Posts Tagged ‘Philippines’

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What kind of world will our sweet little boy grow up in?

This is our son Gabriel. He’s three months old. My hope for him as a parent is that by the time he’s ready to have children of his own, human trafficking won’t be the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world. That the threat of being trafficked won’t loom over countless young women in developing countries. That jobs and justice will both be more prevalent in places like the Philippines.

A sea change in society won’t come about with us simply carrying on with our regular lives, and this is why I write today. Some of you may already be familiar with Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform for creative projects: someone has an idea, sets a funding goal, and if you’re interested you can pledge online to support it. (The nice part is, your pledge only goes through if the goal is achieved–and it works through the Amazon e-commerce system, so it’s easy and secure.)

I’m hoping you can spare a few clicks, and a few dollars, for Hello Forever, a movie being made by some high-profile Hollywood talent in partnership with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. CATW is a great NGO that has worked with Samaritana on anti-trafficking initiatives in the Philippines.

Let’s take a small step together toward the kind of world I want my little boy to grow up in: a world where women are valued, respected, and have just as many opportunities as he will.

–Nate

A little over eight months ago, Nate and I returned home after a year in Manila. In those early weeks of re-entry, there were long lists of old pleasures that were suddenly new again: real Mexican food, redwood-shaded trails, our own car, clean air. Months later, most of these have become routine, and we have to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have them. But there is one thing that hasn’t stopped feeling like a treat: hot showers.

It’s been a subject of much discussion, something we’ve commented on to each other daily. We marvel that it still feels like heaven every time, even on the warm days. We joke about getting “stuck” in the shower. I once asked Nate to come in and turn the water off because I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Since becoming a mom, hot showers have gone from being a luxury to a sanctuary. Thanks to family, I’ve been able to take a shower every day since I came home from the hospital. After spending most of my waking hours caring for Gabriel, it feels sneaky to have those minutes to myself. It isn’t just the act of getting clean (although I do appreciate cleansing the sticky smell of milk); I’m always getting cold too, so the shower is the place that restores my temperature–and my sanity. It’s alone time, me time, proof that though Asia has influence me, I’m a still a Westerner at heart. So showers are glorious: the sweet release of knowing that no one will bother me.

It was during my daily hot shower yesterday that I was struck once again by the contrast between my own life and the one I’d be living in the developing world. I remember vividly the showers I took when we stayed with some of the women we knew. There was a communal slab of cement outdoors, enclosed on the sides by plastic tarps–which might also be used for urinating. We’d carry in a large bucket of water, and a small dipper to pour the water over us. Even in the heat, the cold water was bracing, functional only, something you tried to get over with as quickly as possible. There was no spacing out, since if you used up the water before you’d rinsed off soap or shampoo, you were out of luck. There was no solitude, since you were always aware that someone else might be waiting. All of the smells and sounds of life outside surrounded you.

Just like that, I knew what I had to do. Since I’m not fasting from food this week, I’ve been trying to think of other ways to fast and live in solidarity with those in the developing world. What better way to do it than to take my greatest daily pleasure–my greatest daily luxury–and give it up?

I turned the dial to cold, shivered, and got out of there as fast as I could.

-Laura

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When this year’s Global Hunger Fast fell on the third week of my son’s life, I reluctantly agreed with my husband and family to sit out this time around. But as I think about my Filipina sisters at Samaritana (and women in developing countries worldwide), I’m acutely aware of how privileged I am for this to be a choice. While I don’t believe in punishing my son for the sake of making a point, I don’t take this contrast lightly.

Early in our time in Manila, I read that Filipinos are among the shortest people in the world, largely because of malnutrition. While I’m eating my affluent diet loaded with produce and protein, new mothers around the world are eating whatever they can get–which is to say, not what they need for themselves, let alone a baby. While I have the luxury of breastfeeding and pumping out plenty of milk to be frozen for future months, the mothers I knew at Samaritana had to make do with what their bodies would produce (or whatever they could afford), and they certainly didn’t have breast pumps or even refrigerators (or freezers) to store food or milk.

