The furniture store at 17 Levanda Street gives no hint that it is a major bustling religious center in Tel Aviv. But ensconced in the residential building behind it are three churches, one for Eritreans, another for Lutherans and the popular Chapel of Divine Mercy for Filipinos.Sister Regina, a middle-aged nun who helps serve the Filipino community in Israel, opens the door on the ground floor of the building. It is quiet in the dark hallway, and she points the way down some stairs. At the bottom are some ramshackle tables with purple candleholders; plastic statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and a Franciscan friar stand on them. The word “silence” is set on the wall.“We keep the door locked except for mass, or we would get people showing up at all hours,” the sister explains. She unlocks the door to the chapel, a large converted room full of plastic chairs, with a table in front used as an altar. There is a guitar and a speaker on the far side of the room.
“This room is full during mass,” Sister Regina says, smiling proudly at this little slice of fellowship that she helps provide to her community. One can imagine several hundred people, mostly female caregivers, crammed in for the services.THE CHAPEL of Divine Mercy is one communal center for Filipinos in Israel, a community which gained sudden attention when Rose Fostanes won the X-Factor television music competition in January. There are an estimated 35,000 to 38,000 Filipinos residing in Israel, around half of whom live in the area of Tel Aviv, with large communities in Jerusalem (10,000) and Haifa (6,000). Around 90 percent are female. Only 1,000 are considered permanent migrants to Israel, the others are here on temporary visas. However, despite the size and recent focus on the community, Filipinos face many issues in the country; from immigration restrictions to struggles to make enough money.From a pretty conference room overlooking Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, Philippine Ambassador Generoso D.G. Calonge explains that the origins of the Filipino community in Israel date back to the 1970s. Israel established relations with the Asian country in 1957, but an embassy was opened only in 1962. In the 1970s, the country began to face economic growing pains.“Our policy is not to encourage work overseas but because we have a huge population, we cannot prevent them from seeking opportunities elsewhere,” he says. “This policy began in the 1970s, when we faced a situation where our big population had to be accommodated elsewhere, because the domestic economy cannot support them.”It is thought that some $24 billion is sent back to the country every year by an estimated 10 million citizens who reside abroad. This is about 10% of GDP according to the World Bank, making the country one of the top recipients of money from workers abroad. Israel is not a major player in this network, as workers here send back only an estimated $36 million a year.Calonge, a career diplomat with a degree from Harvard Law School, has witnessed varying aspects of the Filipino diaspora while serving in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. When he arrived in Israel on August 30, 2011, the embassy website noted that “promoting the welfare of Filipinos in the country” was one of the mandates of his mission.He contrasts his past experiences with that in Israel: “In all those countries [of the Gulf] they are not limited to the caregiving sector; in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, the Filipinos have work across the board, they can be what they want.”In Israel, they are restricted basically to being caregivers, although according to other sources a very small number have found their way into hotel and restaurant work. As the ambassador explains: “Caregiving is the only field available to them. For agriculture the Israeli government allows Thais, and in construction it is Chinese. In the caregiver business they allow Filipinos, Nepalis, Sri Lankans and Indians.” This idiosyncrasy of Israeli law segregates them into one profession; “the visa dictates what they will do; they can’t legally open a business.”However, Calonge is quick to point out that Israel’s domestic visa policy is not a Filipino state issue.