‘Kapit sa patalim’ | Inquirer Opinion
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There’s the Rub

‘Kapit sa patalim’

The phrase literally means “clinging to a knife,” as awe-inspiring and visceral a way of describing the lot of many Filipinos as you can find. It’s the heart of desperation, a loss-loss choice between surviving and surviving badly, between being alive and raggedly so. That is the state in which overseas Filipino workers in Libya now find themselves:  kapit  sa  patalim.

The situation was driven home by the horrific pass a Filipino nurse met with a week or so ago. She was on her way to work early in the morning in Tripoli when a car braked to a stop beside her, and its occupants grabbed her and brought her to an unknown place. There they gang-raped her, before releasing her in a dazed and traumatized state. At that she was lucky, if you could use that obscene word, she lived. She could at least be reunited with her loved ones.

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Not so lucky was the Filipino construction worker who was abducted a week earlier in Benghazi for reasons no one knows and whose body turned up later without its head.

These events have forced the Department of Foreign Affairs to call for the repatriation of Filipinos from Libya. The good news is that Libya has granted the OFWs an exit visa waiver, which means they do not have to secure a permit from their employers to leave, they can do so at once.

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It’s not so good news however for Libya itself, some 60 percent of its nurses in hospitals are Filipinos. Several multinationals have begged the Filipinos to stay on as their departure would ground those hospitals to a halt. Some have resorted to mounting a “shame the Philippines” campaign to discourage them from leaving. When a better tack would have been to offer to provide the women in particular better protection and the Filipinos in general better hazard pay for a job that has become truly hazardous.

Just as well, the bad news, as Walden Bello has pointed out, is that the forced evacuation comes a little too late. The Philippines already evacuated 10,000 OFWs from Libya in 2011, at the height of its civil war, and imposed a travel ban on that country. But the DFA lifted the ban as soon as Gadhafi fell even though the instability—and fighting—continued. We are reaping the fruits of that folly.

The even worse news is that many Filipinos want to stay. Only little more than 700 have left despite government’s announced forced evacuation last week. If I recall right, way back in 2011, many Filipinos didn’t want to leave too. They argued, as they do now, that it was just a choice between the possibility of dying quickly and the certainty of dying by slow motion, between being a casualty in a war of tanks and a war of want, between being in the grip of fear and the grip of joblessness. Between clinging to a knife and falling into the abyss.

I write this in part to express my deepest appreciation for the OFWs who have truly done the heroic deed of keeping this country afloat, notwithstanding that they do it unintentionally, notwithstanding that the last thing they feel while they are doing it is heroic. Only some months ago, I got an insight into the extent of our overseas-work exposure when some friends invited me to take a sea voyage. The ship was the Norwegian and had a crew of around 900 or so. Some 500 of them, or more than half, were Filipinos. Though the passengers were predominantly Western, the unofficial language of that ship was Tagalog.

Unfortunately, not every OFW can land a job in a ship that pays $700 (plus tips) a month and more importantly offers relative safety, not least through sheer numbers. Even more unfortunately, the horizons for OFW work are thickening with storm clouds. The United States itself, whence derives the bulk of our remittances, is threatened by a contraction of healthcare, which employs vast numbers of Filipinos, as the opposition to Obamacare heightens and as Obama himself has only two more years to go.

That will compel Filipinos to venture farther into the four corners of the world, many of those corners increasingly being set afire by war and strife. If not indeed compel many Filipinos, as in the case of Libya, to insist on staying where they are. Look at how risky the world has become with the conflagration in the Middle East, not least the war of attrition between Israel and the Hamas, with the bloodshed in the Ukraine that has had for “collateral damage”—yet another obscene word from the perspective of the victims and their kin—the deaths of 298 passengers on board Malaysia Airline Flight 17, the growing frostiness, if not hostility toward Filipinos in Hong Kong and China.

Those who say that it’s really the most stupid thing in the world to expose oneself to the line of fire, to risk life and limb in dangerous places, to insist on staying on despite government’s frenzied calls to leave, have not really looked at the face of hunger, have not really stared at the face of want. The OFWs who insist on braving the wilds of countries like Libya are not exaggerating when they say it’s often just a choice between risking sudden death and committing slow-motion suicide.

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It’s the underbelly of the accidental heroism. I look at the OFWs at the airports who have been accompanied by their tribe of relatives say their tearful goodbyes and I think: There but for the grace of God goes the Filipino. We are especially vulnerable to homesickness and the physical ravaging of overseas work, coming from close-knit families and a blissful ignorance of the outside world, but are thrust, as in a war, which it often literally is, into the frontlines of the battle for survival. What can we do? There are mouths to feed, there are bodies and souls to keep together—those of the tribe that accompanies the OFWs in their leavings above all.

Kapit sa patalim.

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