It’s the red shirts and the long black hair that make them easy to spot among the throng of people enjoying a sunny Friday afternoon in Jumeirah Beach Park. Their uniform makes them look like members of a club, but their good-humoured banter speaks of a deeper relationship.
“She’s not in red. She will have to pay a fine,” said Mayra, a sly glint in her eye, pointing to the only woman among the five who is not in red.
“I forgot. My red shirt was in the wash,” replied Maricel, coming to her own defence. Her long black hair signals her belonging even while her floral dress and light blue T-shirt sets her apart.
At 27, she is the youngest in the group and bears the brunt of the affectionate teasing and torment typical of older sisters.
“We have a dress code whenever we meet up. Those who don’t follow the dress code have to pay a fine. We put that in a pool of funds that we collect and send back home to our parents,” said Perla, the rational one, the one who is a stickler for rules.
The others laugh and a mental note is made to charge Maricel Dh200.
This is a regular Friday for the Velonza Sisters, seven women from the Philippines who work as nannies in Dubai. During the time of this interview, only five were present; two were in the Philippines on holiday where more siblings live.
“There are 13 of us children in all,” explained Nida. At 37, she is not the oldest but her being a veteran migrant worker has earned her the unspoken title of leader of the group.
Challenge them to name their siblings in order of birth and they won’t bat an eyelash. “That’s easy. We are all named after Filipino celebrities. Our parents love watching old movies,” said Perla who begins rattling off their names and the celebrities they are named after.
Mayra cuts Perla in the middle. “I’m named after a starlet whose movies my father loved to watch,” she quips, laughing at the aberration that makes her the oddball of the bunch.
The Velonza sisters are a small part of the estimated 800,000 Filipinos working in Dubai as a mix of professional office workers and service workers.
The Philippine Embassy in Dubai estimates that over 100,000 Filipinos are employed as household service workers — gardeners, nannies and housekeepers, majority of whom are women.
The 10 million Filipinos working in over 100 countries around the globe has earned the Philippines the title of being one of the top labour exporters in the world.
The story of the Velonza Sisters is the story of most Filipino labour migrants to whom “abroad” is more than a destination; it is an aspiration and a path to a better life. It is a path that requires uprooting yourself from your home and everything that is familiar to spend years watching from a distance as life for the families left behind goes on.
What started it all
Life in the province of Pangasinan, northern Philippines, was hard for the girls. Their father scrambled to make money burning wood and making charcoal that the girls would sell for a few pesos. “I grew up thinking how hard it is to be poor,” said Nida, the first one to leave.
She was only 18 then, but she jumped at the chance to work as a housemaid in Kuwait. “I had never been abroad. The only English I knew was ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but I did it.”
Nida endured bouts of homesickness and isolation. “I was all alone and miserable. I would tell myself, it was all right as long as my family didn’t know. I could not let them think I had failed.”
Getting her salary each month made it all worth it. She saved up much of it and went back to the Philippines after six years, bringing gifts of jewellery and cash for each of her brothers, sisters and her parents.
“She gave us all bundles of cash,” said Mayra. “I’ll never forget it. We all looked at her with awe — we all wanted to go abroad after that.”
When in the Philippines, Nida carefully hid her own misery about life abroad, but her sisters all told her about their own misery at home. “My husband was making P260 (Dh21) a day at his factory job,” said Gloria, 33. At the end of the day, there was not much money left for their four children. “There were times when I only had P20 to buy food for me and the children.”
“I had been working in a factory for six years with nothing to show for it. I wasn’t making enough to save,” shared Perla. Though the only one among the girls without a child, Perla did not shy away from the financial responsibility of supporting their parents.
Mayra’s simple dream was to give her three girls a life better than hers by putting them through school. Working abroad as the only way to achieve it. “I saw abroad as paradise. A place filled with hope and opportunities,” said the 39-year-old.
Her husband did not see it her way. When she told him about her plans, he dismissed the idea saying, “What for? We’re all going to die anyway.”
The stories were enough for Nida to make a plan to gradually bring her sisters abroad.
One by one
It would take almost four years before that plan started to take shape. In between, Nida tried to settle back in the Philippines. She got married and bore a son, Nicos. The cost of baby essentials and a slowly crumbling marriage made her reconsider her options. She left for abroad again, this time to join her older sister, Nora, in Dubai.
Nicos was just two months old then and Nida was still breastfeeding. Nora was her support system and confidant. Together, they made a plan to save up what they could and bring their sisters to Dubai one at a time.
First to arrive after the two girls was Mayra. Funding plane fare and visas became easier as more sisters divided the cost. Soon they brought in Gloria, followed by Perla, Alma and finally Maricel.
