Far from home

Separated from their families, Filipino workers in Israel struggle to maintain their sense of community.

far from feat 88 298 (photo credit: Meredith Price)
far from feat 88 298
(photo credit: Meredith Price)
Every Saturday night at the new central bus station in south Tel Aviv, thousands of Filipinos speaking a mishmash of Tagalog, English and Hebrew pack every level of the concrete maze. There, among the banana ketchup and the rosary beads in the spot known in the local Filipino community as "Little Manila," the wandering crowds are able to forget, for a few hours every week, that they are no longer at home. Grocery stores sell imported Filipino "Skyflakes" crackers and rice liquor. Clothing stalls advertise the latest and greatest footwear "straight from the Philippines." Travel agency windows display bargain flights to Asian capitals and jewelry stores perch golden statues of the Virgin Mary and wooden paintings of a haloed Jesus beside their wide selection of crucifix necklaces. Two nightclubs and a vast array of bars provide music, singing, dancing and shows. It was here that director Tomer Heymann filmed much of his recent documentary Paper Dolls, about a group of Filipino workers who have a drag nightclub act. Most of those performers have now moved to London and taken the show with them, but new routines are constantly cropping up to meet the Filipino demand for good entertainment. "We are a close-knit community with a lot of heart and emotion," says Khristine Gharlee Talana-Rivera, the managing editor of Focal magazine, a publication in Israel for the Filipino community. "We work hard to send money to our families back home, and on Saturday nights we let loose and have fun. Every week there are shows and events. It's a real jungle," she says, laughing. Talana-Rivera, who co-hosted the first Miss Asia-Israel 2006 pageant last weekend and organizes various cultural events, says entertainment is her passion and her breath of fresh air. "There are so many talented people in this community. But it is rare for them to get a chance to perform and do what they love doing. Those of us who can do something here other than caretaking are lucky," she says while giving her two-and-a-half-year-old son a bottle. An expert multi-tasker, Talana-Rivera is, like many Filipina women, raising her son alone here while juggling a full-time career. Orphaned at 11 years of age, she was raised by her grandmother. A wealthy uncle helped her study at a university in California, but after starting her degree in computer science, she decided to finish her studies in Israel. She met and married a Filipino worker who was here on a temporary work visa, and they started the Focal magazine together. But just one month after their son was born, her husband was deported. Since then, Talana-Rivera has been on her own, and although the separation is difficult, she feels at home here now, she says, and knows she wants to stay. "This is where I grew up as a person, where I learned responsibility, where I understood what it means to take care of my family, where I found the work I love," she says. But despite her affection for the land of Israel, she knows the feeling is not mutual. ON THE COVER of Focal magazine a few weeks ago, the word "deportation" was printed in large red letters above a photograph of two shadowy, handcuffed wrists. "We are constantly told that this is not our country and that we do not belong here," says Talana-Rivera. "The deportation authorities barge into our homes in the middle of the night, they badger us for our papers on the streets. They drive us around in vans with handcuffs on and give no explanation. They want us to come here and work, but then they treat us like dirt," she says. Within the Filipino community, the separation of families is such a common occurrence that Focal's letter from the editor last month covered life beyond love, or how to cope with living far away from loved ones. Her advice: remind your loved ones how much you miss them and trust that God has a reason for separating you. The subject of separation also permeates the songs of Filipino composer Rejun Batucon. Called "June" by his friends, Batucon is also a caretaker and came to Israel to send money home to his family in the Philippines, but his true passion is for writing songs. "The Filipino workers who are living abroad are considered to be the new heroes of our generation in the Philippines," says Talana-Rivera. "Our families could not get by without the money we send home. It is in the Filipino mentality to sacrifice one's personal wishes and dreams to help family back home. We all do it happily." Gloria "Glo" Kang-Rodrigo, a 41-year-old singer by night, caretaker by day and mother of eight, is one of the fortunate few who was able to go beyond caretaking and fulfill her dreams of singing professionally. Six years ago, she came to Israel to earn money and send it home to her children, but after she met June, the two joined forces and Kang-Rodrigo started singing at weddings, parties and social events for the Israeli and Filipino communities. "I have been singing since I was a little girl," says Kang-Rodrigo. "But I never imagined I would be able to do it here. It is a dream come true, and I have traveled all over Israel to sing," she says, but adds that she is lucky to have an employer who allows her to leave in the evenings for gigs. Perhaps one of the reasons why the family she works for permits her to sing outside the home relates to the wonders her voice first worked inside the home. "When I started to take care of my employer's mother, she didn't speak. She never smiled and she was very unhappy," says Kang-Rodrigo. "I started singing to her and she began to improve. Now she talks again and her smile is back. Singing was great therapy for her." After five and a half years of not seeing her children, Kang-Rodrigo was recently able to return to the