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In a Land of Refugees

Filipino migrants build community in Jordan

text by Dale Gavlak with photographs by Nader Daoud

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They come decked out in their finest: Pristine white, lacy blouses complement blue jeans and colorful trousers. Scores of Filipino women, mostly young, pack the wooden pews of Our Lady of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church in the Jordanian capital city of Amman.

Father Gerald Metal hails from the Philippines, too, and provides words of encouragement to the community before beginning to celebrate the Mass. Behind him, a huge mosaic of a shining Archangel Gabriel declares to a humble, astonished Virgin Mary the miracle she is about to experience.

For many in this congregation of domestic helpers — along with a sprinkling of foreign diplomats and aid workers — a miracle is exactly what they need.

Once a sparsely settled kingdom squeezed between Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan has become the refuge and safe haven for millions of refugees. For decades, waves of Palestinians flooded the resource-poor nation; they have since been joined by Iraqis and Syrians fleeing extremism and war in their respective homelands. Yet despite the general instability of the region, migrant workers from the Philippines continue to seek work there to support their families — a decision often burdened with regrets.

A member of the choir, Aurea Gutierrez Perlai, leads the communion hymn, dressed in a pink floral blouse, her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. The past 25 years have been full of unexpected challenges for Ms. Perlai.

“I came here in 1994 because my aunt encouraged me to come and work. But from the beginning, I regretted my decision,” she says with a pained expression after Mass.

“I’m a college graduate and a teacher; it was very difficult for me to accept that I was just cleaning a house. I was earning $150 a month from a Jordanian family that had me work all hours of the day,” explains the 49-year-old mother from Silang, in the province of Cavite. That could mean 12 or more hours a day, in some households.

Chatting after the liturgy, some congregants say they are only able to attend Mass once a month, because they receive so little time off. This is in flagrant violation of Jordanian labor law, as well as the customary practice of permitting at least one day off per week. But if they complain, employers often respond by confiscating passports or locking workers inside the house.

Ms. Perlai’s heavy workload lasted for three years before she was able to move on to employment with the Spanish Embassy, where she worked for 19 years. She now works at the Norwegian Embassy as a cook, enjoying an eight-hour workday, weekends off and a high salary.

Although Ms. Perlai’s employment situation improved dramatically, her marriage, in the meantime, collapsed.

“My Filipino husband is here in Jordan, but we are separated. I am the only one supporting our children,” she says, her dark eyes welling with tears.

“He never comes to see them.

“I don’t know what happened to our relationship,” she adds quietly. “He found another woman and has another family now. He has two other children who are younger than mine. I continue to pray about this situation and for my children.”

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