How to handle a hero

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The OFW  (overseas Filipino worker), who used to be known as OCW (overseas contract worker), is now an integral part of our national culture and consciousness — as Pinoy as pakbet and adobo. It is a cultural template that came to be primarily because our country could not — and still cannot — provide enough employment for its citizens. People have had to find jobs abroad to earn enough to clothe, feed and care for their constantly growing families that, to add to their problems, their faith discourages them from keeping small.

OFWs have been dubbed by the very system that created them as “heroes” for bringing home dollars that provide much needed economic benefits to their families and, consequently, to the system itself. And while they may in fact be a big factor why our country has not collapsed despite the culture of inertia, corruption and government mismanagement that plague it, OFWs are, in their own view, reluctant heroes, to be sure.

One, most of them really have no choice but to go abroad for lack of opportunities here. Two, many of them will abandon the “hero” label in a heartbeat if they can simply find some way to feed their families and stay in the Philippines at the same time. We know that they and their loved ones pay too high a price for the economic benefits they enjoy. And this includes being away from their loved ones and missing out as their family stories are written. They are absent from family pictures, albums, house blessings, graduations, births, birthdays, anniversaries and family reunions because ironically, they have to earn their money elsewhere to finance all this.

They have children who are fed and clothed but are orphaned of at least one parent. Their main consolation is, at least, the people they love are experiencing these wonderful economic benefits even if they cannot physically be part of it and enjoying with them.

I have met many OFWs during my travels abroad and even now that I live parttime in Sydney. I have observed that as much as they are the providers and the sustainers of life back home they, too, need care and sustenance which many of them hardly get. A lot of them complain about being trapped or doomed to being lonely and missing out on life just so their loved ones can have a better life.

This article is about the caring and encouragement these reluctant heroes, who up hold the sky up for our families and our society, need on their end. Here are a few things to keep in mind when relating to the fathers, mothers, kuyas, ates, uncles, aunts and other relatives who have left us temporarily to keep the rest of us alive.

1. Relate to them as people, not just as providers.

Many times, the relationship between OFWs and their families back home is sadly reduced to an almost solely economic one. A lot of OFWs complain that most of the time, they only hear from the beneficiaries of their hard-earned salaries when the roof needs fixing, the tuition needs paying, someone is sick, or a relative needs money. They feel like slaves trapped in a cycle of backbreaking work in order to grant their families’ wishes.

Although I live abroad, I’m what you may call an OFW in reverse. A big part of my family is in Sydney, and I come quite often to Manila to earn and pay for the house, schooling, food, electricity, etc. As an “Aussie W,” as Danny Javier likes to call me, I go through the same loneliness and deprivation that regular OFWs go through, although not as intensely and desperately. At least I am able to go back every few months and stay for a few weeks unlike the majority who go home only once every year or two and stay only for a couple of weeks.

2. Find more things to write or communicate to them about other than asking for money.

The main loss that OFWs feel is the deprivation of affection from their loved ones. It starts off as a physical loss which they and their families feel initially. After a while, when the dust has settled and the reality sets in that the relative will be gone for quite a while, indifference can creep in. Families can get used to their member being far away, leading to an alienation that can be most painful especially for the person who is away.

A soon-to-be-released documentary I watched a few days ago showed a group of Filipino teachers employed in the United States who felt a lot of frustration while doing video chats with their families. Apart from presenting a list of things they needed financed, many of their family members had little else to talk to them about.

Things changed dramatically when one of the teachers committed suicide due to sheer loneliness. After that, the family video chats became less of an asking or begging session, and more of a genuine exchange of love and caring. This is what OFWs miss the most. So make sure they are kept in the loop and abreast of what’s going on in everyone’s lives.

3. Constantly shower the OFW with gratitude.

There is nothing more gratifying than being appreciated for the sacrifices one makes. A simple, heartfelt “thank you” from a loved one can be profoundly uplifting to someone who is feeling the alienation and meaninglessness of living in some foreign place. It can give one a sense of purpose, direction and reward for a job well done. Gratitude can be a tonic that revitalizes the OFW to continue working under lonely, stressful conditions.

4. Don’t blame them for being away.

Many times, the pain OFWs feel can be a double whammy. Not only is it difficult to be away from their families, it hurts them even more when they are blamed for everything that is wrong with their relationships with their loved ones. Everything is dumped on their lap because they are not present to fix things. While their absence may very well be a factor in why certain things are wrong, e.g. why his son has taken to drugs, why the daughter failed in school or ran away, why the family was cheated of its savings, or whatever else can go wrong, it does not really help the situation to pin the accusation solely or needlessly on someone who is helpless at the moment because he is abroad and is therefore not in a position to fix things. 

Instead of blaming, families could attempt to engage one another, including the overseas member in a serious conversation about what together they can do about the situation.

5. Encourage them to get a life outside of work.

While the OFW may not really choose to live abroad but for necessity, it can be a great learning opportunity to learn a new language, understand a new culture, meet new friends and enrich one’s life overall. Many people on both sides of the fence, at home and abroad, mistakenly tend to view the situation largely as one of pure sacrifice with little joys to anticipate wherever one is.

That’s really too bad because being abroad can be a great learning experience in independence, creativity, culture, adjustment and discovery. I’ve been amazed at how some of our countrymen have built happy lives in remote, seemingly inhospitable cultures. It is wonderful how they can make something good out of a bad situation.

For families at home, it is OK to encourage the OFW to pursue personal growth and happiness. Some may worry that growth or embracing their situation can cause them to be estranged from their significant others back home. That can be a valid worry. While it is necessary to remind them to be anchored to the family, it is also important to slacken just a bit the chains or ties that bind.

6. Don’t forget to greet them on their birthdays, Christmas, New Year, Father’s Day, etc.

These special days may not seem as special or have the same urgency to the people at home, but believe me, to the one who left and is living in some alien place, to be forgotten on a special day is a pain that can induce overwhelming sadness. This is especially true when all the other Filipinos they work with receive greetings, gifts and calls from their loved ones back home.

7. Put aside some of the money the OFW sends home for a rainy day.

Many families who are beneficiaries of the OFW’s blood, sweat and tears have the attitude that daddy or mommy, kuya or ate will always provide. Thus they spend on trivial unimportant things and are caught flatfooted when the job contract is not renewed and the money runs out. They soon discover that all that sacrifice was for naught and they are all back where they started!

8. When they come home, make sure to be around for them and for events where the returning relative can experience the family life he or she has missed.

Many OFWs come home for that rare visit looking forward to family bonding, only to discover that the people he wants to spend time with are busy, or worse, not interested to be with him/her. They discover that they have become strangers to their families and only token greetings and affection are accorded them. They do not feel integrated, only accommodated. Their presence after a long absence may even be seen as disruptive to the household’s daily routine.

This can be a big disappointment and may even discourage the OFW from coming home as often. Losing a reason to come home is a tragedy that he and his family can ill afford.

The OFW phenomenon is here to stay. Thank God modern communication can somehow ease its alienating effects on families. But even as we learn to live with it, we should continually find ways to keep OFW families from becoming dysfunctional despite the absence of some of its members. The family is one of our nation’s stronger institutions, our joy and our treasure. We owe it to ourselves and our countrymen to keep it intact, even under the worst of circumstances.

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This is the last call for those wishing to attend the 42nd run of Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop. The next session runs Aug. 4 to 8 and concludes Aug. 11. It will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Workshop cost is still P5,000. Please contact or call Ollie at 0916-8554303 or 426-5375 for any queries or for reservations. Visit for the syllabus, FAQ, testimonials and other details.