When I can I compose my thoughts and put them in writing. After months of flying to commute between Kampala and my homebase I am back on the road. This time there are a lot of thoughts put into this time and I am sharing it with you.
How many of you remember your first overseas sojourn outside the Philippines?
I am sure you were very excited with a mixture of apprehension of not knowing what to expect from the airport of origin to the new port of entry.
I finished a course in college where we are destined to be working overseas. My friends already had contracts signed for the US before they even graduated. They cannot stop talking where they will go, but not me. I didn’t find working overseas appealing until I experienced it myself.
A little backstory
I content myself working in a tertiary hospital 10 minutes walk from my house. The hospital was behind the zoo and next to the Manila Bay. The lion was my alarm clock, but I don’t need to rush to go to work. I eat proper breakfast, and I always get to attend the morning mass before I head to my department to prepare.
I was seeing an average of 40 patients every day and supervised at least six students. I was not obliged to attend any meetings, so all the time spent in the hospital was mostly patient care and supervision-training of future therapists.
And then I got bored. I got disillusioned with my chosen profession because being in a tertiary hospital; you don’t get much excitement regarding the type of cases to treat. We had the usual instances of strokes. Then there would be the occasional fracture, cerebral palsy, and plenty of arthritis.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to be with those people, but it just became monotonous and mediocre before I even knew that word exists.
Despite the department being the hub for cases that take forever to heal, the people I met and gave treatment to are the best people you will encounter in your life. The most grateful people. I was well fed with local delicacies because one of my oldest patients owns the biggest stall in the Paco Market, selling all local “kakanin” (treats). We met special people too, and they get attached to their therapist that sometimes it becomes a competition – a healthy one to who should go first.
Then I changed work.
For a year, I became a secretary of one medical association. I can’t say it enriched my life except being organized. I discovered how awful some doctors are in real life at the same time I made friends for life.
I decided to quit for my sanity’s sake and took the ship to go to the south of the Philippines and discover General Santos and Davao. It was a good break, and it also broke the bank that pushed me to accept the first job offered by a competent doctor I met the year before.
I became a research assistant and bypassed the recruitment process until I can’t anymore. That stint enriched my life – it opened my eyes to a full new understanding of research and ethics. And of course office politics.
A blessing in disguise
I can’t seem to get my laboratory to become a regular employee. After several attempts, I accepted that I would only work as a temp and wilt away in the lab with the monkeys.
Until I got a call from my brother saying he gave my credential to one international organization in Cambodia and should wait to be contacted. Eventually got the proverbial call, offering a short term job training local physiotherapists on the job. How hard can it be? Since I was already doing it, the decision to accept didn’t take too long to come.
I got hired.
The organization processed my paper immediately once I had all my documents in order, and two months after my birthday celebration in the year 2000, I flew out of the Philippines landing in Cambodia to start a new adventure, and I never looked back.
I thought long and hard before I accepted the work in Gaza when I was asked late 2015. I just got home from a 6-month emergency response mission in Nepal when it was requested, and I made my decision to join the team on Christmas day of that year and completed all my preparations to leave by the end of January 2016.
It was not easy because of the story one hears about the Middle East and of Palestine. I followed the story of Yasser Arafat when I was younger, and I had vivid in my memory the image of him barricading himself with rubbles during the intifada and him shaking hands with other dignitaries to commit to a peaceful solution in the situation between Israel and Palestine.
I almost backed out when I was asked one document where I have to give proof of life messages in case something happened and when all the precautions were told to me, including turning off my Facebook account in fact I get checked in the immigration.
In the end, I am glad I accepted the post.
I was met with resistance on all sides when I arrived.
One will think that because I am from the Philippines, I will have it easy in Israel, well it was not smooth as most Filipino I knew who had been in the country before because of my different situation, but it was still good comparatively.
I entered using a tourist visa, and I was told after waiting for some minutes in the side room that I should get my work permit, or they will deport me. So you guess right, I got it in time and stayed in the country for at least a year.
