OFWs coming home
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - June 4, 2020 - 12:00am

Whenever I'm in an airport abroad looking for my departure gate back to Manila, I only have to find the one where there's a lot of chaos and plenty of that familiar warm Filipino smile and I know in an instant, that's my gate.

There are snaking lines of Pinoys, all eager to go home. The men are in leather or chambray jackets; the women, in tight jeans and worn-out boots. Most of them have Duty Free bags filled to the brim with whisky, snacks, chocolates, giant teddy bears and what have you.

The airport itself is usually filled with fellow Filipinos who smile at you with the warmest smile, killing the time while waiting for their flights home, while some are actually working in the Duty Free shops or in the airport restaurants.

“Kabayan,” some would say.

And after the long flight and the aircraft’s wheels touch down on the runway of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), you hear a sigh of relief in the cabin or a round of applause both for the pilot’s smooth landing and for that unparalleled joy of finally being back in Manila's warm embrace.

So, imagine the frustration these days of some of our kababayans  – who are forced to come home because the global health crisis has left them unemployed --  over the maddening chaos that greets them upon landing on Manila's soil or, in the case of seafarers, upon docking in Manila's shores.

Unfortunately, stories about their sad, sorry plight abound these days.

Horror stories

Last Sunday, a flight from a nearby Asian country carrying overseas Filipino workers landed in Manila at 5:30 p.m. Airport authorities did not know about the sweeper flight despite word from the concerned Philippine Embassy.

“It took us 30 minutes before they gave us the clearance to land,” the OFWs wrote in a verified post.

At 6 p.m., the passengers had to wait some more because the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) was not ready to conduct their swab tests.

“It’s Sunday, there's no work today so please wait,” an OWWA officer told the passengers.

One hour later at 7:00 pm, there was no bus to pick them up.

“Hindi daw alam ng Coast Guard na may darating na mga OFW kaya hindi na-ready ang bus and we waited for another three hours bago kami nasundo sa airport,” the passengers said.

When the bus finally arrived, the hotel they were supposed to be quarantined in was also not ready. They had to wait for another three hours because there was only one person at the hotel's front desk.

But it’s all okay, they said.

“Wala ng sisihan. Ok lang naman kami. Ang daming kwento. Nakakatuwa. Nakakaiyak. Nakakagutom din. Pero masaya kami kasi naka-uwi naman kami sa Pinas. Ilang tulog nalang, makikita na namin ang pamilya namin,” they said.

They landed at 5:30 p.m. and only eight hours later were they finally able to take a rest.

“1:30 a.m. pwede ng matulog.”

There is another story from an OFW working in a cruise ship. For 30 days now, the crew members have been kept inside their cabins in a ship docked in Manila's shores because the Philippine Coast Guard’s quarantine procedures are taking too long.

“The documents got mixed up with other cruise ships, so it's taking too long. We can’t even go out of the cabins,” says one cruise ship member in a message sent to family and friends.

These aren’t fake news; I personally verified the information. I am sure there are more horror stories out there.

This is just heartbreaking, isn't it?

I know this is an extraordinary time given the health pandemic and I would understand some delays in the bureaucratic procedures given that everyone is overwhelmed. In the case of last Sunday's flight, authorities claimed they did not know the aircraft had passengers and not just cargo.

But at the end of the day, I also know we can do so much more for our returning OFWs, whom we consider as our bagong bayani or modern-day heroes for keeping our economy afloat.

No place like home

For most of us, there is no place like home, no place like Manila. It's our anchor, our port in a storm, away from the cold nights of winter, the scorching heat of the desert, or the strangeness of foreign lands, our happy place where we are loved and where we can love.

The thought of coming home one day is the reason most OFWs are able to endure that deep, profound sadness of working in a strange land, away from their loved ones. I have not met an overseas Filipino who has not had a longing for home despite the hefty dollars he or she makes.

There are at least 10 million OFWs all over the world infusing roughly $30 billion in dollar remittances to the economy every year.

The least the government can do is to give them the warm welcome they deserve when they finally make it back home.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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