Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 1" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from Cordaid, an international development organization based in the Netherlands. The book contains a collection of 12 stories of the realities of migration as experienced by overseas Filipino workers and their families. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.


After many years of entering and leaving the Philippines, I still have this uneasy feeling whenever I fill out the portion of the Philippine immigration form which asks you to select how you would categorize yourself. It brings back memories of why and how I left the country in the first place.

Narrow definitions of “who is a migrant” shared by governments and migrant rights advocates alike in the Philippines and abroad further frustrate me as they, too, fail to capture the “whys” of my migration 15 years ago. Only a handful of migration experts have validated that difficult conditions in the country of origin such as war, and political repression and not just the aspiration for higher wages or better economic opportunities are equally important triggers of migration.

Unfortunately, those fleeing their countries for these reasons tend to end up in the definition of “refugee /political asylum seekers” to which I do not belong either. It is from this standpoint that I then labelled myself as an “accidental” migrant. This is my story.

The 'Exit'

I left the country in October 1990 to work for Amnesty International, a human rights organization which has its central headquarters in London. My involvement in social justice and human rights causes as an activist particularly during the time of the Marcos regime had exposed me to the work of Amnesty International. To say, however, that joining this organization was a rare privilege would be an understatement. “It was, in fact, a one in a million chance,” my husband, Alex, would say. He was speaking, of course, from his insider’s view of what actually led me to apply for a job abroad in the first place.

In May 1990, a warrant of arrest was issued by a local court in Quezon province against a number of NGO staff and activists who were identified together with high profile personalities of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the New People’s Army. Collectively, they were charged with “kidnapping” – a criminal offence that was non-bailable and punishable by death, if proven guilty. The charges were filed by the Philippine military with the aim of harassing and intimidating NGO and political activists whom they suspected of having links with the underground movement.

The strategy was to “criminalize” these activists so they would be pressured to withdraw from their legitimate causes - seen by the military as supporting the underground movement. Either way, the ultimate agenda was to shut off the open and democratic spaces that these activists had helped create. I was one of those activists targeted and included in the charge list.
Desperately wanting to take us out of the country for safety, my husband Alex, sent me a job advertisement by Amnesty International published in the International Herald Tribune. He encouraged me to apply. Ten days after sending my application, I was arrested by the military. I spent five weeks in jail leaving my three small children in the custody of my mother.

Throughout that period, I held on to the prospect of a job with Amnesty International. It kept me from feeling depressed and bitter about my situation. It gave me focus in defining my priorities. My lawyer and I decided to negotiate for my temporary release based on humanitarian grounds.

The day after my release, I received a fax message from Amnesty International saying that I was being short-listed for the post. I was instructed to be in London by the following week for the final interview. The military conditions for my release, however, did not include the right to travel abroad. Technically, only the judge in Quezon who issued the arrest warrant could issue my travel permit. This meant having to go back to my arresting officers and presenting them with the situation.

The letter from Amnesty meant that they could no longer block my request to travel abroad especially since it was clear that the charges were trumped up. The following day, I was on a flight to London for the job interview. I was offered the job the day after. It took just seven days, from the day of my release from prison, for my life to make that dramatic leap from being a victim of injustice to becoming a “winner” of sorts.

I continue to tell my story to friends about this experience as if it was a recent incident. I still compare what happened to me to a videotape played fast forward.

After 16 years, I have not wavered from my view that what happened to me was an act of Divine Providence. I am not a religious person and I have a very ambivalent attitude towards any religion. However, what happened to me in 1990 made me come to terms with the existence of God as a higher source of Power. This has kept me grounded and humbled about my existence. It has also given me a limitless source of inner strength to overcome still greater challenges that came afterward.

The 'Entry'

I assumed my post as Amnesty International’s Regional Campaign Coordinator for Asia Pacific four months after I sent my application from prison. The children joined us a few months later. I didn’t have the time to deal with the emotional trauma of my arrest and imprisonment, as I had to deal with the urgency of relocating the family and adapting to our new environment.

This non-disclosure of my trauma from imprisonment had its price. Years later, I realized that many of the problems I encountered in my relationship with others including with my husband and children were coming from some dysfunctions caused by not having allowed myself to have a proper closure of that trauma. I realized that I could not turn a new page in my life unless I did something about this urgent need for closure.

I received a lot of support from my employer and friends to ensure a relatively smooth and painless transition for everyone. Several things tend to stand out in my list whenever I am asked what the most crucial factors were that might have facilitated our “adaptation” to the country. Firstly, there are the insights about life abroad that we gained from our own travels before and from stories of families and friends who had migrated ahead of us.

Like many Filipinos today, both Alex and I belong to transnational families with sisters, brothers, and close relatives scattered in different parts of the world. From them, we heard many narratives about their lives as migrants so we did not really enter the UK from a zero base knowledge.

