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.

Phillipines Ambassador Petronilla Garcia 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
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.
As one country after another was denying entry to Europe’s imperiledJews in the 1930s, Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezondeclared the doors of the Philippines open to Jews, and even donatedsome of his own land to build a Jewish community center in a suburb ofManila.
Unknown to many today, Quezon approved immediate plans to admit 10,000Jewish refugees – with thousands more to follow. Plans were evenproposed to provide Europe’s displaced Jews with a permanent home onthe southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
In December 1941, however, the island nation was invaded by Japan, anally of Nazi Germany, abruptly ending the flow of European Jews intothe country. After the war, the Philippines became the only nation inAsia 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 toIsrael, sat down with Metro for a few minutesrecently to share her thoughts on bearing responsibility for tens ofthousands of mostly female Filipino contract workers, on being andbecoming 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’sabout 40,000. That number, of course, doesn’t include the Filipinosthat are here married to Israelis, Filipinos here on permanentresidence visas, Filipinos here on friendship visas, theirFilipino-Israeli children, or of course the undocumented Filipinos inthe country. So, it may be more. Or it may even be less. Around 700people are sent home every year. It’s hard to say.
It’s well known that almost all of the Filipinos who work in Israel areinvolved in care-giving, for the elderly and chronically ill. Are youmaking any effort to broaden the opportunities of Filipino workers intoother sectors?
Yes, absolutely. We have Filipino hi-tech programmers who come heretemporarily every six months. They work at a hi-tech company in Haifa.We have Filipino seamen who come here. Their ports of call are Haifaand Ashdod. We have 360 Filipino UN peacekeepers in the Golan. That’s awhole battalion!
We also have students in agriculture who come here to study for oneyear. This involves intensive, on-the-job training and has been verysuccessful. And we do have a few workers coming into the agriculturalsector. I would like to see more in the future.
As for construction, none yet. That would be wonderful, and I’m workingon getting some of our people into that sector as well. First, I needto study the conditions in that sector, of course, to identify themajor problems. But I would like to be able to bring our maleconstruction workers here. They’ve worked in construction in Arabcountries 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 thefact that so many want to stay here. They’re generally paid well, theirhours are good, and there are laws in place that insure theirprotection. So it’s no surprise that many of the workers who come herewant to stay. And happily, I think the positive feeling is mutual forIsraelis 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 whowas crying because his care-giver died. I think it’s really wonderfulthat the person-to-person relations between Filipinos and Israelis areso 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 theneed to have a career. He believed that a good career was better thanall of the money in the world. He himself, as a military man, believedvery much in the stability of the Philippine government and the civilservice. Aside from the prestige and fulfillment, it was important forhim to be providing a service to the people. I decided to join theforeign service.
I took the foreign service exam after one of my college teachers tookit and passed. I wondered if I could pass it too. It was the toughestexam I ever took in my life. It lasted two days. And I was dead sure Ididn’t make it.
One year later, I got a phone call from the Department of ForeignAffairs. I answered the phone. I have the same name as my mother. Theperson calling wanted to talk to Petronilla Garcia. I said, “She isn’there. She’s in the province. But if you leave a message, I’ll be sureto tell her.” And the caller said, “Yes, please tell her that shepassed the examination for the Foreign Service.” And I said “OK,” thenI hung up the phone and wondered why my mother had taken the foreignservice exam – and then realized, “Hey, that’s me!”
My first job was at the UN. It was very exciting. Everything, everyday, was new. I was then a vice consul in Singapore, handling labor andtrade in a place with 25,000 Filipinos, along with bilateral relations.Then [I was posted] to Sydney, then two years here in Israel as FirstSecretary and Consul General. Then to South Africa, then Korea, thenback to Manila. After a period at headquarters, it was off again toEgypt, 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, thefather of my older son, in Australia in 1987. We parted in 1991, and wehad a legal annulment in the Philippines, which was granted inSeptember 1991. My second husband was a Filipino American, whom Imarried in California in January 2001. We went to the Philippines andwhen I was in Egypt, he divorced me in Guam. A Filipino married to aforeigner may be divorced if it is the foreigner who initiates thedivorce. My second son is adopted.
I am non-traditional as a Filipino. But I think I reflect the realityof Filipino life today. In many ways this helps me understand theimperfections in the situations of our overseas workers. I believe ithas made me kinder and more empathetic when we have had certainproblems involving Filipino workers. I’ve always been the one who wasfor the worker. It takes a mountain of evidence for me to decideagainst 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 hadchildren already. They had children the first time I was here, butthose children were small, and many of them were sent home when theyreached a certain age.
The phenomenon I saw when I came here this time was that many of thechildren [who stayed] had now grown up and become Israelis. I remembermy “Aha!” moment when I went one day past a bus stop. I saw a Filipinoboy sitting there, waiting for a bus. I asked him, “Pilipinoka ba?” (Are you Filipino?), and he told me in Hebrew that hecouldn’t understand me. I started to wonder what had happened to theFilipino community here. They were so different from the community Ileft behind 16 years before. So that became my focus – the children.
I have sponsored several programs for children that highlight Filipinoculture. My main thrust has been to make the Philippines attractive tothem, to make them understand that the Philippines is a nice country.
We had a regional consultative meeting of Philippine ambassadors justtwo weeks go. I said we need to refocus the education of the nextgeneration of our people toward love of country, towardnation-building, and toward entrepreneurship, and not simply churn outworkers who will seek employment overseas. We need to create people whowill build the Philippine nation, largely with small businesses. That’sour future.
What do you see as your major accomplishments here in Israel?
I’m happy that the “Open Doors” monument in Rishon Lezion wasconstructed and dedicated. The dedication ceremony on June 21, 2009 wasvery, very moving. The project began before I arrived here, and it wasthe achievement of many people – the Filipino community in Israel, theJewish community in the Philippines, Holocaust survivors – all workingtogether to create this memorial. I feel very fortunate that itmaterialized and was completed during my watch.
Also, I think I hit the ground running. Because when I came here Ireally focused on having good friends in the Israeli government, and Ithink I have achieved that. As an ambassador, I felt that I needed tohave an extensive network.
In March last year, I took the initiative of hosting a dinner with thepresident of Israel. And that for me was wonderful – all the Asianambassadors were there.
Networking is very important for ambassadors because you never knowwhen you will need the contacts. I felt this especially when we havehad to help our nationals who were caught up in conflict situations. Iwas able to connect myself by phone immediately, in the middle of thenight, with the relevant people. This is essential for any ambassadorin Israel.
Israelis are very casual people, and they like to operate from a levelof friendship. I learned that the first time I was here. If theambassador has friends, the work of the consular section in assistingnationals is very much facilitated. That has been one of my majorachievements. Also extending my contacts nationwide by having honoraryconsuls in Ashdod, Haifa and Jerusalem. This has also helped our work alot.
My main job as ambassador is not only protecting the Filipino communityand protecting the bilateral relations between the two countries. It’sall about relations. It’s about making friends, and having personalrelations with high officials and business leaders.
Any major frustrations or disappointments?
I have had no frustrations, no disappointments. How can you getfrustrated here in Israel? It’s a wonderful country. It’s exciting.It’s not like other places in the world where everything is sopredictable. Here, anything can happen; no two days are the same. Ifyou have that mindset, you can’t be frustrated.
I would love for everything to go my way all the time, but that doesn’thappen in life. Israel is a wonderful place and I’m very, very happy tohave had the opportunity to serve here twice – once as consul generaland later as ambassador.
Israel is and always will be a very special place for me.