. ‘There are no more dollars in Lebanon,’ she lamented. It’s the reason she was going home. The Lebanese government and its banks have run out of foreign currency; the Lebanese pound has lost nearly 80 per cent of its value amid hyperinflation and unemployment. There’s no job waiting for her back home. But she was excited at the prospect of seeing her son again, only four when she had left and now a 15-year-old teenager.

Looking down at the Nile from my seat, I kept wondering what would happen to others like Maricel. At least 200,000 OFWs have returned to Manila as of this writing.

My thoughts circled while waiting for the 11-hour trip to end. Many Filipinos were forced to leave our country to find better jobs abroad. Most of them dreamt that it would be temporary and they would return home one day. But that return has come about very differently from how they imagined it. They’re only home now because of equally difficult circumstances in their host countries.

I fervently hope that one day these poignant narratives will come to an end and OFWs will have better stories to tell.

My mother returned home long ago and is now retired. She spends her days gardening. But the time she had to spend toiling abroad, and away from us, is lost forever.