Open doors and open hearts

Philippines Ambassador Petronilla Garcia talks about bearing responsibility for tens of thousands of mainly female Filipino contract workers – and about the challenge of ‘doing diplomacy’ in Israel.

June 5, 2010 02:14
Phillipines Ambassador Petronilla Garcia

Phillipines Ambassador Petronilla Garcia 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

The Filipino community here in Israel, consisting mostly of more than 40,000 documented workers dispersed throughout the country, is preparing to celebrate two important dates. The first is June 12, Philippines Independence Day, which will be marked by colorful, festive events in Tel Aviv and other cities, staged largely by Filipino contract workers.

The second is June 21, marking the one-year anniversary of the dedication of the “Open Doors” Monument in Rishon Lezion’s Memorial Park, expressing Israel’s gratitude to the Philippines for providing a home and haven to more than 1,200 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe.

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As one country after another was denying entry to Europe’s imperiled Jews in the 1930s, Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon declared the doors of the Philippines open to Jews, and even donated some of his own land to build a Jewish community center in a suburb of Manila.

Unknown to many today, Quezon approved immediate plans to admit 10,000 Jewish refugees – with thousands more to follow. Plans were even proposed to provide Europe’s displaced Jews with a permanent home on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

In December 1941, however, the island nation was invaded by Japan, an ally of Nazi Germany, abruptly ending the flow of European Jews into the country. After the war, the Philippines became the only nation in Asia to vote for the creation of the State of Israel in the UN.

Although busy trying to deal with a very crowded calendar, H.E. Petronilla Garcia, 54, the Philippines’ personable ambassador to Israel, sat down with Metro for a few minutes recently to share her thoughts on bearing responsibility for tens of thousands of mostly female Filipino contract workers, on being and becoming an ambassador, and on the special pleasures and challenges of ‘doing diplomacy’ here in Israel.

How many Filipinos are currently working here in Israel?

Any figure I could give you would be a wild guess. Officially, it’s about 40,000. That number, of course, doesn’t include the Filipinos that are here married to Israelis, Filipinos here on permanent residence visas, Filipinos here on friendship visas, their Filipino-Israeli children, or of course the undocumented Filipinos in the country. So, it may be more. Or it may even be less. Around 700 people are sent home every year. It’s hard to say.

It’s well known that almost all of the Filipinos who work in Israel are involved in care-giving, for the elderly and chronically ill. Are you making any effort to broaden the opportunities of Filipino workers into other sectors?

Yes, absolutely. We have Filipino hi-tech programmers who come here temporarily every six months. They work at a hi-tech company in Haifa. We have Filipino seamen who come here. Their ports of call are Haifa and Ashdod. We have 360 Filipino UN peacekeepers in the Golan. That’s a whole battalion!

We also have students in agriculture who come here to study for one year. This involves intensive, on-the-job training and has been very successful. And we do have a few workers coming into the agricultural sector. I would like to see more in the future.

As for construction, none yet. That would be wonderful, and I’m working on getting some of our people into that sector as well. First, I need to study the conditions in that sector, of course, to identify the major problems. But I would like to be able to bring our male construction workers here. They’ve worked in construction in Arab countries in the Middle East; hopefully, they can work here as well.

Also, you may not be aware of this, but there were Filipina nurses here in the ‘90s, but none now.

How well or badly are Filipino workers treated here overall?

That Filipino workers are well treated in Israel is obvious from the fact that so many want to stay here. They’re generally paid well, their hours are good, and there are laws in place that insure their protection. So it’s no surprise that many of the workers who come here want to stay. And happily, I think the positive feeling is mutual for Israelis also.

I receive a lot of letters from Israelis that express their admiration, even love, for their care-givers. There was one written by someone who was crying because his care-giver died. I think it’s really wonderful that the person-to-person relations between Filipinos and Israelis are so good.

How did you find your way into a foreign service career?

Well, I was one of five children. My father always impressed on us the need to have a career. He believed that a good career was better than all of the money in the world. He himself, as a military man, believed very much in the stability of the Philippine government and the civil service. Aside from the prestige and fulfillment, it was important for him to be providing a service to the people. I decided to join the foreign service.

I took the foreign service exam after one of my college teachers took it and passed. I wondered if I could pass it too. It was the toughest exam I ever took in my life. It lasted two days. And I was dead sure I didn’t make it.