As every new mother knows, these first weeks are a haze of chaos and fatigue. But when I think about my first seventeen days of motherhood compared to those of the Samaritana women, my version of motherhood looks a piece of cake.

Even before Gabriel was born, my experience of labor and delivery was, by the world’s standards, pretty cushy: Nate and our doulas rubbed my back; I snacked when hungry, took a hot shower and hot bath to relax, all the while listening to the soothing sounds of Miles Davis. After contractions picked up, we drove ten minutes in our own car to the hospital, where for the next five hours, a flock of medical staff monitored Gabriel’s heartbeat and kept Nate and me informed. When his heartbeat kept dropping, yet I wasn’t dilating despite ever-stronger contractions (Gabe had his head turned sideways), the possibility of a C section first came up.

Ninety minutes later I was in the operating room; a half hour after that I heard Nate say “it’s a boy,” and then Gabriel Sagada Davis was in my arms and my husband was sobbing tears of joy beside me. While it didn’t happen quite as planned, and there were many painful hours, the whole experience was remarkably calm–pleasant, even. I had only a flicker of a thought that my baby and I might be in danger, and then it was gone with a simple prayer and the knowledge that I was about to go through a procedure that, while major, was also somewhat routine. The first four days of Gabe’s life were spent in the hospital, and Nate and I were continually impressed by how excellent the doctors and nurses were, how our every need was met, and what a gift it was to be in a setting with so many people who clearly love what they do.

I recap the birth because while I never set foot in a Manila hospital, I heard enough about them to make me glad I had no reason to. One Filipino friend told me that people avoid going to the hospital because once you’re there, you’re much more likely to die. And while good medical care is available in Manila (for the rich), as a new mom I also can’t ignore the world infant mortality rankings, which suggest that Gabriel would’ve been three times as likely to die had he been born a Filipino baby–or twenty times more likely as an Afghani.

It’s easy to walk away from these sobering contrasts feeling guilty for having so much, but I think I’m missing the point of the Global Hunger Fast if guilt is all I feel. I can’t change the world’s infant mortality rates or improve nutrition by feeling bad. But my awareness of the disparities between my life and the lives of women around the world can make me softer and more compassionate. It can open my wallet a little wider. It can keep me praying and looking for ways to love and serve, one woman at a time.

-Laura

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Growing up, I never thought I was that fortunate. I was short, skinny, and had glasses: shrimp, four-eyes, not exactly precocious with the ladies. That was me. And since my mom sacrificed her life to home-school me and my siblings, we had one income for a family of seven, so I couldn’t always sport Z. Cavaricci and Hypercolor like the cool kids.

I saw more of what I didn’t have than what I did. I read National Geographic, but for a kid, is the exotic much different than the make-believe? Even living abroad, I picked up on details–why can’t they get good orange juice in the UK? Why are the Palestinians always angry?–but missed the part about how traveling is a privilege.

Then Laura and I moved to Manila. As we noted on several occasions on our blog, it was the biggest, sweatiest, loudest, dirtiest, most crowded place we’ve ever been. But as hard as life is there in a city of twenty million, it’s often even harder elsewhere. So people keep coming.

We had gone there to volunteer for a year, to donate our valuable time and skills: Laura coaching and writing her novel on trafficking and prostitution, and me with communications. Yet amidst the dripping-wet waistbands, the pre-dawn roosters, and the smoggy hours on buses, life got stripped down to the essentials. We got to know a wonderful country. We received more than we gave. And at Samaritana, we not only found beauty, but also saw God.

After some reflection, “quiet miracles” is the phrase I’ve arrived at to describe what goes on there. How else to explain the reclamation of society’s refuse, of women considered worthless, of human beings robbed of humanity? It’s a slow process, of course, often painful, frustrating, and heart-wrenching for the marvelous staff and volunteers. There are tears, harsh words, sullen looks, and defiant walks out the door. But they come back, and when they do, with counseling, prayer, hugs, singing, cleaning, cooking, and crafts, the lacerated lives get stitched up, day by day.

Artists say that the plain human form is the most beautiful subject; in the same way, there are few more beautiful events to witness than a simple smile emerging at last from a person whom life has taught to despair. This was the beauty we saw at Samaritana–and was a new side of the God I’d read about in a book all my life, yet just came to understand this year.

