OFWs in HK feeling helpless, dismayed after Haiyan

Employers consult a psychologist on whether they should send their workers home to check on their families. 'It depends on the OFW,' she says.

HELPLESS. OFW Sally Molina is in Hong Kong struggling to get information about relatives affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

HONG KONG – It’s been almost two weeks since Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) battered central Philippines, and almost two weeks of torture for those who are feeling most helpless in its aftermath: the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Unable to help find missing relatives or personally help those who survived, OFWs deal with the grief from a distance, with no choice but to rely on news reports and word from the ground.

Sally Molina, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, is one of them.

Sally constantly worries about her family back home in the province of Iloilo. The storm destroyed her home in Barangay Agdaliran in San Dionisio town. Her mother and the rest of her family survived but her youngest brother Elineo is still missing.

At the height of the typhoon, 38-year-old Elineo was in Estancia town, Iloilo, on a fishing boat with 23 others. They didn’t sail, but were docked. According to a survivor, 18 members of the crew jumped out of the boat, but only 15 survived. The other 8 are still missing, including Elineo and the ship’s captain.

“We don’t know if he jumped or if he was trapped in the boat. The boat sank. We haven’t found it yet,” Sally said.

She is worried that Elineo may have been buried in mass graves, one of those bodies that were unclaimed and unidentified. Every day, her family waits for bodies in Estancia, in the hope that they will find Elineo’s.

“I’m hoping he’s still alive. I hope he’s just trapped in an island somewhere. I hope he comes home to his family, because his children are waiting for him,” she said.

Affected OFWs

Aside from finding her brother, Sally also constantly thinks about her family. She said they have nothing to eat, and have lost everything they owned.

Her relatives tell her everything is suddenly expensive. The price of rice has gone up, and because there is still no power in their barangay, they charge their cellphones via generators, but are charged P20 each time.

“I’ve been asking for old clothes, for whatever people can donate here. I beg my neighbors for help, knock on their doors for anything they would like to give,” she said.

Sally said she has been able to collect clothes to send back to her family. Because she has been so distressed and unable to work, her employer bought her a ticket home for 5 days. She said she will bring to her family what she has collected.

Eliza Cheung Yee-lai, a clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Red Cross (HKRC), said Sally’s behavior is expected after the disaster. The HKRC, in a partnership with the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong, has provided OFWs with psychological education sessions to detect symptoms of emotional distress, and to give them ideas on how they can support each other.

“A lot of them are quite sad. They are looking for several family members – two sons, two daughters, husbands, as well as their parents. Of course they must be very sad when they’re waiting for the news,” she said.

Feelings of guilt are also common.

“Even [if] some of them managed to contact their families, for example the kids are safe, they’re still very sad and worried in a sense because the kids call them and say, ‘Mom, we are hungry but we have no food.’ They feel they have left behind their families in the Philippines,” the psychologist added.

Yee-lai said that, at this time, it is important for OFWs to “maintain a normal schedule.”

“I know a lot of them can’t sleep particularly when they’re worrying about family members. Some of them told us they go on YouTube and watch videos of the disaster when they cannot sleep and obviously that will make their sleep even worse in that case,” she said.

She said the HKRC has also given advice to employers who are concerned about their helpers. Many have called them up, asking for tips on how they can help, and whether sending their helpers back to the Philippines for a while will help or do more harm. Yee-lai said it depends on the OFW.

“A lot of the [employers] really care about their helpers,” she said.

Efforts in HK

Meanwhile, the Philippine Consulate is helping OFWs trace their family members. Consul-General Noel Sevigon said, immediately after the storm, they contacted telecommunications giants Globe and Smart to get updates on how OFWs could connect with loved ones.

They also forward the names of family members to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), who coordinate with agencies on the ground.

Sevigon said about 30 OFWs have called the consulate, reporting names of missing family members.

“In my 25 years as a foreign service officer, whenever we have meetings or whenever we have to deal with disasters like these, we have learned that the number one concern of OFWs is communication. They want to know the status of their relatives, their loved ones, and their friends,” he said.

This time was no different. The second concern especially for those not directly affected? How they can help.

Sevigon pegs the number of Filipinos working in Hong Kong at 180,000, 91% of whom are domestic workers. He said the response of the Filipino community has been “overwhelming.” While most OFWs in Hong Kong only have one day off in a week, they have dedicated the past two Sundays assisting in relief efforts or coming together to pray for them.

Metrobank Remittances general manager Fred Valencia agrees, saying one thing unique about this tragedy is that Filipinos from all social classes have banded together to help. From elite businessmen to domestic workers, everyone has been deeply involved in relief efforts.

“The day after the typhoon, the Philippine consulate set up a meeting for us Filipinos, OFWs, about what we could do to help our countrymen, especially in Tacloban,” he said.

Valencia has seen the generosity first hand. After the typhoon, Metrobank waived remittance fees to encourage donations. Remittances increased by 2% in just the past two weeks, while donations have reached P1 million, a significant amount, considering domestic workers earn only about P21,000 a month.

He said the typhoon has been a reminder for OFWs – especially those in less than ideal conditions, and who often complain of loneliness because of being far away from home – that they are fortunate their situation is still better than other Filipinos back home.

Sevigon said there are about 300 plus Filipino-related associations in Hong Kong, with “almost each one” hosting its own fundraiser. He said they have organized initiatives among themselves.

Rose Pineda, a domestic worker, said in her church at St. Joseph’s, where volunteers are repacking donations they receive, they have packed 187 boxes of food, milk, and other necessities in just one day.

Freight companies have agreed to ship them to badly affected areas for free.

She said she hopes their efforts can help ease the victims’ woes. – Rappler.com

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