From them and from our own readings, we acquired a sense of openness to learn and adapt as much as we could to our new environment and this became a very important starting point for us. The values of taking conscious risks and learning from our mistakes acquired from our activist years have restrained us from falling into the “blaming” and “self-pity” defenses that tend to characterize a typical migrant’s early adaptation period.

Then there is the language. To be able to speak, write and understand English as our second language in the Philippines was certainly another important factor that made our adaptation to life in the United Kingdom relatively easy. However, I was shocked to learn later that my American English background had its disadvantages. To begin with, it would not help you gain the respect of the more snobbish native English. More importantly, there are those basic but much nuanced differences between the two that one needs to learn in order to adapt well in the UK. American friends told me that it does not work the other way around because the Americans generally have remained enamored with the original English speakers.

Finally, there is the factor played by the British’ long-standing attraction towards other cultures partly brought about by its own history as a colonial power and now formalized through a conscious State policy on multiculturalism and respect for diversity. Multicultural Britain, as many of my native English friends would proudly say about their homeland, is particularly palpable in the country’s major urban centers. It is typical to see, for example, a Catholic or Anglican church structure converted into a Sikh temple or a Jewish synagogue standing side by side with a Muslim mosque.
One can easily blend with the mainstream in cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, or Liverpool to the extent that you could even take your own color or difference for granted. Once you step out into the British countryside, however, it becomes a different story. It becomes very typical to exaggerate one’s difference in skin color, for example, as a response to the reality that the general population and their ways toward you, perceived as “foreigner” is typically white English. My native English friends and colleagues are very aware and are not proud of this aspect of their society. Many would jokingly tell me that their “identity” is that of a Londoner rather than English.

Negotiating 'identities'

Living in a multicultural setting such as that of London has taught me and my family to overcome a Pinoy tendency to stereotype people because of their physical features particularly their skin color. An incident during our first year in the country was an eye opener. I remember standing in the queue with my children to watch the play Miss Saigon. Surprised to see a group of young South Asian-looking teenagers queuing up to see the play, too, I nonchalantly asked them which country they came from. They all gave me a very cold stare and one replied with a very pronounced assertion that “we are from this country.” I am still deeply embarrassed at myself whenever I remember the incident. Those teenagers have certainly taught me a lesson about the dangers of racial stereotyping.

I take great pleasure seeing how my children have grown to become independent adults and very open and sensitive towards other people’s cultures and whose social circles are much more diverse than those of their parents. I envy seeing them very comfortable in their two “identities” and yet retaining their core positive Filipino values mainly because their environment facilitated it for them. Compared to mine, their collective experience in this regard is much more positive.

Being a daughter of a mixed Filipino-Chinese marriage, I was considered a “half caste” and was discriminated at a very young age in a traditional Chinese school setting in Iloilo. I take great comfort seeing that living abroad seems to break the cycle of discrimination. This feeling, however, is now being overtaken by new anxieties as I witness increasing incidents of racism and intolerance in societies such as that in the UK in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and the subsequent launching of the “global war against terror” by their governments. I have growing fears about the resurgence of discrimination and intolerance between and amongst communities that is fuelled by the media and government authorities and how this will inevitably affect my own children’s and future grandchildren’s future particularly their stability and security in their chosen “home” country and their own outlook in life including their “identities.”

Looking Ahead

I left the UK this year to begin my journey back home to the Philippines. Migration, to me, will always be a bittersweet experience. One never runs out of opportunities to see new places, learn new things about the histories and cultures of others, meeting new friends and building new relationships. Along the way, one may acquire a better understanding of who you are in the two-pronged process of adapting and negotiating your “identity” with that of others. The process, however, is full of challenges and, oftentimes, a very emotionally draining exercise.

For me, a solid sense of self-awareness of who you are is an important starting point to the process of negotiating between “cultures’ to become a meaningful and pleasurable life experience.

From this standpoint, I sometimes reflect with profound sadness that Filipino migrants of my generation who have come and settled in the UK have done very little in this regard.

Collectively, we have not done enough to inspire the next generations of Filipinos and Filipino-British to nurture the Filipino ‘identity’ and presence. There is an inadequate critical understanding of our roots and of our collective identity as a people amongst Pinoys of my generation in the UK.

Our view of Philippine politics is personality-based and mainly centered on the president. We tend to reduce Philippine economic reality to the question of exchange rate between the pound sterling and Philippine peso.

Except for the activism displayed by Filipino domestic workers in claiming their right as workers in this country, we have not gone beyond our translation of Filipino “identity” into those traditional summer barrio fiestas, the beauty contests and dinner parties to raise some money for their pet projects, and our religious gatherings.

The need to translate the respectability we have earned as a migrant workforce into a political power that would demand good governance in the Philippines and to become an important voice in the UK’s foreign policy and overseas development commitments to the Philippines remains a big and ambitious challenge.