I left the Philippines when the new virus started to affect Wuhan. That was the first of February. I went prepared, even brought with me masks and hand sanitiser. It was the only time I spent over 3 hours waiting for my flight. Then, I arrived in Uganda not having to get myself checked or quarantined, like it is now. I only have to show the usual yellow card to let the officers at the airport know I am vaccinated with yellow fever and I’m good to go.
Two months since, I am self quarantined in my little house up in West Nile after I was told I am a PUM – person under monitoring.
I left KAMPALA just in time for the government declaration of national lock down, even private vehicles are not anymore allowed in the streets. But I was there in Kampala when the first case was confirmed. The same day most expats with families are able to leave to go home fearing the worst being here. I got exposed from one of those under 20 people despedida, thanks to the many meetings we do trying to anticipate the arrival of the virus at Uganda doorstep.
With the national lockdown, my organisation has to stop our field intervention in the refugee settlement. Myself being in quarantine is relegated to work-from-home and had to endure Skype meetings to get something done for our projects.
Social distancing is already hard, being self-quarantined is harder. I don’t envy those with families with them, especially young kids. The same time the office has output expectations while on it. But hey, I am not complaining, just stating facts!
The virus is a great equalizer; it is a serious business. If we don’t follow all the precautionary measures we put many peoples life at stake, and to be in charge of getting guidelines for our intervention in the failed, I have to set an example for all.
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.
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.
Yesterday I started sending messages to my friends in the Middle East wishing them “Ramadan Kareem” (which means Have a Generous Ramadan) despite all the sadness we hear in the news of Palestinian women, men and children being killed for wanting to return to their homeland and all the other countries at war now and of people being ostracized and killed for being different.
The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful. [Quran 2:185]
The faithful continue to believe that all these shall pass and we will see a peaceful world. As Catholic, I also wish the same, and I think others too practicing other religions, wants a world where we can co-exist and enjoy the freedom to express who we are, what we believe and who we want to be.
Then I remembered a chapter in the book of the Dalai Lama talking about religion and how it can make us a better person.
We know that most of the crisis and war around the world are fought in the name of religion or the belief that that is what their gods believe they should do and gain their place in their heaven.
But many of us know that the teachings of the different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and other faith practices are towards peace, love, tolerance, acceptance of our differences and in fighting off excessive desires (in wealth and fame). And all of that is inert individual characteristics that we already possess. That is why, if we banded together, we would eventually win the war that is ravaging our world now.
According to the Dalai Lama, we can have philosophical and metaphysical views on religion at the same time live it according to your daily existence. But he also said that “although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradicts each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness which will make us better, more devout people”.
True right? It all boils down to our understanding and accepting that we may have different faith beliefs, but we are similar on a spiritual level. Others may profess it outwardly, but it doesn’t mean they are more faithful than the others. It really depends on how you live it out, on how you’re spirituality makes you a better person for others.
Each one of us may believe in one way and one truth but it doesn’t mean that it is the same for the next person, we should be open to accepting the truth of other traditions even if it goes against our own convictions regardless of its reasons and how it affects others.
We as a person should have our own conviction but we should keep an open mind and be tolerant to those who don’t share them because that makes us different from each other but at the same time similar in a way that we accept each other to be like you — a person living each day trying to be a better person for others.
I am happy to say that all my friends who responded to my messages are all fine together with their families. They want us to remember them in our prayers and to keep up wanting for world PEACE!
The world has changed since I set out to conquer it two decades ago. Progress has reached most of the countries I worked with and new challenges had risen overriding perineal problems of poverty, accessibility to basic services, human trafficking, joblessness. With the rise of populism, strongman syndrome, and complete disregard of humanity in war-stricken countries (Syria and Yemen) and man-made disasters (Plight of the Rohingya) that targets us humanitarian workers and civilians especially women and children.
We still have a lot of things to do.
Many airports have improved from the list of countries I visited, it was my sign of progress. I used to experience eating “fish and chips” for breakfast in a 1-hour flight in Cambodia flown by Russian pilot I was having smashing drinks the night before. Or travel 12 hours by road in the pot-riddled hi-way going to the north and only after 4 years, public buses started to ply the paved road and the 12 hours going to Siem Reap reduced to 4 hours if the driver doesn’t decide to sleep before continuing.
I had the exposure to life and situations I wouldn’t have known if I stayed working in the hospital in the Philippines even if the people I am helping are those that would rather buy food than to go to hospitals to seek medical attention.
I worked for a long time in the disability sector. My training in school didn’t prepare me for the training I learned in the field. I learned how disability is created and become part of the big and dynamic disability movement advocating for the rights of the vulnerable and the marginalized including people with disabilities. I was immersed in the sector when the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was launched in 2006, a significant treaty that made history – it being signed by over 100 countries when it was launched in March of that year. Many laws and treaties followed, and new goals were designed to continue to support the most marginalized sector in the global society.
I trained a lot of people. I told my friends I teach in classrooms with no walls. In return I learned a lot from them too, I become self-conscious that I am just one tiny person in the vast world of issues that matter.
The problem doesn’t get solved. There are still countries willing to fund wars and fund terrorist and pretend to do actions against them. I was in France when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the year after the issues of cluster bombs was discussed in Paris, and the Convention on Cluster Munition was launched much later. The organization I worked the longest (www.hi.org) actively advocated on banning the use of landmines and cluster munition during a war. Sad to say, some countries producing them won’t agree to stop because there is no livelihood alternative for them (Billions $ invested in producers of globally banned cluster bombs) to do. But what is sadder is the collateral lives affected by the use of cluster bombs and landmines … especially children (The human impact of cluster munitions) long after wars has ended.
I was exposed to the consequences of war. I lived in the biggest outdoor prison called Gaza Strip while I enjoy the perks of drinking alcohol in the land stolen from them by their oppressor across the border. I also lived in the most reclusive country in the world that is already opening up (latest news: North Korea changes its time zone to match South). But they are not comparable.
I got stopped at checkpoints and lied to get my way out of a bind. I escaped narrow death coming down slippery slopes in places where the road is an imagination. My drivers are my best friends in all my mission, including taxi drivers.
I lived with people who otherwise I will not encounter in my life. I worked with a lot of French people but never learned the language but adapted their accent for better understanding. I sometimes return back to the American accent I am always mistaken to have, but I guess that’s just my Filipino accent muddled with all the language I have stored in my head.
I tried to impose self-gag because sometimes it is the right thing to do. My actions, my words and maybe my thoughts (out loud) can have consequences. You never know but what I do know is that Big Brother is always watching.
Join me as I continue to be an active observer in this crazy world of ours and try to be chill with it accepting that we live in an imperfect world.
The late Joy Irving, my first mentor as community worker and educator told me “we cannot change the world all at the same time but we can make a difference alone one brick at a time”
And that is what I am doing. I will continue to stack my bricks to create the foundation to support all that I and like-minded people want to achieve in our lifetime.