Now we’re back. We returned to zero jobs and one big mortgage, yet the freelance work for me has come in, Laura’s gotten to stay home and write, we’re healthy, and little Kierkegaard Umlaut Davis is supposed to arrive in March. Plus we have hot showers, our own car, potable tap water, and now two lives’ worth of friends. A year ago we thought we were giving up so much, and yet we’ve been given it all back, and more.

After 35 years, it’s finally seeping into my dome how fortunate I am. If you’re thinking “Wow, finding beauty and seeing God? Sign me up for a sabbatical year,” then nothing could make us happier. (Note: we saved for four years leading up to this; it’s all gone.) But for a year like this? Such a deal.

-Nate

We’ve only been gone a year, but my friend says I look older. At age 34, that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me. I’ve always had a baby face: on my 15th birthday my friends suggested I ask for the 12-and-under price at the county fair; in my passport photo (age 27), I look like a college freshman. But it seems that this year has left its mark.

So what have I seen that’s made me age? Life how most of the world lives it: orphaned siblings sleeping in subway stations. Squatter families living in cement-block shacks the size of an American suburbanite’s walk-in closet. Street women selling themselves for a few dollars or less. Sights that would change anyone with eyes to see. But my eyes have widened joyfully as well: gawking at Avatar-inspiring marine life, eating heartstoppingly-good native mangoes, high-fiving women (who’d never before exercised) as they finished their first race.

But next month, I’m returning our old fantasy life, the Bay Area. Land of data plan complaints, hybrid hypermiling, and wine even in gas stations. Beloved Bay Area folks fret about real estate values or finding organic baby food at Whole Paycheck; Filipinos we have come to love worry about buying food for six on four dollars a day, or having to return to prostitution to pay their dying baby’s medical bills. Our old friends may see the change in my face, but can they feel it in their hearts? Will they even try? After a year of being a foreigner, an outsider, and a target, I fear being an alien in my native land.

When my wife and I quit our jobs last summer and moved to Manila for a year of volunteer work, I naïvely assumed it’d be similar to family trips as a kid: live overseas, see some old stuff, then pick up where I left off. But as a young but astute friend observed, the Philippines has “ruined me for the better.” So now my face tells a more serious story; my eyes focus on things besides literature, nature, and wine. Question is, will others want to see through them?

The Crazy Lady

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Life in the Philippines
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“Manila is like a crazy lady,” one of our new friends said to us our first month here, and then quickly added, “but eventually you learn to love her.”

With its mishmash of Spanish, American, and Asian cultural influences (the product of centuries of colonial rule), its two extreme seasons (hot and wet; hot and dry), and its stark contrast of glitzy shopping malls next to sprawling squatter communities, Manila often feels schizophrenic, or at least manic depressive.

Early on we learned about the phases of culture shock: stage one, the honeymoon phase; stage two, the I-hate-everything-about-this-place stage; and finally, stage three, where you come back to earth, accept the tough stuff, and are finally useful in the midst of the struggle. The stages never quite fit for us, both because we’d done enough research to feel somewhat prepared, and because we were thrown into negative aspects of our new home too quickly to experience anything like a honeymoon. We’ve decided that “culture fatigue” more accurately describes our adjustment to life here.

A few months ago I had a day that brought me to the depths of culture fatigue. I spent four hours traveling to and from an airline ticket office to try to (unsuccessfully) change tickets I’d purchased for my parents’ upcoming visit. It began to rain—hard—and for the first time, I had forgotten my umbrella. Tired of waiting, I ran out into sheets of rain, my clothes immediately soaked. I rushed to an already packed MRT train, and then, seeing that there was just enough room for me to fit onto the last car, ran toward it before the doors closed. In the seconds before they did, my foot slipped between the train and the cement platform, and my entire body dropped until I felt splintering pain where my upper thigh finally stopped my fall. There were gasps around the train, but I hobbled to my feet and squeezed inside.

