Banned from coming home for Christmas

By Pennie Azarcon dela Cruz

Posted date: December 17, 2007

FOR NIGERIA-BASED schoolteacher Tess Azarcon, preparations for Christmas start in July.”As soon as school closes first week of July, my countdown to Christmas begins,” she recounted of her two previous yuletide holidays.

“From then on, every time I go shopping, I’m on the look out for pasalubong (homecoming presents) that will please my mother, my sisters and brother and assorted relatives. Will my sister like that dainty lace-trimmed lingerie? What about that perfumed body talc and those imported chocolates? Already, I imagine the squeals of delight that would greet my bag of goodies the moment I get home from the airport.”

This year, this Abuja-based professional and thousands of Overseas Filipino Workers in Nigeria would have to subsist on imagination to celebrate Christmas with their families. Despite an earlier move on Nov. 17 to lift the ban on the deployment of OFWs to this West African nation, Labor Secretary Arturo Brion immediately restored the ban that has been in effect since January this year when several Filipino workers and other nationals were abducted in Nigeria’s Delta region.

Remote, swampy area
The ban is uncalled for, said Azarcon. “I cannot understand why the government should hold us hostage for acts done in isolated areas far away from our place of work,” she added. “This is a result of their ignorance of Nigeria’s geography and as such, it is unforgiveable.”

In an online petition and an open letter published as a paid advertisement in early November, Nigeria’s OFWs pointed out that the kidnapping happened in a remote swampy area far from secure city centers where most Filipino workers are deployed.

“The government cares for our safety? Why? There is no war here that warrants such concern,” Azarcon said. “To be honest, I feel safer here in Abuja than in Manila. I can use my mobile phone and wear expensive jewelry on the street anytime without fear of snatchers, and come home late at night without worrying about hold-uppers or rapists. When foreign colleagues leave for the holidays and I’m left alone in my flat inside an empty compound, I can still sleep soundly and safely.”

Suspenseful wait to lift ban
What has kept her awake, she said, was the suspenseful waiting for the ban to be lifted, considering that like other OFWs, her Christmas plans have been in place since September this year.

“As the new term begins in September, it is not actually the first day of school that fills my mind,” she said. “It is the ‘ber’ months, which means that very shortly now, I can once again go home and see the family, especially my widowed mother. She’s old now and I’ve vowed to go home every year to give her some peace of mind about my safety and assure her that we can still spend time together.”

The ban imposed on OFWs going to Nigeria since January had been a minor concern, she said. “We’ve always thought things would improve and the ban would be lifted. It’s been so long and the kidnapping was an isolated case that involved other nationals, not just Filipinos.”

But just to be sure, the OFWs in Nigeria chipped in $20 each for the open letter and paid ad to state their case on why the ban should be lifted. Among other points, the open letter suggested that being the government’s frontline source of information in the host country, the Philippine Embassy “can ascertain the real situation affecting the welfare of Philippine nationals in Nigeria and as such, could issue a certification that an OFW is employed and working in a safe and secured area in (Nigeria). This will allow the OFW to proceed on home leave or Christmas vacation with the assured return to the place of employment in Nigeria.”

Lifting of ban short lived
The strategy seemed to work: Over Vice President Noli de Castro’s radio program on Nov. 17, it was announced that the ban had been partially lifted, with OFWs already in Nigeria allowed back after their Christmas leave.

“There was great rejoicing in the Papal Nunciature where Filipinos attend mass on Saturday evenings,” recounted Azarcon.

“Everyone was all smiles and there was a lot of back slapping. The other nationals commented on how good it was to see Filipinos cheerful and smiling once more. For the longest time, there was a pall of gloom over Filipino gatherings because of the uncertainty of our Christmas celebrations. But that evening, all of us were in high spirits. Upon getting home, we eagerly called up other Pinoys to share the good news.”

The celebration turned out to be shortlived. The next day, claiming that the matter needed further study, Secretary Brion restored the ban. “Everyone was stunned,” said Azarcon. “We could not understand how a decision that affects several thousand OFWs can suddenly be changed overnight. It was a very sad day for us. ”

For weeks after, she added, Filipinos in Nigeria e-mailed and called each other up, hoping for a break. “But nothing! The government does not seem to care that we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hard-earned cash on newspaper ads and then some more in service charges when we refunded our tickets, not to mention our heartache and disappointment and that of our families. And still, nothing! No acknowledgment at all of the pain they’ve caused us, no apologies, no explanation.”

Disgust with government
She recounted how, at the Filipino Food Fair and Bazaar held at the Philippine Embassy on Nov. 25, the OFWs were subdued. “One group of Filipino engineers in one table couldn’t help but shed tears, and that’s without them drinking even a drop of wine!” she recalled. “I know that when they get back to their flats, more OFWs would do the same because they had so looked forward to spending Christmas with their families after a year of sacrifice.”

She feels the same, she said, except that her disappointment is heavily tinged with disgust with the government. “We have become the laughing stock of the international community here, with them asking us why our government has overreacted. They could have just issued a strong advisory against travel to Nigeria. Don’t they know that it is against human rights to prevent people from seeking work in a place of their choice?”

Holiday cheers stolen
At the moment, said Azarcon, her Christmas spirit has been dampened with “bitterness towards the government,” that has “unthinkingly and seriously” stolen their holiday cheer this year. “You will always owe us this one Christmas in our life and the life of our loved ones,” she said darkly of the government’s Grinch-like stance.

Otherwise, she adds, the government’s description of them as the country’s “New Heroes” whose $12.8 billion remittances last year have empowered the peso, would reveal itself as nothing but an empty paean.