“Right now we don’t take an active part in the amendment of Israeli laws, we don’t want to interfere in domestic policies,” he said. “But of course if there is flexibility, it will be a welcome development.”Many of the Filipino workers interviewed repeated complaints about how the visa restrictions force them to continue doing work they wish they could progress beyond, or that is beneath their education level.Kathryn Lopez is a 44-year-old mother of two who came here in August 2012. She explains that “some of us are professionals and we can work in hospitals or in a bank. I was a medical technologist in the Philippines. I studied in college.The people are qualified above what they are allowed. Some of them are nurses, for instance.”Forty-two-year-old Dindo Sueño epitomizes this issue. Before coming to Israel seven years ago, he taught nursing at a university and holds a master’s degree. But he is upbeat about the situation: “I earn here the equivalent of what I would have earned there, even if I worked very hard at home. I am very blessed that all the people I work with respect me.”Minerva Villanueva feels she could accomplish more if the visa regulations were flexible. The past president of the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel (FFCI), Villanueva became a community leader but still recognized that despite being a bachelor’s degree holder, “I feel like I studied and didn’t use what I learned. I came as a caregiver and that is it. There is no opportunity to use my skills.”CONTRARY TO some perceptions, the Filipino community is not growing.“Three or four years ago it was 42,000,” the ambassador notes. “Your immigration is very strict, they launched crackdowns.”Yet the embassy maintains a large consular section to deal with passports, marriage and birth registrations, and to help the workers with any documents they need for back home, such as to transfer property they may own.The embassy also maintains a social affairs presence, to support community organizations.Most caregivers are in their 30s and 40s and already have families back home. The decision to seek work abroad is not an easy one. Lopez is a single mother with two daughters aged 16 and 18 still in the Philippines.Israel beckoned due to lack of opportunities for a woman of her age.“This is because of poverty in the Philippines,” she explains bluntly. “You see [women of] my age of 44, it is hard for us to find jobs that fit our age – because the standard age for a job for women is below 27.When you are 28 or about 30, the means of living in the Philippines is if you have a business, you have an income.”She notes that many businesses don’t want to employ married women, fearing frequent absences due to child rearing. So she looked for work in the Middle East. Many Filipinos end up in the Gulf Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. The ambassador figures that there are as many as 1.2 million of his citizens in Saudi Arabia. But Filipino women know that conditions there can be nightmarish.In the UAE the Philippines maintains a dedicated shelter for women to flee abuse.Calonge contrasts the situations: “In Israel, you don’t find the problems that you find in the UAE. Here under the contract, the basic model is they are required to be off for 26 hours, and 99% of the time they make use of that.” In Dubai and Saudi Arabia, the domestic workers are often kept isolated in houses, with their passports confiscated, unable to leave.Lopez felt that living in Israel would mean being in an open environment, where even if the work wasn’t perfect, she would have freedom and her rights would be protected. Her friends had told her it was a decent place.In order to get to Israel, the workers must find an agency that acts as a middleman for employment. This is a sensitive issue because they often find themselves paying exorbitant funds to the middlemen. One woman noted that often they are forced to pay $7,000, when she understood the law only requires $1,300. Lopez paid $6,800 to an agency in Israel, on top of another fee of $1,000 in the Philippines. Salaries there range from figures as low as $300 a month for teachers, to $220 (10,000 Philippine pesos) for call center employees. Thus, the people pay as much as three or four years’ salary for the opportunity to come to Israel on a five-year visa.Lopez, for her part, waited three months for her visa application to come through and took a six-month course in caregiving. She learned Hebrew for a week before getting on the plane.Matt Dixon, the international director of Avi-Ad Welfare Services – working with caregivers to provide adult education services in the healthcare sector – notes that his company provides training “to raise them from the domestic [caregiver] level so they can get semiskilled jobs.” He sees the high agency fees as a severe hurdle for many of the workers to overcome.Once arriving in Israel, they are placed with a family on a contract that lasts a few months and which can be renewed if the employer and caregiver are content. They are paid minimum wage, and those interviewed noted salaries ranging from NIS 3,100 to NIS 3,600 a month. Most work out a deal with the agency or brokerage firm so that half their wages every month go toward paying off the debt. Villanueva noted that she worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, taking care of an old man, receiving this base pay.Calonge said that the agency fees are something he would like to see reformed.