I watched a huge squatter community whiz by out the window, stood with six passengers pressed up against me on all sides with my hand on my wallet (I was pick-pocketed in a similar situation just a few weeks before), and then limped to a jeepney. Most jeepney drivers remind me of an impatient sixteen-year-old boy learning stick-shift for the first time—which is not so bad once you get used to it. But on this particular day, the tires squealed as we raced around buses three times our size, and the engine roared as the driver jammed the gas pedal to the floor. When I called out “para po!” (please stop) he slammed on the brakes, paused long enough for me to start walking hunched over toward the open back of the jeep, and then gunned it before I could step off, sending me flying and, unfortunately, clocking an innocent passenger in the face with my flailing hand.

As I got off the jeepney, I mused that so far, the crazy lady had mostly just driven me crazy. But every now and then, I understand. Manila may be a dirty, sweaty, chaotic place, but it’s also the kind of place where things happen—things so special that you would never dream of them on your own.

A few weeks after we arrived we found ourselves listening to Joniver Robles, a local blues artist, on a rainy night when most Filipinos didn’t venture out. Joniver sounds an awful lot like John Mayer, Johnny Lang, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, depending on the song (he covers all three artists), and can rip up guitar solos almost as well. We chatted between sets, and when I mentioned my singing background, he invited me to join him on stage. I crooned my way through a Norah Jones song, and then he asked me to do some blues improv. Being the blues junkie that I am, I knew the consistent themes (I’m so lonesome I could die, my baby left me, why you gotta treat me so bad, etc.), and so I got to live out a lifelong dream of belting the blues.

Or there was the seemingly ordinary Tuesday when I suddenly had a handful of texts from friends urging me to look at the Philippine Star, one of the major newspapers here. The previous weekend I’d had the good fortune of winning a trail running race, and there I was, right on the front of the sports section, looking a little too giddy as I crossed the finish line. I can count on one hand the number of times the local paper published my picture in high school even though I won far more races back then than I do these days . . . never once did I make it into a major city paper. But in Manila, these things happen.

There have been other, daily “good crazy” moments: flying seatbeltless down a darkened street perched on the back of a “tricycle” (a motorcycle with a sidecar); finally getting to ride on the back of a jeep (not usually something women get to do); admiring plastic soda bottle sculptures carved by a woman with a face as ancient as time; watching kids gleefully play basketball in flip flops in the middle of the street; having an hour-long conversation with a new woman friend at the bars during outreach (all in Tagalog!); tasting a mango, and realizing that nothing I’d tasted back in the States deserved that name.

Without a doubt, the best sides of the crazy lady’s personality are Filipinos themselves. It’s Hazel, our teacher friend, showing us true Filipino hospitality in a delectable dinner even though she just met us. It’s one of the Samaritana women worriedly sending another volunteer after me so I wouldn’t have to make the walk to the jeepney without a kasama (Tagalog for “companion”). It’s the way the Samaritana women tell me I’m beautiful and give me hugs for no reason almost every day. Filipinos are pretty amazing people. They’re the reason we came, and the reason why even on the hard days, we’re not ready to go home.

The crazy lady still drives us crazy. But slowly, we’re learning to love her too.

-Laura

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If this isn’t your first visit to Free Is a Verb, you probably know by now that human trafficking victims, like a flesh-and-bone version of the Matrix, are a secret hidden all around us: on big farms, in small restaurants, high-class escort services, low-rent massage parlors, and lots more. These victims may have been moved within a country, or–to trap them further behind a language barrier–across a regional or national border. They may be men, women, or children, Asian, American, or European, but one thing most of them have in common is this: they’re poor–and not just poor in money, but poor in education, opportunity, and hope, which is why they grasp in desperation at the bait traffickers dangle, of jobs and better lives elsewhere. But where do these folks come from? We’ve read the books and articles; we’ve watched documentaries; we’ve heard presentations from NGO’s. But it was time to see for ourselves.