When I finally crossed the border to enter Gaza, I was not welcomed by the national staff like I am used to in my other projects and by the technical referrent in the region. Eventually, the cold reception in Gaza thawed but not the one in the area. But that is ordinary office drama, and I don’t very much care about that.
What I care about are the professionals I meant to work within the community and the people with disabilities they visit in their homes. That was more fulfilling and more worth my time because it gave me insights into the lives of people living in what’s dubbed to be the biggest open-air prison.
Day and Night view from my window
Out in the fieldKnufe (spelling varies) from one of the best sweets makers in Gaza who happens to works with us.
The mornings and afternoon in Gaza give me the hope that life is what you choose it to be looking at the sunrise and sunsets (mostly the latter as my room faces the Mediterranean seas).
Last night I dined with a friend. He’s the coordinator of one big international humanitarian NGO. We worked in a very different field, but somehow it is still connected.
Over wine, we got talking about the kinds of things we see in our places of work. On why expatriates like us are discouraged from being in insecure locations such as inside the settlement to spend the night, let alone live every day.
I said I would not do it. I am done with my cowboy days but I am sure young humanitarian actors will push their luck and try the adventure. But is it an adventure to live with the refugees if you represent oppression and reason for them being displaced? Maybe not, but that’s a story for another time.
On a more serious tone, our conversation gravitated on the subject of abortion. Since both of us work in the health sector, these are subjects we know are sensitive, and talked on hushed voices, and never blurted out in daylight, but we know it happens, and justified.
You see, without blaming anyone or any agency, we know that rape happens in the settlement or camps. People are in an insecure location and vulnerable situation, and many are just vultures taking advantage of the case, and the people they think are below them.
Imagine my surprise to hear that not only women are vulnerable in such a situation. In one week, he said they got report of men being raped but women out numbered them. Reports of defilement is available at police stations, but whether or not perpetrators are apprehended is hard to tell.
So, what he told me why they do it – abortion to victims of rape, made me think twice about why I am doing what I am doing here in Uganda. I even have to agree to disagree with him based on my faith.
That’s why abortion is hush-hush is because it’s the last resort. He said the best is still to have more robust policies on the protection of women and men against sexual exploitation and abuse, and stronger enforcement from the authorities. But when that system fails, there should be a support network that will catch these women victimized by their vulnerability, in a place where they thought they are protected but are not.
Being a victim is a hard pill to swallow. The psychological trauma it brings to the victim makes it hard for them to think straight. The fear of being discovered, labeled, and eventually ostracised in a community where you’re supposed to get your strength from to go on each day is tremendous.
What happens when the rape resulted in pregnancy?
That’s when another cycle of psychological trauma happens. Being pregnant from a rape always remind that person of what happened, of how she was not able to avoid it. Blame herself for bringing it to herself. The fight internally gets intense, making it hard for her to fight back, and often, the psychological trauma wins over the rational way of thinking, which can lead to many difficult decisions, including abortion and the worst suicide.
The mental health support system is as complicated as it can get. Not everybody understands what they are talking about, and when in such a complicated situation, often, the victims are left to fend for themselves. Making it hard for women to feel they had someone on their side. My friend told me that even he doesn’t like that program they have on abortion, but after seeing women getting into such a situation, he knew it has to be done. But he also told me that its the last resort when all support fails, and if they don’t do it, women will also find a crude way to get rid of the pregnancy that will also put their life further at risk.
So for us not to get there, as a humanitarian actor, we have a lot of responsibility for the people we serve.
First, when we design policy on protection and prevention of sexual violence and abuse, don’t let it on paper and pretend that action will magically materialize. No, it never does, that is why we should put weight on it and enforce it. We are making sure something or someone answers for the atrocities received in the hands of perpetrators.
Second, empower the support groups. Avoid the victim-blaming that often happens when rape is discovered. Nobody wants to be accosted and violated. Notably, no one should take advantage of a vulnerable situation to exert power over women and men.
Third, regardless of faith practices, we have to find solutions that best serve the many. I am not endorsing abortion. Like my friend, I am against it and will never advise it on anyone, but if all else fails, make sure that the solution identified will serve best the person and allowed to believe that s/he is not a victim but rather a survivor.
