OFWs stricken ill
Nanay Flor Tejada, for years an overseas Filipino worker in Hong Kong, lost her daughter Armyn, also a Hong Kong OFW, to breast cancer in 2008. The following year, her other daughter, Nene, also a Hong Kong OFW, followed suit because of colon cancer. Both Armyn and Nene died in Hong Kong. After Nene’s passing, Nanay Flor went home to the Philippines to care for a son who was diagnosed to have liver cancer and eventually died. Not long after, Nanay Flor herself found out that she had lung cancer. She is now struggling to live and get healed.
Nanay Flor’s story is among the many stories in “running priest” Fr. Robert Reyes’ book “Buhay Ka: Struggles in Mortality, Glimpses of Eternity” that documents Hong Kong OFWs’ battle against cancer. The book was launched on Feb. 4, World Cancer Awareness Day and will soon be available at Popular Bookstore. Philippine Medical Association president Dr. Oscar Tinio wrote the foreword.
The stories in the book are not just about OFWs who were stricken ill and waged a battle against a dreaded disease in a place so far from home and loved ones. It is also about Filipinos caring for fellow Filipinos in difficult and extraordinary circumstances. And while work and disease are the common denominators for these OFWs, many of whom are domestic helpers, their cases and the nature of their battles are as varied as the lives they left behind in their home country.
Reyes who was assigned in Hong Kong for several years and who considered himself an OFW began his “street ministry” in Hong Kong by organizing a band of OFWs who called their group Lakbay Lingap. Writes Reyes, “Every Sunday, sometimes Saturday, we would meet and walk to the various meeting places of the thousands of OFWs… Every other OFW we met seemed enclosed and even imprisoned by their story of loss.” Thoughts of an unfaithful husband, children in trouble and debts at home plagued them. “And then there were those whose health have suffered a serious downturn, those who have been diagnosed to have cancer.
“After the streets, members of Lakbay Lingap began visiting hospitals. It was there that we met Lydia Bartolome who allowed us to journey with her and led us to others like her. I was not familiar with the hospitals of Hong Kong. Soon we were visiting Queen Mary Hospital, Prince of Wales Hospital, Pamela Eudes Hospital and so many other hospitals that hid so many of those who were hailed at home as heroes. What kind of heroes were they now that they were sick?
“Thank God, their employment in Hong Kong included medical insurance, but only while they were employed. As soon as a worker is terminated, and unless she finds another employer, in two weeks she has to leave Hong Kong lest she be penalized for overstaying.”
It was during his meetings with the ailing OFWs that the priest often heard the lamentation, “Mamamatay ako.” (I am going to die.) And so he would often hear himself counter with, “Pero buhay ka pa ngayon. Sabihin mo nga, buhay na buhay ako.” (But you are still alive. Say, I am very much alive.” And so the name “Buhay Ka” was adopted for the group of OFWs who were battling cancer and other ailments.
Included in Reyes’ book are the reflections of Melina Lagarbe, Buhay Ka coordinator. She says, “Today, Buhay Ka-Hong Kong is one of the richest Filipino communities (here), not because of money but mainly because we are blessed with all the beautiful, special, wonderful, triumphant and defining moments… Despite our busy schedules as domestic helpers, we still manage to do something for others.” But she says she also must deal with the patients’ doubts and fear of the unknown.
“Buhay Ka” the book is like a scrapbook, a compilation of reflections in both English and Filipino, first-person accounts, letters, interviews and photographs. Sure, it needs some good editing, but the individual stories, complete with names and faces, are so real one will just have to ignore the lapses and the book format.
Some of the first-person accounts were written when the OFWs were undergoing treatment. Having lost their hair to chemotherapy, many are shown wearing bandanas in photographs, but smiling broadly with their fellow OFWs who had cared for them. Not a few lost the battle but not before realizing their worth and experiencing the love and care of their compatriots and even strangers in a place that was not their home. Compassionate employers who went the extra mile deserve special mention.
There were those who survived cancer despite all the odds. For many, it all started with a “bukol sa dibdib” (a lump in the breast). One OFW went back to Hong Kong despite the adverse diagnosis and hid her condition from her employer. She needed to earn and see her daughter graduate. She worked for a while but when her employer decided not to renew her contract, she sought refuge in Buhay Ka which took care of her before and after her operation and until she was well again.
Caregivers blessed with good health and hearts have their stories, too. Who said OFWs are only concerned about their families back home, that all they do is slave away to earn? Many able-bodied OFWs have time and energy to spare to care for OFWs who are stricken ill.
Some of them have experienced kindness and are paying forward, so to speak. Others are driven by their religious faith and patriotic fervor. But there is no doubt that they have a deep well to draw from—because they are Filipinos. Father Reyes, a Hong Kong priest-OFW himself for several years, became one of them—a spiritual caregiver, accompanying many ailing OFWs in their healing journey and to the threshold of eternity.
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