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[OPINION] One hour at a time

This is the winning piece of the author at the  English Speaking Union's (ESU) International Public Speaking Competition in London.

I had just one hour. One hour was all I needed to recreate my memories with a person that time and circumstance had yanked away from my life.

I was waiting at the international airport in Manila, because after 10 years, she was finally coming home. My aunt would be back in the Philippines for her lay over! For 10 years, we had exchanged pictures and video calls, but I knew that these were nothing compared to an hour of meeting in the flesh.

The Filipino diaspora is often talked about in numbers:  the 12% of our nation spread across the continents; the $2 billion in remittances sent home every month. Such numbers, however, neglect a larger part of the story – the daily sacrifices endured in far away countries. The stories of our overseas Filipino workers aren’t just stories of success. They are also stories of invention, of finding new ways to succeed where none exist.

Our clock started ticking when a voice announced the arrival of her flight. We pressed our faces against the glass window as we waited for the balikbayans. As soon as I saw my aunt pass through the airport gates, I knew. I am lucky to have a family member who could make the journey back. (READ: The silent struggle of returning OFWs

Not every Filipino working abroad can make the journey back home. Many get left behind. Many remain as TNTs (tago nang tago) or literally "those who hide." They live as undocumented immigrants, playing an endless game of hide-and-seek with the authorities.

They invent new identities, facing the anxiety that comes with hiding, fearful of being deported back home. In the United Kingdom alone, there is an estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants, who long for the lives they have left behind. (READ: Undocumented migrant workers: Hidden and helpless in ASEAN

I had 30 minutes left with her. Taking the place of the sweeping vistas of the countryside we used to visit was the gray horizon of concrete pavement where we saw airplanes flying in and out. She would leave soon, along with the rest, to a life where they are needed – indispensable yet invisible at the same time. 

They are the half a million seafarers traveling on foreign trade vessels to places as far as Malta, Italy, and the Netherlands. They will nurse you back to health as they fill the thousands of vacancies in their host countries' health care system. And they will take care of your children when you are too busy with work, when all they wish for is to be back home with their own.  

Because this isn’t just a story of those who leave. It’s also a story of those who get left behind – the spouses, the children, the nephews and nieces, who also need to invent their futures while apart.

In my case, I had to reinvent ours at the terminal, until our time had finally run out. It is an ironic fact of a migrant’s life that to show someone you love them, you often have to leave. But that doesn’t mean we can’t invent new ways to connect, to be as much a family as ever. Because we families do what we do best.

We rebuild our lives across the oceans, reinvent our ties with those we love, one hour at a time. Whether it’s the hours we spend on Skype calls, or the hours we spend with all our relatives back home for Christmas, or the hours we spend praying for those who are absent – every immigrant family invents its own unique way of sealing that distance and strengthening their love.

We can’t change circumstance, but we can predict the future of our families by inventing it. We pick up the pieces they’ve left behind, and invent a new kind of dream for ourselves and for them.

For the last time, I saw my aunt pass through the airport gates, but this time, without a heavy heart. After all, our futures can still be written – one hour at a time. –

Jazmin Tan Jabines is a 20-year-old third year BS Business Administration and Accountancy student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a member of the UP debating team.