One year later, I got a phone call from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I answered the phone. I have the same name as my mother. The person calling wanted to talk to Petronilla Garcia. I said, “She isn’t here. She’s in the province. But if you leave a message, I’ll be sure to tell her.” And the caller said, “Yes, please tell her that she passed the examination for the Foreign Service.” And I said “OK,” then I hung up the phone and wondered why my mother had taken the foreign service exam – and then realized, “Hey, that’s me!”

My first job was at the UN. It was very exciting. Everything, every day, was new. I was then a vice consul in Singapore, handling labor and trade in a place with 25,000 Filipinos, along with bilateral relations. Then [I was posted] to Sydney, then two years here in Israel as First Secretary and Consul General. Then to South Africa, then Korea, then back to Manila. After a period at headquarters, it was off again to Egypt, and then here.

Has anything in your personal background prepared you for your current responsibilities?

I’ve been married and divorced twice. I met my first husband, the father of my older son, in Australia in 1987. We parted in 1991, and we had a legal annulment in the Philippines, which was granted in September 1991. My second husband was a Filipino American, whom I married in California in January 2001. We went to the Philippines and when I was in Egypt, he divorced me in Guam. A Filipino married to a foreigner may be divorced if it is the foreigner who initiates the divorce. My second son is adopted.

I am non-traditional as a Filipino. But I think I reflect the reality of Filipino life today. In many ways this helps me understand the imperfections in the situations of our overseas workers. I believe it has made me kinder and more empathetic when we have had certain problems involving Filipino workers. I’ve always been the one who was for the worker. It takes a mountain of evidence for me to decide against a Filipino worker.

What has been your major focus as the Philippines Ambassador to Israel?

When I first arrived here, I saw that the Filipino community had children already. They had children the first time I was here, but those children were small, and many of them were sent home when they reached a certain age.

The phenomenon I saw when I came here this time was that many of the children [who stayed] had now grown up and become Israelis. I remember my “Aha!” moment when I went one day past a bus stop. I saw a Filipino boy sitting there, waiting for a bus. I asked him, “Pilipino ka ba?” (Are you Filipino?), and he told me in Hebrew that he couldn’t understand me. I started to wonder what had happened to the Filipino community here. They were so different from the community I left behind 16 years before. So that became my focus – the children.

I have sponsored several programs for children that highlight Filipino culture. My main thrust has been to make the Philippines attractive to them, to make them understand that the Philippines is a nice country.

We had a regional consultative meeting of Philippine ambassadors just two weeks go. I said we need to refocus the education of the next generation of our people toward love of country, toward nation-building, and toward entrepreneurship, and not simply churn out workers who will seek employment overseas. We need to create people who will build the Philippine nation, largely with small businesses. That’s our future.

What do you see as your major accomplishments here in Israel?

I’m happy that the “Open Doors” monument in Rishon Lezion was constructed and dedicated. The dedication ceremony on June 21, 2009 was very, very moving. The project began before I arrived here, and it was the achievement of many people – the Filipino community in Israel, the Jewish community in the Philippines, Holocaust survivors – all working together to create this memorial. I feel very fortunate that it materialized and was completed during my watch.

Also, I think I hit the ground running. Because when I came here I really focused on having good friends in the Israeli government, and I think I have achieved that. As an ambassador, I felt that I needed to have an extensive network.

In March last year, I took the initiative of hosting a dinner with the president of Israel. And that for me was wonderful – all the Asian ambassadors were there.

Networking is very important for ambassadors because you never know when you will need the contacts. I felt this especially when we have had to help our nationals who were caught up in conflict situations. I was able to connect myself by phone immediately, in the middle of the night, with the relevant people. This is essential for any ambassador in Israel.

Israelis are very casual people, and they like to operate from a level of friendship. I learned that the first time I was here. If the ambassador has friends, the work of the consular section in assisting nationals is very much facilitated. That has been one of my major achievements. Also extending my contacts nationwide by having honorary consuls in Ashdod, Haifa and Jerusalem. This has also helped our work a lot.

My main job as ambassador is not only protecting the Filipino community and protecting the bilateral relations between the two countries. It’s all about relations. It’s about making friends, and having personal relations with high officials and business leaders.

Any major frustrations or disappointments?

I have had no frustrations, no disappointments. How can you get frustrated here in Israel? It’s a wonderful country. It’s exciting. It’s not like other places in the world where everything is so predictable. Here, anything can happen; no two days are the same. If you have that mindset, you can’t be frustrated.

I would love for everything to go my way all the time, but that doesn’t happen in life. Israel is a wonderful place and I’m very, very happy to have had the opportunity to serve here twice – once as consul general and later as ambassador.

Israel is and always will be a very special place for me.

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