DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The word of the day is “emancipation” defined as deliverance, independence and a sort of liberation.
Biting her lower lip in concentration, Mayra Velonza–Ignacio scribbles furiously, repeating parts of the definition under her breath as if to etch it in her memory and not just in her notebook. She underlines the word for good measure.
“Every week we have a new word to memorize,” the 39-year-old explains. “We’re encouraged to practice using the word in sentences so we familiarize ourselves with its meaning and use it in our in daily life.”
It is Friday in Dubai and on this day in April, the sun is munificently warm and welcoming, adding a sheen to the glitter and shimmer of this Middle Eastern oasis.
It is almost a shame to spend an Arabian night like this indoors, cooped up in a conference room with about 30 other people, a mix of mostly Filipinos and Indians, a sampling of the guest workers who make up bulk of the city’s population. But this is how Mayra chooses to spend many of her Fridays – her only day off – sharpening her communication skills with other members of the public speaking organization, Toastmasters International. At today’s meeting, Mayra is the Timer. At the end of a member’s display of oratory capability through the delivery of a prepared speech, she stands up to summarize the speech and announce the time each speaker took, noting if he went over the limit.
The word “emancipation” has special significance for Mayra.
“I never dreamed I could do this before. I really really hated the idea of speaking in front of a lot of people,” she says, shaking a bit, the thought clearly still terrifying her.
“And you have to speak in English! Diyos ko po.” [My God.]
Not only has Mayra mustered up the courage speak in front of a group of people, she has also begun dabbling in public speaking and writing her own speeches.
“My mentors here told me to write about something familiar and the words would flow,” explains Mayra about her first speech.
So she wrote about Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman, Wonder Mom
Mayra shares a copy of her speech with me; it makes me sad and hopeful at the same time.
“I know every woman wishes to be a WONDER WOMAN for her family, especially her kids.
'We were very poor. As a mother, I did not want to see my kids suffering and enduring the same hardship we did growing up. I did not want to just sit in a corner and cry. So I decided to work abroad. Leaving my three little kids behind was painful. My heart swelled and my tears fell hard, but I needed to do this.
"You don’t need extraordinary powers to be a wonder woman or wonder man. Your unconditional love for your family and children is all the power you need. This is Mayra Velonza, a small wonder mom.”
Drawing an analogy between Wonder Woman and motherhood has been done by thousands of working mothers who juggle the pressures of a full-time job and the demands of parenthood. But to the thousands of OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) women, being a working mother demands another kind of superpower: the strength of will to leave their families behind and be denied the usual comfort afforded a working mom—coming home to her children at the end of each day.
First the men, now the women
Four decades after the Philippine government first launched its state-sponsored migration program, the Middle East remains the top destination country for Filipino guest workers.
In the '70s and '80s, Filipino men were the poster boys of labor migration working in desert oil rigs and construction sites. The slowdown of the building frenzy gave way to the demand for domestic labor in the '90s, creating employment vacancies that needed to be filled by women.
The 2013 Country Migration Report estimates that some 8 million Filipinos have participated in the overseas employment program since the 70s. Women now make up almost 50 percent of the OFW work force; majority work in households as domestics or caregivers. In the UAE, where the Philippine Embassy estimates about 100,000 work as household workers, there is a particular preference for the Filipino nanny.
“The Filipino nanny can speak and understand English (better than others). This is number one because she and her employer can communicate. She can receive and carry out instructions about the baby,” said Shaukat Ali, owner of an employment agency in Dubai.
Filipino nannies are also known for the love and care they give their wards, which Marla Asis, a researcher at the Scalabrini Migration Center says “is usually a transfer of love and affection that she cannot give her child”.
“Working as a nanny requires emotional investment. It compounds the guilt for many mothers because it reminds them of what they left behind,” adds Asis.
Abroad: Another place, another life
For many Filipinos, “abroad” is not just a place, it is another life. Abroad is both an escape and a solution to a life where poverty has killed hope and deadened the capacity to dream. For Mayra, it was the only way out.
When her sister, Nida, invited her to go to Dubai on a visit visa to look for work as a domestic worker, she accepted, despite the objections of her husband.
“He has no dreams. When I told him about my plans to go abroad, he told me: Why do you have to leave? What for? We’re all going to die anyway.”
But Mayra had dreams. They were, by any measure, simple ones: an education and nice clothes and shoes for her children. They are a mother’s minimum aspirations, but they represented opportunity and a chance to have a better life than the one she and her brothers and sisters had.
Currently, seven of the Velonza sisters work in Dubai as domestic workers. The other six siblings are in the Philippines taking care of their parents and the children who have been left behind. In her eight years in Dubai, Mayra has worked for various expats earning more than she ever could farming under the blistering sun in her province of Pangasinan, northern Philippines. Most of her Fridays off, she is at self-improvement classes like this one at Toastmasters International.
At Filipino Digerati, a volunteer teaching organization, she took basic computer courses like Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and Photoshop. Later on, she took photography. She now knows how to use the computer, a skill which is handy both in her role as nanny and mother. She teaches her ward in Dubai and when her youngest from the Philippines texts her to ask for help with homework, she can easily Google the answer and give a quick reply.
“The Internet connection in Pangasinan is slow and intermittent,” she explains. “Thank god for SMS. I text the answer and she thinks I’m really smart.”
Mayra can still perform a semblance of her motherly duties thanks to the wonders of technology, but physical presence and expressions affection are limited to vacations to the Philippines every one or two years.
“They’re growing up without me. Sometimes it feels like I’m just their relative and not their mother,” she says.
It is one of the many trade offs that she has learned to accept.
“I don’t think I could have learned this before in the Philippines. First of all, where would I get the money for these classes?” she asks.
Even with enrollment costs at a minimum, equipment needed to practice a new craft cost money. With her salary, Mayra is able to send home money to the Philippines and still have a little left over for herself. Mayra now has an SLR and a small laptop. She mostly uses the camera to take pictures on the trips she takes with her sisters while the laptop is used to keep in touch with her kids on Facebook.
“When I go home for good to the Philippines, I will use the skills I’ve learned to open up a one-stop events shop where we can offer balloon making and photography for parties and special occasions.”
When she speaks of the future, Mayra talks of eventualities rather than possibilities, of careful plans rather than desperate pleas thrown to fate.
The word of the day is “emancipation”—a word that Mayra has already begun applying to her daily life.