In the Philippines, many trafficking victims come from Samar, a poor island both geographically and mentally on the nation’s fringe. So when we say poor, how poor are we talking? Well, the Philippines as a whole is in the bottom third economically of countries worldwide, then Samar’s three provinces are in the botton fifth in the Philippines. What this means in practical terms is that a family of six in Samar limps along on the $1,600-1,800 a year or so that a rice farmer or fisherman makes, many people cook over wood fires because they can’t afford gas, and almost half the teenagers there drop out of high school because they have to work. So when we ask ourselves why any responsible parent would risk their child being trafficked, the answer isn’t that they’re stupid or uncaring–it’s that they aren’t offered a better choice.

Before we went to Samar, we secretly wondered if all of the stories we’d encountered in our research over the past few years were just the worst-case scenario.  Only in Samar did we realize that these stories were not exceptions, but rather the norm.

The stories we heard were sadly familiar: a friend-of-a-friend or visitor to the village tells a girl about a job in the big city.  She can make good money as a katulong (Tagalog for “helper”, i.e. maid), a waitress, or a nanny.  She and a few of her girlfriends take the bait, often with the blessing of their parents, and before they know it they are on a bus or boat to Manila, Cebu, Angeles City, Malaysia, or beyond.  When they arrive, their cell phones are confiscated and they are delivered to a bar or house that exists to provide prostitution to the local clientele.  They are told that they must work as prostitutes to pay off their transportation fee, but are never paid a peso or told how much of their debt remains.  Unless they are rescued by concerned parents, NGOs, or the police (who are sometimes among their customers), their dreary existence stretches before them until they get sick from STDs or simply get too old to be useful to their owners.

During our one-week visit (graciously hosted by the IJM Samar office staff), we interviewed trafficking victims, their relatives, NGO workers, a human rights lawyer, and a few government workers who worked in the department of social welfare and development (DSWD).  We recorded a number of stories, all of them confirming what we’ve read before.  We came back to Manila with a new love for this forgotten province and its people, and a deep desire to see things improve for them.

Thanks largely to International Justice Mission’s tireless work, every one of the girls we interviewed was a success story.  While all of the girls had been trafficked, and many of them had spent at least a week as prisoners in bars, all of them were rescued before they were raped or forced to work as prostitutes.

One of the girls shared with us a story of how she was finally forced by the mamasan, or pimp, to go out with a customer.  She was only fifteen years old and was terrified.  The customer took her to a hotel, but when she cried and told him that she and her little sister had been tricked into coming to Manila and had no idea they’d be working as prostitutes, he had compassion on her and didn’t force her to have sex with him.  He even offered to help her escape, but she refused since her sister was still back at the house where the girls were kept.

At the same time, the girls’ mother had contacted both IJM and the DSWD as soon as she realized her daughters were gone.  Even though she’d received a phone call from them saying that they were in Manila and that everything was okay, she suspected they were in danger because someone immediately took the phone away from her daughters before they could finish the conversation.  After a 30-hour bus+ferry ride to Manila, she helped identify the house based on her daughter’s description, accompanied the police and IJM staff on the raid, and the girls were set free.

It was inspiring to meet these girls who were so brave, and so grateful to have been rescued from what might have been.  Thanks to organizations like IJM and various aftercare partners, they are receiving an education and counseling, and some of them are even attending college.

But for every girl we talked to who had a happy ending, we heard about many whose fate was not so fortunate. Our work in metro Manila reminds us daily of how important appropriate aftercare is for women who have suffered the trauma of prostitution; our visit to Samar taught us just how essential it is to work to prevent trafficking in the first place.

* * * * *

So what can you do to help?  A few relatively simple things:

1. If you’re in the Philippines,  write a quick note or make a phone call to the political or economic sections of the U.S. Embassy here. Send an email to the director of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation thanking them for the work they’ve done fighting trafficking and closing bars employing minors for prostitution.

2. If you’re in the U.S., call or email the chairs of the following government committees responsible for U.S. foreign aid:

House subcommittee on state, foreign aid, and related programs

Senate state, foreign operations & related programs subcommittee.

3. If you’re on the internet, become a fan of the Manila U.S. Embassy on facebook or follow them on Twitter, and comment thanking Ambassador Thomas for the time he’s spent supporting IJM’s work in Samar and other anti-trafficking efforts.

-Nate & Laura