Thursday, July 1, 2010

Many Foreign Refugees Find New Lives in Manila, Philippines

This article from South China Morning Post was shared to me by my friend Vicky G. of Heirloom Rice. I feel proud and inspired on how the article put the Philippines in a very positive light. Reminds me of the words in Leviticus 19When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

The message is very clear, God is compassionate and protects strangers, those who risked all to find new lives in foreign land and He expects His people to do the same.

Good job Philippines!

(Image courtesy of Villavi)

Manila is heart of a new home for refugees
Publisher: South China Morning Post
Author: John Carney
Story date: 20/06/2010
Language: English

Once a refugee, always a refugee is a common saying, but one that is not always necessarily true. The surprise is that one country where urban refugees have been made welcome and built themselves new lives has plenty of its own problems to worry about.

Natural disasters, poverty and corruption have ravaged the Philippines over the years. Catastrophes are a way of life. It is the Filipino people's natural optimism and cheerfulness that keeps them going. What they lack materially they more than make up for in spirit.

Because of this, urban refugees have made a fresh start in Manila and the surrounding area without judgment or scorn from Filipinos. When you have been through what some of the people of the Philippines have experienced, it is no big deal. If you are from other countries and want to live this kind of life as well – more power to you.

The fact is that, for all the troubles of the Philippines, some countries have it even worse. John, 63, and Isabelle, 57, are refugees from East Africa. Even though they have lived in the Philippines for 23 years, the married couple are still afraid for their lives.

John and Isabelle are not their real names and they would not specify which African country they came from. Both hold professional jobs in the Philippines, though they would not say what they were, and neither would discuss the specific reasons for leaving their country.

It is true that in a way they are still fleeing from the past, but the life they have made for themselves in the Philippines has made a huge difference to them and their family.

"We knew nothing about the Philippines when we first got here. We didn't even know that the people spoke English and thought we'd have difficulties communicating," John said.

"When you are fleeing your own country you just go where you can. We had tried India but soon we were moved on. We arrived in the Philippines with four children and didn't know what to expect, but we had nothing to worry about as we were warmly welcomed. The people are so friendly. Soon we began to make a life for ourselves."

John and Isabelle have work permits that they renew each year and hope to become naturalised citizens soon. Naturalisation is a notoriously slow process in the Philippines. Their children all have Filipino passports and consider themselves to be Filipino rather than African.

"They have lived their lives here," Isabelle said. "They speak Filipino fluently and it doesn't matter about the colour of their skin. When young US-born Filipinos come back here to visit on their holidays, our children are translators for them as they can't speak Filipino."

Thanks to the Philippine public school system, all the children were educated for free and went on to obtain degrees.

"The kids all speak three languages – Filipino, English and [African]. When they have a secret they speak to each other in Filipino because John and I still don't speak the language very well," Isabelle said. "They have had a great life and education here, we couldn't have asked for more."

When we think of refugees we think of row upon row of white tents in a sprawling emergency camp. But the reality is that as much as half the world's 10.5 million refugees now live in towns or cities.

Cities present obvious opportunities to remain anonymous and make money, but there are also dangers; refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention, and they can be in competition with the poorest locals for the worst jobs. Since 1951 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided international protection and assistance to the world's refugees, and the Philippines is no different.

Mainland and Hong Kong media were recently able to see first hand the work the UNHCR has been doing in Manila, and it was a chance to gather information for an exhibition on urban refugees that will open today at the World Expo in Shanghai to celebrate World Refugee Day.

Actress and honorary patron for the UN refugee agency Yao Chen was in the Philippines with the media group to meet and film a segment about urban refugees, which will also be shown at the exhibition. "I want to try to highlight what these people are going through," she said. "By meeting some refugees in the Philippines I've seen how they have flourished with the help of the UNHCR. We have to keep up the good work."

Mohamed Sefyan could not agree more. Originally from Sudan, Sefyan, 43, has lived in the Philippines for 23 years. His life changed while he was doing a degree in marine engineering and sent some books back to a friend in his homeland.

Some of the books were banned in war-torn Sudan and his friend was sentenced to 18 months in jail for receiving them. Sefyan was blacklisted and there was no way he could go back.

"There's no freedom of religion in Sudan. The religion is Islam," he said. "I sent my classmate from school some books about other religious faiths and their teachings – that's when all the trouble started.

"He went to jail and suddenly I was a refugee. Financially it was hard and sometimes I only ate one meal a day, but I was eventually given a work permit and the people here were so friendly. They helped me a lot.

"Eventually I met my wife, Lailanie, and we have a son, Ahmed, who is 17. Hopefully he will go to university next year. I hope he can be a senator or a congressman in the Philippines one day."

