Story

The Tandang Sora of Copenhagen

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Copenhagen City Hall

Copenhagen City Hall. Image by Ana Santos. Denmark, 2016.

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Tandang Sora 2

Rufina Valenzuela and her brother Patricio Valenzuela pose for a photo in Rufina's apartment in Copenhagen. Image by Allison Shelley. Denmark, 2016.

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Tandang Sora 3

A police station in Copenhagen. Image by Ana Santos. Denmark, 2016.

COPENHAGEN—To find Patricio Valenzuela, I only had to follow the sound of the shouting and chanting of the anti-war protest rally gathered at Rådhuspladsen, the Copenhagen City Hall.

We were originally set to meet at their home, but there was a change in plans. “May rally, maga-attend lang muna sana ako tapos punta tayo sa bahay,” he explained to me earlier on the phone. (There is going to be a rally and I would like to attend first then we can go home.)

Whether in the Philippines or in Denmark, you would expect to find Valenzuela rallying for a cause, fighting for social justice.

In the crowd, he was the first to find me.

A tall man, his whitish-blackish hair covered in a baseball cap, simultaneously smiled, said hello, and engulfed me in a hug like a long lost friend.

I imagine this is how Pat Valenzuela welcomes many Filipinos to Denmark and why he has come to be known as “Tito Pat” to many of his countrymen who have made this part of Scandinavia their home.

Political asylum seeker

Pat, 69, was one of the first Filipinos to be granted political asylum in Denmark.

He was a metal worker at the Subic Naval Base when he joined a labor strike in 1976 to lobby for higher pay and better working conditions.

Martial Law had been declared 4 years earlier and any form of public assembly had been banned. Pat was thrown in jail, and for the first 10 days, his family did not know where he was or how to find him.

He was tortured and imprisoned without a trial.

Pat was released from prison two years later and tried to settle back into normal life. He got married and started a family. But there were no jobs for men like him whose past included rising against the dictatorship.

He went back to organizing protests to fight for the rights of the landless and the labor workers in his hometown, Samal, Bataan.

One evening, friends from the underground movement needed a place to stay and Pat took them in. It was a fateful evening that turned into a shoot-out with the military. Pat was shot twice in the legs and again imprisoned.

But this time, with the help of human rights organizations, he was acquitted and released after a few months.

The pardon did not come with freedom. Pat's movements were tracked and monitored by the government; he realized that he could only be free in another country. In 1992, he decided to join his sister and apply for political asylum in Denmark.

Tita Pinay

Rufina “Pinay” Valenzuela, 63, is the quiet doting little sister and dutiful daughter.

When her brother was imprisoned, it was her monthly remittance that kept the family afloat.

The female Valenzuela was one of the 49 Filipina workers contracted by a Singaporean agent in Manila to work as chambermaid in the newly constructed Hotel Scandinavia. The 49ers, as they called themselves, arrived in Copenhagen in 1973, just about the time when Europe stopped its guest worker program.

“Tita Pinay”, as she is known in the Filipino community, helped her brother Pat get political asylum in Denmark and later, be reunited with his family.

Like many of the 49ers, after more than 40 years of working in Copenhagen, Pinay is now a retiree. Pat, after years of working as a building janitor and utility man, is also retired.

The two seniors could be enjoying the quiet laid-back life of pensioners, but they remain active in supporting the Filipino community in Denmark.

Pat is still very much involved in labor group Migrante Denmark and in Radio Pinoy, a weekly radio program that tackles Filipino issues. Pinay remains the doting, caring sister supporting her brother and her countrymen who need help.

The Tandang Sora of Copenhagen

Tandang Sora ito ng Copenhagen,” Pat said chuckling, referring to his sister. (This is the Tandang Sora of Copenhagen.)

We had arrived at Pinay’s apartment which was just a short bus ride outside of central Copenhagen. We were sipping coffee by the window overlooking the street waiting for Pinay to join us. She was bustling around in the kitchen, insisting that we have something to eat to go with the coffee.

In Philippine history, Tandang Sora is Melchora Aquino, the grand old dame of the Philippine revolution who fed, nursed and housed guerrilla soldiers, the Katipuneros, who fought against the Spaniards.

In Copenhagen, Tandang Sora is "Tita Pinay", one of the old-timers in Denmark whose home she and her brother have made available to au pairs who find themselves in distress.

