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.
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.
Seriously, how can you not love doing development work when you see your team braving the midday sun to reach people in their homes. Not going for lunch until all are seen and given the time to share their stories.
The year I left the Philippines to work overseas, the people of the world, were preparing for the doomsday. The main headline everywhere was the Y2K virus that was supposed to create havoc in the world, and the coming of Jesus was inevitable.
Nothing happened. No computer glitched happened, and no Jesus arrived with brimstone and death. So I forged ahead and started a new life as an expat.
My first international sojourn
I wrote in my blog The Reluctant Overseas Workerhow I came to be an overseas worker. It was not something I dreamt of doing after I finished university. The adventure to work overseas landed on my lap without me trying and when an opportunity like this comes who am I to refuse.
Cambodia opened the skies for me, it was my first destination. I didn’t have difficulty settling in because I have family over there.
I have a brother living in Phnom Penh since the early 90’s and my sister who is a nun was assigned there after the coup d’etat in 1997 until few months after I arrived in 2000. And the Filipino community I met was very welcoming and helpful.
The culture was different, but it was not very imposing that its hard to adapt, moving around was easy for non-drivers like me, and the food was great so you will forgive me when I say living in Cambodia, in any part of it, I felt like I was on perpetual vacation all year round. Security was touch and go in the beginning and it improved over time.
The roof of the royal palace late afternoon (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
View of the Central market in Phnom Penh from the top (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
My parents when they visited Siem Reap (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
Sihannouk ville sunset (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
One of the faces of Bayon – Angkor Wat compound (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
One of their gods wrapped in orange cloth – color of the monks (Dhidhak Collections/Cambodia 2005)
I arrived in the country when everything was rustic. and security was lax (but one cannot be complacent). Airports are like ground zero – old runway riddled with potholes, the airport was fenced with corrugated iron and we walked to the gate after we deplane. Once inside the small arrival area, I got the feel of the country — the noise, the chaos and the smell (much like some of the Philippines domestic airport).
Outside was another experience and that’s when I felt I am in another country. I was welcomed by the dusty humid heat and array of colorfully dressed women, men, and children. They are happily waiting and sending off families and friends by the truckload and it was noisily excited!
No time to rest, I was in my new center the day after I arrived. I went to meet my new colleagues and got the introduction and met the different people that I will be interacting with and would help me adjust and settle in.
I settled in well.
Too well actually because a couple of weeks after I arrived, experiencing how easy it was to work with my organization, my colleagues and my team I told myself I can do this and make this my new career move.
My initial contract was 6-months. I was only to give on-the-job training to a few therapists who graduated in the only PT school in the country in French. The organization that hired me was English, and the medium of instructions was English so imagine me, a wide-eyed young woman in a foreign land in a male-dominated industry trying to figure out how I will do my job and not lose face (that is me being Asian) in case I bungled it up. I managed to overcome the language barrier and easily settled in my work like I was born for it.
I was happy that among the seven therapists I was to work with, five of them are female and two are male but only two of them speaks good English. The head of the rehabilitation center was also a woman from the US. She runs the whole rehabilitation center and community program while her husband runs the prosthetics and orthotics workshop and the technical school.
It was very different from working in the hospitals’ in the Philippines (which hasn’t changed a lot since), I had more freedom to be creative, and innovative in handling cases. It was refreshing.
Introduction to international development
When I joined the organization that recruited me I had no idea what they are doing. All I had was information from what they sent me to read. I don’t even know much about the country. That was the time when internet searches were something to be dreamed of and the search engine doesn’t have that much-stored data yet and Facebook will not be born until after four years.
I did learn about Cambodia but with its old name Kampuchea from my history classes in high school and from what my brother told me. I knew about the Khmer Rouge genocide and that the people had to flee their country which that time I could relate to Vietnam boat people and of course the world famous Angkor Wat. But I had no inkling as to the gravity of the aftermath of the genocide until I was there and seeing them in my own eyes.
My new realities
I never saw that much amputation in my life. It was only when I moved to Cambodia that I realized it would be my reality on top of other physical disabilities that we will find in the community where the centers were operating. Twenty years after the war, I still saw acute cases because there were still landmines everywhere in the country. I tried hard to keep my emotion to myself and get on with my job. Others were not so lucky in controlling their emotions because it is just very sad to see the impact it has on the lives of the people at that time.
Back then the idea of talking about your feelings is as rare as watching a movie in a theater in Phom Penh. I managed my own stresses and emotion by looking at different ways to unwind and I am glad that Cambodia was such a hub for fun activities – live music, good food, touristic sites etc.
A lifelong commitment
The country drew me in and joining my organization Cambodia Trust that runs one of the successful prosthetics and orthotics school in the capital Phnom Penh and physical rehabilitation centers also in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville (Kampong Som) and Kampong Channang made the transition easy.
All the centers were providing services to people with physical injuries while the school trains technicians using Cambodian standard prosthesis – durable, lightweight and cheap produced locally. It was a fun learning and working experience. I was involved in anything and everything that has to do with uplifting the standards of physiotherapy and rehabilitation services in the country together with other organization in the field aligned with the prosthetics and orthotics services.
Discovering that there are so much to do with very little time, I extended my contract and eventually stayed in Cambodia for 6 years discovering more about human rights and international laws and treaties, and many more until it was time for me to move to another continent.
Note: This blog post has been published in https://mydecadelongtravels.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/adjustments-to-the-altered-realities-of-war-and-violence/
But what if you didn’t die when exposed to the cruelty of the world?
That person ends up disabled changing the dynamics of his or her life and of the lives of the people around them. Especially those closes to him or her whose coping with the change also affects their being starting from their psyche.
I call it the ripple effect as a consequence of trauma.
The impact of disability, which brings change to the person himself is too much. It is life changing, altering everything he worked all his life for. Everything that they know is normal is altered forever. In their mind, more often than not their lives are over, and with that thought, it is often difficult to convince people of the alternatives. That life continues with some accommodations to start over and build a new reality.
Like in any situation of trauma, people with disabilities undergo the process of grief and acceptance. No one can do it alone, help should be available when traumatic events happen in one’s life.
The assurance that “you are not alone” should be there to see the person through the initial shock of the new reality of being alive and of being different.
The difference should be a part when the person learns to accept that it does not change anything more than the appearance. His or her mental health should be considered immediately to allow reality to set in with less dramatic effect on his understanding of his or her new person. Accepting together with him or her would be the closest people in his life because, like rearing children, acceptance of change is a “village.”
Not knowing what is there for him or her, and for them further traumatizes the person’s mind and body that is why it is important that during emergencies, psychological first aid – counseling is available and accessible to all.
Mental health support is for all the people that surround him or her as it will buoy them over to the new reality of their lives and prepare for their environment. This is accompanying immediate medical and physical support to get the person back on his or her feet and start to follow the process until a new life, an accepted reality is reached empowering the person himself and those around him into continue living because at least that they can do something about it.
No one support is more important – be it physical, medical or mental health support. We have to look at the person and acknowledge that what s/he needs is a holistic approach to allow full and complete recovery. And continue to be part of the environment with the support of the people around them, equally able to adjust to the new life brought on by senseless war and violence in our world.