“We wonder how it can be curbed,” he said. “It is a private transaction. We wonder if that can be reduced or eliminated, because they arrive in debt and it is a burden on them.”The Philippines maintain a large Philippine Overseas Employment Association, which is designed to promote overseas employment, protect workers’ rights and regulate private sector recruitment.The government maintains bilateral labor agreements with some countries, such as South Korea and Spain, but not Israel.The ambassador thinks a government- to-government arrangement could curb private fees the workers pay and “eliminate the middleman.” He notes that the amount they pay to come to Israel is one of the highest, but because they earn more in Israel they feel it is in their interest to keep quiet about the fees.WORK IN Israel is tedious and unstable for some of the people. Lopez recalls that her first employer lived an hour from Jerusalem.She took care of an elderly man and woman, but after four months she resigned. She found another job in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood where it is just her and a woman. Still, when her contract is over, she says she doesn’t want to go back.“It is hard to live with her,” she says. “I told the agency I will not stay with the contract; they will send another replacement. The son of my employer, they questioned why I am leaving, they don’t want another [caretaker]. I said it is my right, it is written in the contract.It is up to me.”Villanueva first worked in Ra’anana. She didn’t like the work, which involved working with two children, taking care of a dog and cleaning the house. She left after one month and began a new contract in Zichron Ya’acov, but her employer died and she moved to Jerusalem.She has been in her current job for six years. She sends money home to support her three children and their education.The hard work and low pay result in a stunted life in Israel; one that often revolves around work and weekends at a rented apartment. Home visits are rare, if ever; one worker described going home only once in five years. Lopez, for instance, rents an apartment with 20 other women, not to sleep in, but to use on weekends for social gatherings. Having so many people chip in to rent a place lessens the cost, since the take-home pay of the worker is so reduced after sending money home and paying the agency fees. She describes nights of singing karaoke and sitting with her friends. Villanueva says she would feel stressed if she went out on the weekends, preferring the company of friends in the rented flat on her time off.Overstaying visas and fear of the immigration police is a constant issue. Some of those I approached to interview were hesitant and suspicious, wondering if I was secretly a government official. Some of their friends were wary of having photos taken.Villanueva, who came to Israel in 2004, says the question of having a legal visa is important.“I don’t want to work without a visa, I always wanted to be legal,” she says.As head of the FFCI, where she served as president from 2009 to 2011, she describes how in previous years, there was a problem of people lying to obtain their visas or overstaying them.“The problem also is that they say we must follow the law of Israel; I pay for my own apartment even though the law says the employer will pay my apartment.So I get a low salary.”Lopez recalls that the immigration police had come to their Jerusalem apartment, but “you don’t fear them, you don’t panic; they know if someone is overstaying and they take them.” She describes a feeling of knowing her rights. “The [immigration police] are not allowed to take anything from personal belongings.”She also notes that overstaying a visa can result in worsened work conditions.“The only kind you can get is cleaning houses and washing plates. They are not paid fairly. I have one friend that she had to go part-time, because it is not a real job, she overstayed here and she went there to wash plates. The immigration was bothering her and when she left the taxi they came and asked her what she was doing, and they discovered she was working.”Filipino workers paint a picture of a more efficient police in recent years, more professional. Sueño recalls how in past years the immigration officers would burst into people’s flats and act “inhuman,” whereas today he describes them as “professional and polite.”Many workers also describe how Filipinos have gotten used to the laws and try to adhere to them. However, some overstay their visas and end up being deported.Calonge says Israel’s “performance [in relation to deportation] is one of the best in the world. There is a rule that when a person overstays three months or more, Israeli immigration will be in charge of deporting them, and the government shoulders the [cost of the] plane tickets. In other countries it is the deportee or the embassy that must shoulder the cost.”Both the embassy and the caregivers describe work conditions that are not abusive. Yet “caregivers who work within four walls of a house, it is tough to get a picture of what goes on in the house. In two-and-ahalf years, I have seen cases of caregivers who had