Fourth, as a person, we are our brothers and sisters keeper. We look out for each other and support each other by making sure that we all are equitable. God never wants harm to come our way, He wants us to live in harmony, but the world is crazy now. We become selfish and self-centered to the point of destruction.
The life where I live now is never easy. We make do of what we have, take advantage of the simple pleasures where it is merited. My friends here and I take our jobs seriously, that’s why our after-dinner subject was something that resonated in my head long after the wine wears off.
It’s the dry season, and I am back in the southwest visiting projects implemented here.
As expected, it will be very dusty.
The streets are parched. The rain that falls barely kiss the ground before it is dry again. The trees turn into different colors catching the specks of dust from the air every time a car passes by.
You can see that the whole journey is like going back in time from the movies of the Wild West, that anytime soon a guy with guns holstered on his waist will start calling out for a gun sling competition.
Its Sunday in the Philippines, and I am halfway to my final destination in Entebbe.
The seven weeks holiday is finally coming to an end and will soon be going back to humanitarian work.
Many, if not all, of my friends except of course those I knew from expatriations do not understand what I do. I mentioned that to Yaya Sabel and said: “she thinks she knows what I do but don’t understand.”
She is not alone.
Even my dad was clueless and only realized what I’ve been doing overseas when I shared with him the information I need to share with family in case something happens to me. That was five years ago.
Many people, when they see you travel for work, the first impression would be to work as domestic help or DH. Many Filipino and other countries like Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, and India have people leave home to work as domestic regardless of background to support their families back home.
But I learned a long time ago also that there are skilled workers like my dad was when he worked in Saudi Arabia for 23 years.
Then with all my travels, I met a lot of Filipino working in hospitality, including those in the duty-free shops in small and big airports. Health workers, and of course, there’s a bunch of us working in the field of humanitarian and development in countries with varying security levels.
Working for the vulnerable
Such a big word, vulnerable. I learned that word over time. It was not in my vocabulary when I joined the diaspora in 2000.
All I have was technical medical and rehabilitation words and management jargon.
I am not the kind that goes on the ground when an emergency happens.
I am more the second wave humanitarian worker. I do mostly recovery, rehabilitation, and transition together with many colleagues with different expertise.
The kind of work I do allows me to see a different perspective in life after an emergency. It’s completely different from the kind of life most overseas workers have when I meet them in countries that has labor relations with the Philippines.
There’s no monotony in the kind of work I do, but I meet the same types of people you meet when working and traveling overseas – the good, the bad, the ugly, and a mix.
So what exactly do I do?
In the world of technical support and coordination (my big words job title), what I do is to make sure the project and people are aligned to objectives that have been agreed on when the project was designed. This happens when the emergency settles, and security is restored, or sometimes it can arrive at the same time.
I join the team to ensure we are within acceptable standards locally and internationally to the limits of my specialty and practicality. Which often is overlooked when responding to emergencies.
It may mean I train people, and I check their work as we implement projects, at the same time, prepare for the materials and links that can help them remotely. Since we take care of people’s wellbeing, I have to be very clear, and no misunderstanding or my ass is on the line.
It may also mean I handle transitional work or I read and review documents which require more time and brain cells to do than actual fieldwork if you get my drift 😉
From time to time, I share snippets of my work and some photo of the people and places I’ve been. But I try to be careful too and not overshare. As we sometimes deal with sensitive issues or simply exercising better judgment. There’s a better platform for it if one is keen to find out.
So as I wait for my connecting flight to Entebbe, I sit here in Doha people watching, composing this article, and drinking my first cup of coffee for the day.
Talk soon in East Africa!
I intended to see the majestic Kilimanjaro. The mountain I heard so much about from friends who had no problem climbing mountains. It was once in my list of mountains to conquer, when the knees, the weight, and the heart are still in their prime.
Anyway, I had a good time at least, watching the brothers when my plane from Nairobi passed over the mountain, exposing its snow-covered top in the early morning of July last year.
It feels like Tanzania is just a dream, and Kilimanjaro is an illusion since I visited the country six months ago.
