HONG KONG—They gather in California churches, in Hong Kong shopping malls, at prayer vigils in Bahrain and on hastily launched Facebook pages. Filipino overseas workers, cut off from home after a super-typhoon killed thousands, are coming together to pray, swap information and launch aid drives.
Above all, many of the more than 10.5 million Filipinos abroad — some 10 percent of the country’s population — are desperately dialing phone numbers that don’t answer in the typhoon zone, where aid is still only slowly trickling in and communications have been largely blown away.
“I call again, and I keep trying and trying and trying but no one answered,” said Princess Howard, a worker at a money transfer business in Hong Kong, of her attempts to reach her 62-year-old grandfather and nine other relatives in the Leyte region that was flattened when Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan) hit one week ago.
Sending $21.4 billion back home last year alone, Filipino overseas workers are a major part of their country’s economy, with their remittances equaling nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product. Spread out over more than 200 countries, they work as nurses in Europe, sugar cane laborers in Malaysia, housemaids in Hong Kong and construction workers in the oil-rich Middle East.
Hong Kong alone has some 133,000 Filipinos, mostly domestic workers who tend to gather in local parks on Sundays, a day off. There are so many Filipinos in Hong Kong, that an entire shopping mall catering to them has developed — to buy goods from home and, crucially, wire money back to families. Howard, 18, works in a remittance agency at the mall and says that days after the storm, her family is still ringing missing relatives’ mobile phones 10 to 20 times a day with no luck. “Sometimes I lose hope. And sometimes I just carry on doing it.”
For Filipinos abroad, the price of earning a living for family back home has always been separation, and for many, that has never been felt so keenly over the past week as they watched helplessly from afar as the typhoon ripped apart entire communities.
“If only I had magic, in one click I would be there,” said 30-year-old Jeff Ilagan, an assistant pastor at the Filipino Disciples Christian Church in Los Angeles, California, who is from Leyte and whose wife and three young children are still in their village. As the storm hit, he endured a sleepless night worrying after receiving a text message from his wife saying, “Pray for us.”
Ilagan’s family survived and he is desperate to see them but he can’t leave the U.S. for a full year or he will invalidate his religious worker visa. Instead, the young pastor is throwing himself into fundraising efforts at his adopted U.S. church, organizing special offerings and weekly rummage sales for typhoon relief.
“What I can do here to help them is to pray for them and participate in any efforts to help,” he said
In Kuwait City, 27-year old pharmacist Dindin Ponferrada has tried dozens of time to reach her family in Barugo, about 20 kilometers west of the worst-hit city of Tacloban, but all lines are cut. see more