At one point, there were eight of them in Dubai, including a brother who has since resettled in the Philippines.
Friday night slumber party
The Friday group huddles at the park extend to slumber parties in a rented bed space in Satwa. They make their weekly call to their parents and their father makes a roll call to account for his daughters, and as Velonza tradition dictates, whoever is absent will pay a fine of Dh200.
Each month, they send home a portion of their salary to their children and parents. The fines for violation of the dress code and absenteeism are accumulated into a special fund used for non-budgeted expenses such as home repair and indulging their parents. “Once, we bought mother a new TV set so she could watch her favourite Filipino movies,” said Perla.
It is a social system built on loyalty to their family. It is a solidarity that helps them cope with the emotional perils that chip away at even the hardest resolves of a migrant worker: the haunting guilt, the overwhelming homesickness and the financial burden of being the family breadwinner.
Among themselves, they also support one another. Maricel was just 18 when her untimely pregnancy quickly ended her relationship. It was Perla who came to her rescue. “I told her we would raise her child together,” said Perla who until now acts as a surrogate mother to Maricel’s 7-year-old son, Kasyong.
“I love that Kasyong calls me ‘Mama Perla’. I feel as if I have a son, too,” said Perla, who is single at 32.
“Once Kasyong asked, ‘Ma, how can I have two mums?’ He could not understand how he could have possibly come out of two tummies,” laughed Maricel, her eyes growing misty.
However, each sister carries her own burden of dealing with a mother’s guilt of leaving their children behind. The two-month-old baby Nida left behind is now an 8-year-old boy who does not recognise her as his mother. “During one visit, he kicked me and spat at me saying, ‘That’s not my Mama. My Mama is gone.’”
Mayra’s youngest daughter, who is now 13, continues to chastise her, saying that Mayra was just supposed to buy shoes but never came back. “She was perhaps 6 when I first left. I didn’t say goodbye to her then,” said Mayra. “I couldn’t bear to.”
Their life in Dubai, while comfortable, will always be a borrowed life lived out on borrowed time. Now the girls are thinking of how to save up for their eventual return to the Philippines to be with their loved ones.
Most Friday nights, the girls talk about starting a small business when they go back home. They do not know how to do it yet, but like the plan that brought them to Dubai, they are sure they can count on each other to pitch in until it becomes a reality.
“I just know that wherever we find ourselves, it will be us sisters, sticking it out — together,” said Nida.
Ana P. Santos is a freelance writer based in Manila.
Reporting for this story was supported with a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting under the Persephone Miel Fellowship.
Missing their parents
Maryknoll Gunio was old enough to remember when her mother left to work in Malaysia and old enough to heed her mother’s instructions to take care of her younger brothers and father. “I get up at 5.35 every morning to cook. Then I wake up my brothers, feed them and bathe them before school starts at 7.30am,” said the 15-year-old, the responsibility evident on her frail shoulders.
In the evening, it’s the same routine, with the addition of cleaning the house and washing clothes. “I get so tired. When I put my brothers to sleep, I fall asleep, too,” said Maryknoll.
On some days, she is too tired to go to school and stays home where there are enough chores to keep her busy. “The girls in the family take on a lot of the responsibility,” said Mai Añonuevo, executive director of Atikha, an NGO that helps migrant families with financial planning.
“It doesn’t matter if the girl is the eldest or the youngest in the family. As the girl, it is her who will be expected to care for the family and manage the home — to take on the responsibilities of the mother,” added Añonuevo.
In the 1970s, when the Philippines began a labour migration policy to address the growing unemployment in the country, it was the Filipino men who packed their bags and set off for the Middle East. The women stayed behind and held the family together, acting as both father and mother.
In the 1990s, the labour market demands changed. The demographic winter of developed countries called for more caregivers and the increasing number of women entering the workforce needed nannies to look after their children. The tides of labour migration changed, carrying over women to fill in vacancies in child and elderly care.
Boys are not immune to feeling the absence of their mother. Mark Gitlong, 16, has already planned to study Hotel Restaurant Management when he finishes high school. This way, he can get a job in Dubai to be with his mother who works as a nanny. “I miss her. Even those times when she shouts at me and gets mad at me for not doing what she says — I especially miss those times,” said Mark.
There are no hard statistics on the number of children orphaned by migration. Employment applications do not require stating the number of children and even if they did, updating of information is sporadic and irregular.
However, non-government agencies estimate that there are more than 9 million Filipino children who have one or both parents working abroad as labour migrants.
-Ana P. Santos