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(photo credit: Karin Kloosterman)
They circled around the middle-aged woman as though she had special powers - a glance from her could change their fortune forever. About 10 unemployed Roman Catholic Filipinos came to meet Yolanda ("Yolly") Lopez on August 9 in Tel Aviv's new central bus station.
For nine years, migrant worker Lopez from the Philippines has been taking care of Israel's old and infirm.
Recently, she started helping others find gainful employment. Lopez, 52, who also works for the local Manila Tel Aviv tabloid and hotline, brought the news. "You shouldn't worry," she said in a motherly tone. "The son is in jail and the woman is a good woman. She needs someone to take care of her. You can get your visa."
The new job opening was attractive because if obtained through Lopez, it meant no agency fees on top of the approximate $550 per month starting salary. But the position wasn't offered in usual circumstances. The right person would be filling the shoes of the deceased Elma Danao, 49, a Filipino migrant worker who had been brutally stabbed in the neck by her charge's mentally ill son five days earlier.
Danao was an indirect casualty of the summer of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah, which started in mid-July. She had relocated to Tel Aviv from Nahariya, along with her elderly charge on August 2. They had hoped to be spared from Katyusha rockets. But her employer's son, who moved with them to Tel Aviv from his special-care facility in Nahariya, killed Danao after a heated argument.
There are an estimated 30,000 Filipino domestic workers living in Israel; 3,800 of them are in the North.
"I am looking for a job," said Allan Ramos, 29, among the group meeting Lopez that day. "My former employer died one month ago, and I don't think for a second of going back to the Philippines."
Every Saturday at the Saint Anthony Church in Jaffa, Ramos adds his prayers to those of other Catholic Filipinos living in Israel. "I tell my family not to worry about me," he said.
Hermine Siar, 43, joins Ramos for Saturday night mass. Her mother calls from the Philippines frequently and urges her to go home. "I am not scared to live in Tel Aviv," she said; "only sometimes, maybe."
"Anyway," she added with a shrug, "I am not here forever. I cannot go back because I want to save money; I want to make a lot of money and buy a house."
On the fifth floor of the bus station at the Manila Tel Aviv headquarters, Lopez explained that domestic workers make up to four times more money in Israel than they would in the Philippines. The money from nine years of working in Israel is going to build a supermarket for her and her husband to manage into retirement. Faith and community involvement in the church, she said, helps keep the marriage on track, despite seeing her husband only every few years.
"We have open communication. I explained to him about the war and the bombing but calmed him by letting him know that I am six hours away from the North. We are out of danger," she recounted.
Lopez worked as a caretaker in Cyprus and Qatar before coming to Israel.
"Here we have good conditions and a better salary. Here we are taking care of one elderly person and get to feel like the boss in the house."
Besides finding jobs for Filipinos, Lopez also collects money that helps those without medical insurance. She made a special collection box to fly Danao's body back to the Philippines.
"I believe in God and that everybody has their time," she said. "Like the lady who was afraid and moved from the North to avoid missiles but then was stabbed."
Like many other Filipinos in Israel, Lopez has family in Lebanon. Her husband's niece, 27, flew to Beirut about three months ago looking for domestic work. Until recently, Lebanese Filipino workers enjoyed similar positions and status as domestic workers in Israel. But once the bombing in Lebanon started, employers started lashing out on their domestic help in various ways. Hundreds of Filipino nationals in Lebanon flocked every day to relief organizations, such as the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center in Beirut, says Sister Herminia Cruz, a nun. Some were allowed by their employers to return to the Philippines, but others had to escape from locked rooms and apartments to get there.
As a house cleaner in Beirut, Lopez's niece planned to earn on money for her children's college fund. "I want to stay but am afraid because of the bombs. I heard the bombing, too many times," she said by telephone. "I am not afraid in this house. It is big and the people are good," she added.
Antonio Modena, the Philippine ambassador to Israel, had no direct link to the Philippine Embassy in Lebanon. But the bureaucrat managed to send over reports of abuse to Filipino workers in Lebanon via Amman, Jordan.
Some Filipinos in Israel called him, panicking over relatives trapped and locked in homes in Lebanon.
In Israel, he says, things are different. Modena even gives out his personal phone number to Filipino nationals. But then again, he had time to prepare for political unrest. He had previously set up the TEX Brigade, an instant text messenger system to track Filipinos after terrorist attacks on buses, in malls and markets.
"No Filipino in Israel wanted to go home," said Modena. "The first thing they say when I ask them if they want to leave is 'Who's going to take care of my old man or little boy?' Here we had a relocation - not an evacuation - program. I don't see Israel as a dangerous place to work. Filipinos are treated well here; they are not abandoned like they are in other places in the Middle East."
Just before the cease-fire in mid-August, Modena went to Haifa to see how the third largest Filipino community in Israel was faring. The city had suffered scores of rocket attacks over the weeks of fighting. Yet instead of a bomb shelter, Modena visited an Internet caf run by a Filipino woman.
"People were more interested in having their picture taken with me than fearing for their lives," he chuckled.