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A Filipino couple’s good life in Russia

/ 04:03 AM August 31, 2020

Arlene and Dahrel are friends of mine who worked as a housemaid and gardener for a British couple living on Lantau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Because I also lived there for some years, I got to know them and many of the other overseas Filipino workers on the island. They attended social clubs on their days off, or would take the ferry to Hong Kong proper to attend services at the El Shaddai or Jesus is Lord (JIL) religious groups. Few joined the Iglesia ni Cristo, which everyone knew required tithes from members and had strict rules like no trousers for women attending services.

Because they had three children they’d left behind with their parents in their hometown of Butuan, Dahrel and Arlene worried about how to continue financing their upkeep and schooling. In Hong Kong they were well paid by their British employers, but they knew they could earn more if they had jobs in Canada, Australia, or the United States.

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Since I worked as an English teacher, Dahrel asked for help in writing application letters to prospective employers in those countries. He was a good carpenter, plumber, and handyman who sometimes did jobs for me and some others on Lantau. I helped him write a CV, along with letters of reference from myself and others who’d hired him part-time.

Sadly he got no replies, but Arlene found on Facebook an old classmate who was working in Russia as a nanny. So Dahrel checked on how to apply for jobs there, but he learned it was not like applying to Canada, Australia, and the United States where, after one’s application was accepted, sponsorship for a visa would be received by the applicant. What he found out from Hong Kong’s Russian Consulate was that one could get a 6-month visitor’s visa and pay out of his own pocket for an Aeroflot ticket to Moscow. Once there, an agency showed want ads where one could look for jobs. When he and Arlene arrived, they were allowed to work while waiting for employers to reply, so they did cleaning jobs in hotels.

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Thanks be to God, as they, being fervent JIL members, would say, there was a family living several hundred miles from Moscow looking for a couple to work at their dacha (summer home). The work involved being a housekeeper, nanny for a teenager, and a driver. They were promised a comfortable annex to the main house for their living quarters.

Over the years, their friends and I saw nice pictures on Facebook of them frolicking in the snow, the teenager whom Arlene looked after, Dahrel posing by the car, and the inside of their snug place. And there were photos of them on their employer’s yacht somewhere off the Black Sea. There was no doubt their employer was a capitalist, surely a crony of Putin’s.

When I read recently about the poisoning of Putin oppositionist Alexsei Navalny, I sent Bong a message asking if he’d heard about it; he said he hadn’t, he only got news from home via Facebook. I told him to look at other news sources to learn about Navalny, who was unconscious in Siberia. After some foot-dragging by the Russians who claimed they’d already examined him and found no poison involved, Navalny was allowed to be taken to Germany for medical attention. The Germans told a different story.

I remarked to Bong that conditions in Russia don’t seem so different from ours where rampant assassinations seem the norm. It’s easy to understand why OFWs don’t keep apprised of foreign news since their main concern is with conditions in their own country. They may also not know about Russia’s rates of COVID-19 which ranks it next to the United States, Brazil, and India. Even though the Philippines has had large numbers of OFWs being repatriated from other countries due to the pandemic (which have caused remittances home to nosedive), it’s surely a matter of luck that Arlene and Dahrel’s employer hasn’t repatriated them. They’re obviously invaluable for the work in the dacha.

Meanwhile our Department of Trade and Industry-Export Marketing Bureau has urged Filipinos to export items to nontraditional partners like Russia. Statistics for 2019 show the Philippines was Russia’s 21st trading partner, exporting items like bananas, mangoes, pineapples, cacao,

desiccated coconuts, carrageenan, and ceramics, among others.

Perhaps the hope is that returning OFWs sent back to their provinces could engage in such work. That way they could still be called the country’s “heroes” like they were while abroad.

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Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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TAGS: Commentary, Filipinos in Russia, Isabel Escoda, life in Russia
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