Belmont Club

The Strangers

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Meet the Pinoy Hebrew-speaking Israeli-born Catholic. The Associated Press describes the dramatic change in the Christian population of Israel. Where once they consisted of Arab Christians whose roots in the locality went back for thousands of years, today they are the new arrivals from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe almost equal in number to the older communities. “There are enough newcomers now for a Catholic cathedral in every major Israeli city, said Rev. David Neuhaus, who heads the Church’s vicariate for Hebrew-speakers.”

On a recent Sunday, the chapel at the Ratisbonne monastery in downtown Jerusalem rang with the sound of hymns in Tagalog, one of the languages of the Philippines. Most of the worshippers were women who serve as caregivers for elderly Israelis.

There were 5,000 Filipino workers in Israel when Father Angelo Beda Ison, a Manila-born Franciscan who tends to the local Filipino community, arrived in 1991. Today there are 40,000.

For the first time, the Catholic Church has to deal with Catholic kids who are assimilating into a Jewish majority. There are now several thousand children born to foreign workers who speak Hebrew as a first language, celebrate Jewish holidays with their classmates and are subject, like children everywhere, to the pull of the mainstream.

Of course these newcomers do more than go to church. They bring all the customs of their native country, both good and bad, with them. In late June, 2009 for example, the first “Miss Philippines Israel” beauty contest was held at the Bahay Kubu Dance Bar in Tel Aviv.  But the dance nights are an occasional distraction; mostly they are there to work, as only desperate people can work.

Dangers which would curdle the blood of a member of Occupy are of no moment to them. A job is a thing so precious that almost any risk is worth taking to get it.

Even during the bombing of Lebanon in July-August 2006, when 1,000 people perished and thousands more maimed, only a few Filipinos out of the estimated 30,000 Filipinos in Israel and another 30,000 Filipinos in Lebanon evacuated.

Malu, a former caregiver in Israel who hails from Taguig, said she had long wanted to go back. “They paid well. I could even work non-stop with neither rest nor vacation. I still found time to buy and sell anything of value. … there are cooks, bartenders, drivers, diplomatic household staff and nurses, too. Ninety-one percent are caregivers, 80 percent of which are women.

Having known nothing but ill-use in the land of their birth and often in other countries in the Middle East, many of these Filipinos are completely surprised to find themselves treated decently in Israel.

by law, caregivers should receive a minimum wage of 3,710 NIS or around $914 a month. Less housing and utilities expenses, their take-home pay would translate to around $600 to $700. This is a lot more than what many domestic workers earn in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Lebanon, which would be $400 in the maximum.

When an employer likes a caregiver, he sometimes gives her a take-home pay of as much as $1,000.

On top of this, workers are entitled to a weekly day off. An overtime work is paid $50 per day.

Few words can convey the misery of the circumstances of their home country than the surprise these caregivers feel at being allowed one day off a week. You can tell they are not used to it.

Unfortunately this paradaisal state creates the incentive for Filipina caregivers to overstay their work visas. “Catalina, a former caregiver, said she was caught by the police thrice, but her Israeli boyfriend was able to bail her out. She was deported the third time, but she didn’t regret it.”  Israeli jails apparently hold few terrors for the desperate Pinoy. “Their jails are a lot better than ours. Food is a lot better there too,” said one woman carer. Better three hots and a cot in an Israeli slammer than starvation on Samar Island.

The intensely personalistic nature of Filipino culture creates an asymmetry of perceptions. To the Israeli state, Filipina caregivers are simply people hired to do a job.  But the workers themselves often develop a personal or familial attachment, of both love and hate, toward their employers. “Maria, a middle-aged Filipina from Cagayan, has found herself in a mother-daughter like relationship with her 86 year old Jewish ward and is now worried about leaving her ailing ‘Ima’ (mother) when her final two years of legal stay in Israel has lapsed.” Somewhere in Cagayan there’s a lady dreaming about the ‘great days’ in Israel.

One Filipino who worked in Israel wrote that the hardest thing the migrants had to accustom themselves to was a “nothing but chicken” diet. No adobo, no chicharon, no lechon. But it is a problem they eventually solved by patronizing Russian meat stores.

Imagine having chicken for breakfast, and lunch, and yes, chicken for the evening meal. Well, maybe some beef thrown in for few days of the week. Interestingly, some caregivers’ religious charges live on a strict kind of Jewish diet and so they have no choice but to turn themselves into avid chicken or beef lovers overnight. Maria, in jest, told me she is afraid we might eventually grow wings.

The other item of culture shock was the absence of a Jewish Christmas. One Filipino blogger wrote: “do you know that the Christmas is virtually non-existent in Israel? Filipino first-timers in Israel are simply left wondering when told that if they want to celebrate Christmas, they can go to Bethlehem for the Midnight Mass and perhaps enjoy some semblance of the Yuletide spirit with the town’s Christmas trees, Santa Claus, silver, red and gold trimmings and other decorations that you would not otherwise see in the rest of Israel, except perhaps in Jaffa where Arab-Christians abound. What an irony. Israel is supposedly Christ’s birthplace right?”

But the Associated Press article on the Christian population of Israel is too narrowly focused. The wider story is the impact of these desperate migrants on societies across the Middle East. One Filipino traveler noted that you could travel the length and breadth of Israel and get directions from Pinoys met along the road. He should have added that you can do this in many other parts of the Middle East as well. When I was in Beirut, I bought a cell phone SIMM from a Filipino merchant within 15 minutes of arriving at my hotel by simply walking around West Beirut and listening for Tagalog. When you hear it, home in on the sound and plug into the network. And what a network. When I subsequently met Lebanese ministers and the leaders of various political one could not help but be struck by the fact that their domestic staff, with the exception of one, consisted of Filipino servants.

Someday that story will be written, most probably by the non-menial contract workers who are often acute observers of Middle Eastern life. One such person has become an anonymous Filipino blogger. He captures the strange sense of dislocation some of the more literate migrants felt. He wrote on the occasion of being caught by a rain in an Israeli bakery:

I remember in Tel Aviv, I decided to buy some bread from Piece of Cake, one Friday morning. It was a gloomy day. I thought it was one of those days.

I had gotten used to Tel Aviv’s dark-grayish skies that seemed like rain is forthcoming, but would not deliver. But, that day it did. And rain poured down like madness. People inside the bakery came to the windows to check on the waters as they gushed through the sidewalk gutters, like fast-flowing stream.

Rain waters created a torrent of sorts, quickly rising up to the levels of the sidewalks of HaYamit. In Israel, rains are few and far between. Hence, for most Israelis, rain is like a blessing. Manna from the heavens is more like it. I can only imagine the awe and gratitude those people in Piece of Cake must have felt.

How I wish I could bring them all to Manila and experience its monsoon rains. Ten minutes and it has done. The rains were gone. The skies, however, treated them to a spectacle of rain waters. I treated myself to some piping-hot, freshly baked potato bourekas.

In consequence he will never be the same. Millions of Indians, Bangladeshis, Thais and Filipinos have passed through the Middle East. Their imprint has been unnoticed, but mostly because no one has looked.

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