Hindi lahat ng Dane mababait–’yung iba mapagsamantala sa paggawa ng trabaho. Pero pag nakasuwerte ka, ituturing ka talagang parang kapamilya,” said Pat. (Not all Danes are kind–there are those who will take advantage when it comes to making the au pair do more work. But if you are lucky, there are those who will really treat you like family.)

Pat and Pinay come to the aid of unlucky au pairs who, for various reasons, may leave their host families. They provide a roof over their head, a warm meal, and the company of an older aunt and uncle who have seen many things in their years in Denmark, and who assure them that everything will be fine.

Pat and Pinay are part of a safety net and action plan in place for au pairs in trouble.

At the start of the chain is a call tree. The Au Pair Network’s Jean Gocotano and Therese Baba Christensen man and operate the Au Pair Hotline and are the first line of assistance for those in need of help.

Gocotano, the Au Pair Network spokesperson, sets things in motion. She calls Pat to arrange for transportation to pick up an au pair or assist in a rescue.

Sometimes they just need to pick up an au pair from her host family or at a train station and find her a place to stay. Other times, it gets more complicated.

“Nakapag-partner na rin kami sa abogado at pulis para kung ayaw palabasin ’yung au pair, tawag lang si Jean sa abogado, may puwede nang tumulong,”
explained Pat. (We have also partnered with a lawyer and the police so we can call them for assistance in cases where the host family won’t release the au pair.)

When Pat gets a call, that’s also the sign for Pinay to start preparing her apartment for impromptu guests.

“Diyan sila sa sala maglalatag o matutulog sa sopa. Minsan, puno diyan,” Pinay laughed softly. (They will sleep there in the living room. It can get really full there sometimes.)

Migrant protection

The Philippines is recognized as having one of the most globalized workforces in the world. There are over 10 million Filipinos deployed as guest workers in over 100 countries.

Among migrant sending countries, the Philippines has been lauded for having one of the best labor migration practices providing information, protection and assistance.

In countries where there is a large Filipino population, a labor and welfare office is attached to the Philippine embassy so Filipinos will have a place to go any time they need help.

But in Denmark, where the Filipino migrant population is a relatively small one, there is no Philippine embassy, only an honorary consulate, a one-room office just outside of Copenhagen.

It is a protection gap that the Filipino community has taken upon itself to fill.

Pat remembers a few years ago when an au pair met an accident while on her bike and died. Insurance for au pairs was not mandatory then and the responsibility for repatriating her remains was unclear. The Filipino community pulled together, rallied friends, and raised funds to get her remains back to her family.

There have been improvements since then. Insurance was made mandatory for au pairs and in July 2015, the Danish government passed a “new improved au pair scheme”.

Under the new scheme, the monthly allowance was increased to DKK 4,000 ($600), the host family would have to pay for airfare to Denmark and back, and there is a clear division between time for household chores and leisure.

Pat and Pinay acknowledge these improvements, but the basic fact that the au pair’s permit to stay and living arrangements are hinged on a host family still pose a problem.

Hindi naman talaga ito cultural exchange, talagang cheap labor lamang,” Pat said. (It’s not a cultural exchange, it’s just cheap labor.)

One outspoken member of parliament agrees with him.

“They do not get paid enough. The work that the au pairs do–childcare and house cleaning–it is work. If we had guest workers, say from Africa, come here to do construction work, we wouldn’t just pay them an allowance and call it a cultural exchange,” said Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, a member of the Danish parliament for the Red-Green Alliance advocating for socialist democracy.

Au pairs have no rights when they get fired, the host family can just say they don’t want you anymore. They have no protections under Danish Labor Law because it is not considered work,” Schmidt-Nielsen added.

But Merete Riisager of the Danish Liberal Alliance said, “A lot of the misunderstandings (between the au pair and the host family) is because of poor communication and cultural differences.”

Riisager continued, “Being an au pair provides economic and cultural means to women who would not normally have the means to it. In that sense, it is still a cultural exchange.”

Until this basic issue of the au pair visa and permit to stay being hinged on the host family is resolved, there will always be au pairs who will, at some point, find themselves in need of a temporary home. And until then, Pat and Pinay will keep their home open to receive them at any time.

They are not alone. Along with them is a list of people–Filipinos and Danish citizens in various parts of Denmark, missionaries and churches–who have volunteered to open their doors and serve as temporary shelters for au pairs who find themselves in trouble.

Tungkulin naming datihan pa dito na antabayanan ang mga bagong dating,” Pat declared. (It is the responsibility of those of us who have been here for a long time to look out for those who have just arrived.)