Philippines to sign a record contract. She says everyone in the Philippines loves Israel. "I am so lucky! I get to live and work in the place where Jesus was born! Just being here is a blessing," she adds with enthusiasm. Like most Filipinos, Kang-Rodrigo is a devout Catholic. As the place where Jesus lived, the land of Israel is a sacred place for Filipinos. Those who come here, even for a short period of time, are considered fortunate. So despite the messy work visa situation, deportation crackdowns and prevalent racism, Kang-Rodrigo says she is definitely coming back after she finishes recording her second album. FOR SOME Filipinos in Israel, the hardships they endure inspire their creative talent, and they consider overcoming separation from loved ones to be a learning experience. But for others, the problems with racism and deportation make them want to return to the Philippines. Benet Espana-Cervantes first arrived in Israel over 10 years ago. At the age of 21, she came as a caretaker with the goal of earning enough to send home the extra. She met an Israeli man and got married, but had a hard time adjusting, and their marriage didn't last long. "Our mentality was too different, and when I was a caretaker, I took care of a woman with Alzheimer's who physically hurt me," she relates. After Espana-Cervantes's divorce, she met a Filipino man here and remarried. When his five-year visa expired, they decided to return to the Philippines with their son to stay together as a family. But two years of struggling to make ends meet brought them to the realization that separating was the only hope they had of surviving financially. "I came back to Israel without my son and my husband because there was no other choice, and I'm working as hard as I can to make enough money to go back home," says Espana-Cervantes, who now works as a travel agent in Israel. "I miss my son a lot. We cry a lot on the phone, and it's terrible to be without him." Being closely involved with the Filipino community here makes her homesickness easier to bear, which is why she volunteered to help organize the upcoming Miss Asia-Israel 2006 pageant. As she tells me her story, the Miss Asia contestants, mostly Filipinas, line up again to go over their group performance for the upcoming pageant. "Sex bomb. Sex bomb. You're a sex bomb. You can give it to me when I need to come along," blares Tom Jones's voice over the speakers as arms lift and legs step to the upbeat tune. "Like you mean it, girls," says the choreographer with a clap of his palms in the air. As they spin and twirl together under his watchful eye, the small room begins to fill with onlookers, singers, coordinators and visitors. AS THE GIRLS stop to breathe after their latest repetition, Avi Ozeri leans into a column on the side of the room. Ozeri - the organizer of the pageant and owner of the Maharlika Royal Travel agency in the new central bus station - fell in love with Filipino culture nearly 10 years ago. He has collaborated on every major pageant since the first Miss-Philippines-Israel contest in the mid-1990s, speaks fluent Tagalog and knows everyone in the community, especially those with talent. "Have you heard from Mrs. Sales?" he asks me with a worried look on his face. Justina Sales, the president of the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel (FFCI) and one of the hosts of the competition, has yet to appear. Upset over her absence, he gives his watch one last glance and then says, "She must be here. We are running out of time." As president of the FFCI, Sales maintains an incredibly busy schedule. Last week over the phone, she explained that the Filipino community in Israel is one of the most vibrant in the world. "We have holidays to celebrate all the time, and we love entertainment," she says. Between cultural events and festivals, the embassy and splinter Filipino groups keep her constantly on the go. May is the month of flowers in the Philippines, so in honor of tradition, a number of Filipina women dressed in the national costume will parade with flowers through Hayarkon Park. On April 2, the FFCI will hold a clean-up operation in which more than 130 Filipinos will be picking up trash around the old central bus station. Sales also meets monthly with the editor of Focal magazine and attends Filipino basketball games, and she presented the crown to the Miss Asia-Israel winner last weekend. In order to compete, the 15 contestants had to meet specific requirements: They had to be unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30 who reside here legally but hold citizenship in an Asian nation. They had to be high-school graduates, stand at least 1.62 meters tall, demonstrate knowledge about their countries of origin and have both beauty of face and figure and an outgoing personality. The pageant, held last Saturday at the Diamond Theater in Ramat-Gan, was presented to an enthusiastic crowd made up largely of Filipinos. Most of the winners in the competition, including first runner-up Mariane Ramos, were Filipino. To Talana-Rivera's deep disappointment, however, her country did not win the overall prize: the new Miss Asia-Israel 2006 is Alona Dataukar of India. Before the pageant, Talana-Rivera worked hard to see that the Filipina contestants would fare well in the competition. Watching their final round of dance practice together, she smiles with pride at the contestants. "They are my audience. I would not be here without them," she says, referring not only to the pageant participants but to all of the nearly 35,000 members of the Filipino community living in Israel who buy her magazine and attend her events. "If God chooses to bring me and my husband back together one day, so be it. For now, helping the talented members of the community fulfill their dreams and writing for the magazine is my life," Talana-Rivera says with determination. "After Focal magazine, after Israel. Who knows?"