Fallen ‘heroes’: OFWs turned hungry and homeless

David Lozada
From having high-paying jobs abroad, Eugene Asio and Arthur Villeta now call the streets of Manila their home

HUNGRY. Former overseas Filipino worker Arthur Villeta asks for food from a charity worker in Liwasang Bonifacio. All photos by David Lozada/ Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – It is said that overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are the modern heroes. But as these two former OFWs will tell you, heroes don’t always succeed.

Eugene Asio and Arthur Villeta waited for 3 hours in Liwasang Bonifacio for their breakfast. Their benefactor for that day was a religious group. They enjoy every bit of their meal because they are not sure when they can eat again.

Their lives had been like this since they went back to the Philippines – living and sleeping in the streets, collecting bottles for money, and going to soup kitchens and feeding programs to feed their hungry stomachs.

They gave everything they had to their families when they were working abroad. So much so that they didn’t leave any for themselves. But both say they don’t regret doing so. It was their job as breadwinners.

From Africa to Manila

HOMELESS. Eugene Asio has been living in the streets of Manila since 2011.

Asio had traveled across Africa and the Middle East. The 52-year-old spent almost half his life working on oil rigs of some of the world’s biggest oil companies. He ended up in the streets of Manila which he now calls his new home.

Sa gabi doon ako natutulog sa baywalk. Gabi-gabi yun. Kapag umulan, hahanap ako ng building sa tagiliran. Makatulog lang. Kapag araw na, hanap na ulit ng feeding,” Asio said. (I sleep along the baywalk every night. When it’s raining, I look for buildings nearby. During the day, I look for feeding programs again.)

Asio returned to the country in 2010 when his contract ended. He went to Manila from Davao in 2011 when he received a new job offer from Papua New Guinea. That’s when his problem started.

“I passed the interview and the medical exam. But the contract did not push through. I waited 7 months for nothing. I think my age was the problem. I started looking for work here in Manila to survive,” he said in Filipino.

He said his family knew of his whereabouts but they could not do anything because they were also struggling with finances.

“My wife said, ‘Take care of yourself there because I have students to support here.’ They’re finding ways to survive there because they couldn’t expect anything from me. I don’t have anything to give. Sometimes, they give me money, but most of the time they don’t,” Asio added in Filipino.

Umaasa na lang ako na baka sakaling may makatulong. Sa skills ko, kailangang kailangan yung skill ko sa mga planta, makakabalik ako sa abroad,” Asio said. (I’m hoping that someone can help me. I know my skills are needed abroad.)

The Royal fashion designer

NO CLOSURE. Arthur Villeta's career as a fashion designer ended abruptly when he had a stroke.

Villeta, 51, experienced a more tragic misfortune than Asio. He served the Royal family of Brunei Darussalam for 9 years as a fashion designer. His career ended when he had a stroke in 2011.

“In my 9 years of service to them, they said I worked excellently. It’s too bad I had a stroke,” he said in Filipino.

Villeta said he had other opportunities to work abroad. But his condition prevented him from leaving the country again.

Meron namang kumuha sa akin. Ito pinadalhan ako ng kontrata. Pinadalhan ako ng pera. Pang-medical. Ang problema lang hindi ako nakapasa ng medical kaya sayang. Kaya nandito ako sa kalye,” he said with his voice breaking. (I actually got hired. They sent me a contract. They gave me money for my fare and medical expenses. Sadly, I didn’t pass the medical exam. That’s why I’m in the streets.)

Unlike Asio, Villeta no longer has a family to return to. His wife, an OFW in Taiwan, is now married to a Taiwanese. His daughter studies nursing in Bulacan but he has not heard of her for a long time.

“I have a house in Bulacan. My wife and I are separated, so I don’t know how to get it back. I want to sell the property so we can share the money. My daughter is now graduating. I couldn’t support her anymore because I don’t have money. Her mom supports her now,” Villeta said in Filipino as he broke into tears.

A religious group, the Hospicio de San Jose in Manila, is trying to help Villeta. They asked him to make designs that they will submit to veteran fashion designer Rene Salud. Villeta is hoping that this might be his opportunity to get back to the fashion industry.

Government support?

According to the Philippine migration report released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in June 2013, the number of OFWs leaving the country is increasing despite the government’s efforts to create more local jobs.

The first recorded statistics on overseas employment started in 1975, a year after the Labor Code of the Philippines was passed. During that year, 36,035 Filipinos left the country to work abroad. In 1985, a decade later, the numbers were already at 372,784 – more than 10 times the 1975 figures. In 2012, the Philippines deployed a total of 1,802,031 workers.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) has various programs for OFWs. One of them is the Reintegration Program, which aims to “prepare the return of OFWs into the Philippine society.”

The program consists of two phases – on-site preparedness and in-country reintegration. A P2-billion grant facility is available for enterprise development for former OFWs. OWWA and the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) “Balik-Pinas, Balik Hanapbuhay” program also gives livelihood assistance to distressed or displaced OFWs.

Lost faith

But neither Asio nor Villeta has benefited from such programs. They both said they’ve lost faith in the government.

“I couldn’t ask help from OWWA. They only give financial support when you’re already leaving. My problem is, I don’t have money to apply and even to photocopy documents. I need money to follow up on my applications. I’m stuck now,” Asio said in Filipino.

He added, “Pero itong mga agency na ito kapag nasa labas kami ang tawag sa amin ‘bagong bayani’ kasi 100% remittance tumatakbo dito sa Pilipinas. Noong wala na kami, wala na rin silang pakialam.” (These agencies call us heroes when we’re abroad because 100% of our remittances goes to the Philippines. Now that we’re no longer useful, they don’t care about us anymore.)

Villeta said he feels neglected by the government.

Yung sabi nila kapag OFW ka, priority ka ng gobyerno…Pero hindi naman nangyayari yun. Kung priority ka, dapat paglapit mo unahin ka. Kapag nakita yung case mo dapat unahin ka. Pero wala, eh,” he lamented. (They say OFWs are prioritized by the government. You just need to tell them your problems. That’s not true. If we’re really important to them, they should support us. They should immediately act on our cases. But that’s not what happens.)

Still hoping

Asio hopes he can still work abroad. He still sees it as the solution to his current hardships.

Hindi pa rin ako mawawalan ng pag-asa. Malay mo merong gustong tumulong sa aking makakilos…Pero yung uuwi ako, hindi ako uuwi hanggang hindi ako nakaka-abroad,” Asio said. (I haven’t lost hope. Who knows if someone out there is willing to help me? I won’t go back to Davao until I’ve worked in another country again.)

HOLDING ON. Arthur Villeta still keeps his papers with him in case he is given another opportunity to work abroad.

Villeta, on the other hand, said he is considering going back to his province and start a business there.

Kahit sa Cebu lang. Gusto kong bumalik. Humihingi lang ako ng kaunting suporta,” he added. (I want to go back to Cebu. I’m asking for a little support.)

The two former OFWs continue to roam the streets of Manila, looking for any opportunity to come their way. They said they only trust God and themselves as everyone else had abandoned them.

“Even if I’m only relying on feeding programs to survive right now, I’m not giving up. I haven’t stopped hoping,” Asio said in Filipino.

Watch this report on Eugene Asio and Arthur Villeta.

– Rappler.com

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