It will take me two days before I can go to where it is located.
Meantime, I enjoyed the warm days on the beach of Dar Es Salaam doing nothing but watch the sea, read, nap, eat, and drink, taking in all the sun I could bear.
Azure Boutique Hotel was a haven. A welcome respite from the heat of Arua in the north of Uganda, west of the Nile river.
Even the crab fascinates me.
After a good rest, good food and a good night’s sleep. I was excited to plan my next destination and see more of Tanzania.
Ten months after my recovery from an injury in 2018, I accepted a job to support the refugee crisis in Uganda. By mid-November, 2018, I found myself changing continent once again, and psyching myself to live up north, west of the Nile river.
Uganda, like the Philippines, is mostly Catholic. They have the same faith practice as us, though we are more into the fanfare, colors, and traditions. Theirs from my experience is mostly tradition and loud music.
When December came, instead of me planning to take my holidays outside of my new country, I decided to spend it with the locals. Thinking that since it’s with a family, I’ll get to experience “holidays a la Uganda.” Of course, I had a bias coming from the Philippines where Christmas season begins the moment the months’ last syllables end in “ber.”
It was not the same. Instead, I get to live and experience, central Uganda way of life, especially on food and experience my good friends family’s faith practice without the fun-fare, lights, and colors I am used in my country.
That’s why when I was asked to stay for another year, one of my conditions was to be allowed to travel home and spend my collected leave in my home country.
As always, the Philippines did not disappoint.
I arrived with music and decorations fitting to my expectations. The airport was alive with live music from a chorale while families and friends are eagerly awaiting their loved ones.
At my home, the motif was blue and silver with LED fairy lights. My dad’s little yellow house is like always on fire when the tree is lighted. Food, of course, was what I missed – the traditional rice cakes and the pork dishes I only imagined back in Uganda.
Meeting friends was inevitable, and it is still fun catching up on what has happened since we last met, also going back to our kindergarten life.
I got sick, of course. The change in the weather and long travel made me weak after Christmas, so New Year was a little subdued, but still, nothing beats an hour of fireworks display before I return to a slower welcome to 2020. When I welcomed 2019, I was in bed before midnight, and we don’t have the big table of food and pastries that are served to welcome the year, and I was not part of our family’s welcome photo. But this year, our yellow motif was punctuated by me wearing my yellow and black Ketenga cloth wrap dress.
As I continue to enjoy my seven weeks break, the Taal volcano, which is 50 kilometers away from where my dad lives, erupted. One moment was still planning to make a road trip; the next thing I knew, all the places we planned to visit is covered in ash.
The momentum change. I cannot be idle while on holiday. I was avoiding to work, but I cannot let my friends down. I helped in any way I can.
Two days after it erupted, I had my eye surgery. A minor operation, but very sensitive. It prevented me from going to ash-laden provinces and be at the forefront. Instead, I used my connections to help mobilize support to the most vulnerable people in times like this – the people with disabilities and the elderly. Pretty much the same as what I am doing in Uganda.
I am glad I have friends that are present on the ground and providing specific support to people with disabilities in the evacuation centers. And those, making sure funds received are provided to those that needed them the most.
In the end, my holidays turning out to be very enriching. I don’t celebrate the hardship people have now because of the Taal volcano erupting. I celebrate the people that heed the call for help, and the Batangueno affected for trying to help each other out.
I celebrate those behind the scenes, helping in any way they can to support the efforts on the ground.
I have a couple of weeks left before I go back to Uganda, but before I do that, I will celebrate my birth month through our yearly feeding program. Isang Bata Isang Tasa (One Child One Cup) started 13 years ago, as a way to thank God for a new year by sharing my blessing to the children in my community.
We give special attention to children under five and children with disabilities to encourage them to live healthier. We also educate their caregivers – mother, father, sisters, grandmother, etc. on how to continue to live a healthy lifestyle, in body and mind.
Once done, I will plan now for the 14th year, looking for sponsors and additional activities to make sure that we bring this service beyond my village and help more kids appreciate growing up healthy and clean all the time.
Until the next celebration!
This article had been published in World Pulse