Feeling Filipino

Nejoud Al Yagout – — Photo by Djinane Alsuwayeh

Yesterday, I was told by a fellow Kuwaiti that the president of the Philippines has issued a ban on Filipino workers traveling to Kuwait. I sensed a tone of surprise (and an underlying tone of dismay) by the one conveying the news to me, but I was very happy. My first thought was: Finally! This is not an unpatriotic sentiment. Nor should it be considered a patriotic one, for that matter. This is a humanitarian issue and should be viewed objectively. Our loyalty in such cases should be towards humanity. It has absolutely no connection to borders. And a degree of authenticity and responsibility is required when it comes to the development of one’s nation.

We all know that if Kuwaitis were treated badly by others abroad, our government would take care of us too. We need to take off our perception glasses and start wearing those of others. This has nothing to do with the Philippines breaking ties with Kuwait. This is a protective ban and does not apply to all Filipino workers, but mainly domestic helpers due to incidents of abuse that resulted in deaths. As mentioned in yesterday’s article in Kuwait Times by Ben Garcia, Ambassador of the Philippines to Kuwait Renato Villa had already sent a letter to the interior ministry, but didn’t receive a response. We cannot afford to ignore such appeals made to us by our guests.

It seems that our first reaction is one of surprise or denial. If one person states that there is a problem with the treatment of domestic helpers, it could be a lie. If two people state an issue, there is still room for debate. But three or more people? Yes, Houston, we have a problem. And this problem needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later. If it will take eons to change hearts and minds, it will take no time at all to begin an investigation.

Nobody is insulting us. In fact, I am amazed at how long it took for this ban to be in place. Our Filipino brothers and sisters have been extremely patient in implementing this ban. Decades of patience on their part is highly commendable. And, still, according to the embassy here, the order is not yet official. The time is upon us to place our egos aside and address the obvious elephant in the room. Why are we closing our eyes? Everywhere I go, I hear new incidents about domestic helpers from various nations seeking help.

This is not just an issue in Kuwait, obviously, but since the ban is focusing on our country, we need to hold each other’s hands as we navigate unknown terrain. We need to look at each other and remind ourselves of our potential; to resurrect what is known as Arab hospitality. When someone comes into our home, they must feel welcome, whether they are our relative or the cook that works in our house. Our jobs have nothing to do with status. Most of us work to make money. Only a lucky few in the world get to do what they love and be paid for it.

Our Filipino brothers and sisters are souls who have left behind poverty to send a monthly cheque to their families. What will it take to remind us of this fact? They are not here willingly. And to leave their homes and be subjected to mental or physical abuse is heartbreaking. Especially for the women workers – who are more vulnerable, because their bodies may be violated in extreme cases.

This is not an article about treating helpers better. Nor is it an article to preach the rewards we will reap if we treat others well. Those who abuse their workers and those who make sure they treat them well can – in many cases – be two sides of the same coin: A misguided notion that we are superior. If we are treating domestic helpers with extra kindness because we feel sorry for them, or for an eternal reward or even because we want them to feel they are the “same” as us, then we feel they are beneath us.

There is no need for us to make anyone else feel better because of a perceived status. Human beings can sense when someone is being nice to them out of pity. If we are kind, let it be because we choose to be kind to everyone. And let us remember, that if our situation changes one day, then we will be domestic helpers too – just as we may become CEOs or entrepreneurs one day. There is no prestige or shame in our jobs. It is just a matter of circumstance. Additionally, this notion that we can control those who work for us or give them rights still puts us one level above them.

Sure, there is a system of hierarchy wherever we go. We humans seem to have excelled at that. But aren’t we tired of it? People are dying at the hands of our abusers. This is not a joke. And the last thing we should feel is anger that we are being exposed. This is a blessing in disguise. This is a chance for us to open our hearts; a chance for us to realize that our jobs do not define us, but can be an opportunity for us to transcend our differences. This is a chance for us to remember that all human beings deserve freedom and respect.

It is not only about domestic abuse, but even the lifestyles we impose on those who share our roofs. Our helpers are not allowed to use their phones, and are given “permission” to go out once a week. This notion of a day off once a week or twice a month is cruel. How would we feel if we were imprisoned at our workplace and given a day off merely once a week? Heck, we can’t wait to leave work after eight hours! But that is a whole different topic!

For now, we are not sure if and when this ban will go into effect, but I hope it is a wakeup call for us to look at how we are all contributing to this and to realize that this has nothing to do with Kuwait. It is a global issue. But since the spotlight is on our country, let us welcome this opportunity to discuss this plight with our Filipino brothers and sisters and find ways to resolve this. Let us feel Filipino for a change, and maybe then we can transform ourselves.

By Nejoud Al-Yagout
[email protected]

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