Sefyan has not seen his six brothers or three sisters since he came to the Philippines, but his mother visits when she can. He works in public relations for the Qatari embassy and is waiting to take the oath to become a citizen. Sefyan has no regrets – bar one.

"I never got to play football professionally in the Philippines because they were not that interested in it," he said. "I had played for the Sudan under-17 national team. I was a striker and wanted to be a professional player, but it doesn't matter now.

"I have achieved all I could have dreamed of in the Philippines. There's a good future for my family and my son – something he would not get in the Sudan. Back there, people are oppressed. I don't ever regret sending those books home. I'll send more back if I can."

Somali refugee Dr Guremamun Abdullahi had no option but to stay in the Philippines, where he was studying after war broke out in his country. He went on to complete his PhD in agriculture and 24 years later was still living in Manila.

After help from a former classmate, Dr Ireneo Ramat, he got a job with the Quezon City Bureau of Soils Office, where he is now a landscape architect. He is also waiting for a hearing on his initial application for naturalisation. Abdullahi's life is very different compared to that of the family he left behind in Mogadishu.

"I had five brothers and four sisters," the 53-year-old said. "Two of my brothers are dead and two are in refugee camps in Kenya. They are suffering. It's hard because I cannot help them. I'm fortunate to be in the Philippines – if I was back in Somalia I'd be dead or in a camp. I'm one of the lucky ones."

The stories of John, Isabelle, Sefyan and Guremamun are not new for Bernard Kerblat, who has worked with the UNHCR for nearly 29 years. Waves of refugees have come to the Philippines over the decades.

In that time he has witnessed the generosity of Filipinos first hand, despite the many domestic problems they have had to endure. Kerblat felt the quality of asylum and integration for urban refugees in the country is remarkable. In many countries, refugees are seen as a burden but not in the Philippines, where they can contribute to a community that welcomed them.

"The Philippines is supportive and hospitable despite all their own problems. It's not diplomacy, it's just how the people are," Kerblat, operations co-ordinator for the UN refugee agency, said. "It's a place filled with human stories, human experience and human life. A place that welcomes others who've had a past of fear and pain into a future of rebuilding and normalcy. It is give and take, though. The refugees that have come here don't want to just reap the benefits, they want to contribute as well. The Philippines is unique in its hospitality, so the refugees who come here want to repay this kindness to them."

There is no better example of this quid pro quo than Palestinian refugee Jalal Aboughaula. His family moved from Gaza to Kuwait in 1959. He was studying for a degree in chemical engineering in Manila – it was the only place that would accept him – when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990. The Gulf war that followed meant Aboughaula was stranded in the Philippines. His family all eventually returned to Gaza, but Aboughaula was determined to make a life for himself in the Philippines.

He was living in Manila on a student permit, and once this expired he eventually gained a work permit. After overhearing some Saudis struggling to order food in a restaurant, he offered to translate and before long he was being employed as their tourist guide.

From this Aboughaula, 43, started up his own travel agency. After a few more years he soon found that there was a gap in the market for an employment agency where he could use his contacts in Saudi Arabia to send Filipino workers there, mainly to construction jobs. His employment agency has blossomed into a lucrative business and his final hearing for naturalisation is in November.

"When you are a Palestinian you are classed as having no country, but that doesn't apply to me any more as I consider myself Filipino now," he said. "I haven't seen my family since 1990. I can't go there and they can't leave Gaza. It's sad, but life goes on. It's not a sacrifice when you live in a caring and facilitating society.

"Being in the Philippines has given me more than financial stability. It has given me a home and peace of mind."


  1. Q: is the Philippine hopeless?
    A: this article

  2. Despite a challenging global economic environment, the Philippines has risen in the world economic rankings to 107 from 115 previously. Philippines is better off than Thailand and South Korea in terms of economic resiliency from global financial crises.
    One of the factors that keep the Philippine economy afloat is the continuing currency remittance from overseas Filipino workers which was earlier forecast to fall sharply but did not happen. Foreign exchange remittance came almost at steady pace as Filipinos abroad continue to send financial assistance to their relatives and families in the Philippines.

    In terms of jobs, the Philippines has registered positive growth in the business process outsourcing sector as a good number of BPO companies have set up their facilities in major cities in the country.

    There is soooo much hope in the Philippines!

  3. I always look for foreign articles about the Philippines and its people, and usually, being hospitable and friendly are the traits that they were highlighting about us. This article is very inspiring, and a challenge for our fellowmen who doesn't have work and those who are working overseas, that if those refugees find hope and better future in the Philippines, why we, FILIPINOS, always complaining for it?. We have to realize the things that we already have and appreciate not the money but what the Lord has given to us!.
    Thanks for sharing this article!. :)

    1. Excellent point Civ. Filipinos need to be more appreciative and optimistic. Thank you for the comment.