psychological problems,” notes the ambassador.But when it comes to employers harming the workers, every worker knows right away to call Kav L’Oved, an NGO that protects workers’ rights, in case of a problem.Calonge says wryly, “Many of your NGOs are allies, they help us protect the welfare of our workers.”The workers say they face several issues that are problematic. One relates to paid holidays; at the end of a contract there is sometimes a dispute about them.Lopez explains that “The [employers] say they don’t want to pay. It could be up to NIS 1,000. It also includes pitzuim [severance] and that is NIS 1,700.”Villanueva recounts that one of her main goals when she was FFCI president was that she “wanted to promote how the Filipinos will take care of themselves with insurance. Some are sick and cannot go to the hospital.” She wanted to arrange for a nurse from the home country to come.Even though many Filipinos have health insurance, often through Clalit Health Services, Villanueva says they feel the doctors don’t care about them.“When I go to the doctor and say I am not feeling well, they say ‘Everything is fine,’” she says. She met people whose “ailments got worse,” and one friend was diagnosed with leukemia. She says private doctors at clinics often diagnose problems that public doctors pretend don’t exist, and thinks many Filipinos are afraid to seek medical aid due to fears they will lose their jobs.SISTER REGINA walks me up the stairs of the dilapidated building on Levanda Street. It is a fitting name for the street that has so many churches providing shelter and comfort to the poor. Lev Osipovich Levanda was a journalist and fiction writer from Minsk. An early Zionist, he saw poor Jewish communities up close and worked for a government- run rabbinical school. Perhaps the impoverished conditions he saw in Russia were not so different than those existing today in south Tel Aviv around the central bus station.The Catholic Church in the Holy Land has taken a great interest in caring for the local Filipino community, whose numbers rival that of the local Catholic Arab community. One church official describes the community as “generous, a pleasure to work with. They give, they don’t take.”The Filipino Chaplaincy, run by Rev.David M. Neuhaus, has centers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, Herzliya, Netanya, Rehovot and Rosh Pina catering to Filipinos. Most of the masses are conducted in English, Saturdays and Sundays, except at the Divine Mercy Chapel on Levanda Street where it is conducted in Tagalog, the language of most Filipinos. They are so popular that four are conducted on Saturdays.Neuhaus notes that the church concentrates on providing religious services as well as social services, meetings, trips, social work and religious classes and other activities for children. He estimates that several dozen children are born a year and baptized, and there are also weddings for Filipinos, some of whom marry locals. There are four Filipino priests who help service the community.Sister Regina is one of several women who work with the community. Born in the island of Mindanao, she felt the call to become a nun and took her vows after college.“God invited me to become a sister to serve more people,” she says. Her order is headquartered in France, and it dispatched its first sisters here in 2004 to work with the caregivers.She details a community that yearns for religious services. “Most of those who come [to Israel] are women, they are single mothers. It is very hard for them in terms of their relationship with their family. When they have children at home they cannot go home every [few] years. There are some who stay for 10 years like that.”They face hardships in coming to church or seeing their community; for instance, some work with special-needs children and get limited time off, she says.One of the hardest things for women can be entering into relationships or having children.“They are not really legally or sacramentally married, and the church does not allow them to receive communion or sacraments. But the church now, being a mother to them, we open our minds and hearts to this kind of situation where women look for the church.”She describes the more open policies of Pope Francis: “He is more open to saying that the church should manifest the mercy of God.” They conduct seminars for the male partners, in Hebrew and Turkish (there are Turkish workers in Israel). If the woman’s partner is Arab, they face strictures about attending services, due to differences in religion.