Thinking of My Father, the OFW, and the Tragedy of Being 'Modern-Day Heroes'
My father turns 60 this year, and for most of his life, he was away fighting somebody else's battles. Much like the millions of other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), my old man spent his best years in unfamiliar land. He worked in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years, and missed some of the most important parts of his and his children's becoming.
Working 90-hour weeks and going home twice or thrice a year to see your family was never ideal to him nor to any OFW, but it is what it is. We always hear people say that, as we get older, the years speed up more than we can comprehend. That was the case for my dad, too. He told me once that even though the days were unrelentingly slow, the years flied by, just like that.
Whenever he would leave for his flights back to the Middle East, he could never say goodbye. My mom would always drive him to the airport in the middle of the night. Him tucking us in and hugging us before he went was enough.These were his lasting images of our childhood.
He didn't have the heart to tell us he had to bounce, but frankly who does? My father once said that OFWs save their crying for the airport restroom stalls, and that's why we never saw him cry when we were younger. The reason to stay and to go was the same: it was for the kids. And it can be difficult to explain that to a child.
Thinking of the diaspora of OFWs, we often see in the news how important they are to the economy. We also hear a bunch of various feel-good stories. These are great and all, but they do not reflect the sadder truths beneath OFW life. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority shows that total OFW remittances sent in 2020 were close to P135 billion. I guess that's heroism for you. But my dad would always scoff at being called a "modern-day hero" by the state. Heroes, for the most part, have a choice while OFWs such as himself, didn't.
The token, template "thank you" for his supposed service annoys him. At some point, he had grown disillusioned with the cheap talk from the government and rightfully so. He was a probinsyano from rural Ozamiz, after all, and life was cruel. He had to go to Metro Manila to even get a chance at a good life.
While the rich look at struggle as tests to pass, my dad and his people know struggle as a way of life. Resilience is the only option because, well, it's better than having to sit around, shrivel, and die. But more than survival, my father wanted a much better life for his family, one that was better than his. He ended up working various odd jobs first, including being a farmer's assistant and construction worker, before going abroad.
We'd think that being a hero would have gotten him heroic incentives. But most of the time, OFWs don't. Some can't even afford to have a middle-class lifestyle in the Philippines. In 2020, our country only ranked 61st out of 82 countries in social mobility in the World Economic Forum's inaugural Global Social Mobility report. Three quarters were in the middle-class category while less than a quarter classified in the lower-income cluster.
My old man saw God-knows-how-many presidents, senators, congressmen, and more talk a big game about how they were going to improve the lives of OFWs. Papa never bought any of it. The fact that my dad still had to work for that long of a period just for a decent life says a lot about the state of OFW affairs in the country.
Life has, nevertheless, been kinder to us. But papa can't help sometimes but think about what life would've been if he were richer and could've just stayed in the country for employment. Our birthday parties and basketball games would've had him there. Spontaneous father-son trips could have been had. Mundane conversations in the morning before school would've been cool. Getting to see the children become who they ought to become would have been nice, too.
But hey, coulda, woulda, shoulda. These were not our circumstances. In reality, my father had lived a very isolated life. Aside from the occasional Yahoo Messenger or Skype call, he didn't have many people to talk to in Saudi. And sometimes, the rolling dunes of the Middle East would get to him.
Depression in OFWs is a real epidemic. OFWs go through a process of unbecoming once they stay in another country for long periods of time. It's a different language, culture, and people, after all, and they risk losing their own once they arrive in a foreign place. That strangeness can be crippling and it can force workers into severe prolonged bouts of loneliness.
OFWs reckon with these alternate identities on a daily basis. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a thing. In the report "A digital mental health intervention to reduce depressive symptoms among overseas Filipino workers," 30 percent of OFWs in Macao said they had depression and anxiety while roughly 25 percent experienced PTSD.
What's more, OFWs have to constantly live with the possibility of maltreatment, discrimination, and abuse. In 2020, Statista had recorded close to 5,000 OFW incidents of abuse, with a bulk of them coming from the Middle East. My dad once told me that there were even Filipino men in Saudi who would grow facial hair just to avoid being sexually harassed.
OFWs also get lost in the crosshairs of geopolitical conflict native to their region. There's the imminent danger of death, too, in extreme cases. Recently, OFWs in Ukraine were escorted back to their homeland in light of the country's war with Russia. Seeing these events transpire, my father recalled one hell of a war anecdote of his own.
During a stint in Afghanistan, he and his peers would often require the services of the US Army for protection from terrorists. In this particular story, they were being transported from Bagram to Kabul in a Chinook Chopper because of the threat of the Taliban forces taking over their base. In transit, the helicopter was shot at by what my dad assumed were either fundamentalists or sympathizers. It was one of his most horrific encounters. The fear was genuine. Fortunately, they pulled through by taking an emergency landing at a nearby camp. My old man is still alive and kicking. But he's one of the luckier ones.
Dad's OFW days are over, and it's been that way now for almost seven years. At least he has his stories, he would say to us. For millions of other Filipinos who are just starting theirs, they are more than just numbers on a sheet for some politician to recite at a press conference. OFWs work abroad out of necessity and the collective failures of our systems and institutions. These people risk their lives and leave their families behind for the promise of a better (most of the time, uncertain) future—even if it means the kids move forward with their personhood without them. For that, they deserve all the glory.
To this day, amidst everything that had to happen to him, the only regret my father has was that he wasn't able to watch us grow up, so he says. Papa, for crying out loud, no apologies are necessary.