“The church is asking the men to allow the wife, who is Catholic, to come and to raise their children in the church if the men will allow it.”If children are born to the woman and she does not have a local partner, she can face deportation. Sister Regina describes a situation where “when the children are three months old, they are sent home. The mother might bring them to the church to be blessed, but they are baptized in the Philippines. It is very tough, we watch the reaction of the mother, the separation is very difficult.We see about 10 situations a year like this.”Nevertheless, there are children being raised here; she estimates around 100 children attend classes in Hebrew and the parents obtain documents to legally remain in the country.Sister Regina also explains how better policies in Israel have resulted in less antagonism. She doesn’t see major discrimination, but she has helped organized protests against the deportation of children.“Before the police used to go up to the houses and there was trauma with immigration handcuffing the parents,” she says. Today, these practices have ended.Most Filipinos interviewed have hardly any interaction with Israelis outside their work. Many know limited or no Hebrew, but they know English, yet their employers may not speak much English.“It is hard to communicate when you don’t know what they are talking about,” says Lopez. “You get used to it.”Sueño, who was born in the province of Cavite near Manila, took an ulpan in 2006 but never learned Hebrew very well; he says he is lucky he was placed with a British and then an American family.Most of those interviewed say theyhave no Israeli friends. But despite not having friends and not feeling integrated into society, they don’t think Israel is a racist country or a particularly hard place to live. Sueño notes that most people are respectful of his Christian faith and he feels a close relationship, like family, with those he works for. The only negative attitude he recalls is from some ultra-Orthodox Jews whom he witnessed spitting on a Catholic friend of his.“They are not racist,” says Lopez. “I read a whole page [of a newspaper] about how the IDF sent people [to the Philippines]. There was a hospital they set up after the typhoon [in November 2013]. When we went to the hospital [in Israel] the bus driver saw me and they asked me about the typhoon, I was overwhelmed. I am a stranger, but they were so nice to ask about my family.“I was surprised, I am just a cleaner here and one woman on the other side reached out to me and said ‘You are a Filipina,’ the same question. I was so touched, and I said we were not affected. I almost cried. All the taxes they pay and the soldiers were there helping us, and here they asked about us. I don’t see racism, and I don’t see unfair treatment.”Unable to find relationships with Israelis or see a path to integrating into a society where visas limit them to a half decade of employment in only one field, Filipinos congregate around numerous social organizations.Experts describe them as a highly organized community. In the central bus station, there is a food store that puts out a colorful calendar with recipes from home; a large shop called “Kingdom of Pork” is on Levinsky Street near the bus station. Some of the caregivers particularly complained about not being able to eat their local food while working.Focal, a local magazine founded in 2001, focuses on the community and is staffed by volunteer writers.Purchased in 2008 by WIC Group, a communications business, it services the community, and around 8,000 copies a month are handed out free.Pazit Godlewicz, WIC marketing manager in charge of Focal, gives a lively and enthusiastic portrayal of working with Filipinos.“Before I worked here I had no interactions with them... I found a warm and wonderful community,” she says. Now, in times of distress, the first call they make is to her, and her magazine tries to help them.They have also held a film festival for three years at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where for NIS 20, Filipinos and their employers or partners and other Israelis come to watch movies from their home country. For Godlewicz, this is a major accomplishment.“We seek to bring them from the central bus station area to a different area, at the cinematheque... in that way they can come out to see a movie, because usually they can’t watch at home... that way Israelis can see a different culture.” She thinks it humanizes the caregivers to Israelis.Magazines like Focal, organizations like the FFCI and the Catholic Church all help provide a community for Filipinos. But it was the success of Rose Fostanes on X-Factor that brought the spotlight to this group.Villanueva recalls that “now everyone is talking about her.” But many know she is not a model they can follow; even for Fostanes, obtaining permission to pursue a career as a singer required official government approval.In the bowels of the central bus station the local Filipino market is bursting at the seams, with food stands invading outside the station. African migrants and Nepali men come to buy food. Behind the counter is an 18-year-old Asian girl. She smiles and notes that she is not from abroad.“I was born here.”She is the daughter of a Thai father and Filipino mother. Soon she will go to the army. For a very small group like her, Israel is a permanent home.