ROME, Italy — They risked their lives, trekking through mountain passes, huddling in closed vans hurtling through the night, and hiding in safehouses to make it to this country for jobs and a better life for their families.
Today, with Italy’s relaxed laws on migrant workers, the children of pioneering Filipino workers here, who have chosen to follow their parents, arrive in style, welcomed by throngs of relatives at the airport or fetched by their mothers from their home provinces, with assurances of a waiting job.
“Getting to Italy then was very dangerous, but I’m relieved that my daughter won’t have to go through the experience I went through,” said 51-year-old Emma. Like all the other Filipinos interviewed for this article, she is a documented worker but asked to be identified only by a first name or nickname for various personal reasons.
Emma’s daughter, Eve, arrived here two months ago through a direct hiring system that the Italian government makes available every now and then.
Then there’s Roy and Annie’s daughter, Armie, who arrived in Rome early this year after almost two years as an illegal in Canada. A pharmacy graduate, Armie tried her luck there but failed to get a working visa and so decided to follow her parents here. She got a job instantly.
“It’s not related to my course, it’s domestic work, but it pays well, so I’m okay with it for the meantime,” she said.
On the other hand, 44-year old Jap and his wife Len fetched their son Kim from their Batangas hometown to try life in Rome. Kim got a part-time job here and says he’s now having second thoughts about continuing his college course back home.
Lily, 58, has five children, but only 27-year-old son Marvin chose to be with her in Rome.
All the interviewees who shared their tales of joy and woe with INQUIRER.net are from Batangas, where thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Italy come from.
Philippine Ambassador to Italy Philippe Lhuillier confirmed that Batangueños make up a substantial segment of the 150,000 to 200,000 Filipinos in Italy, but acknowledged that the number of OFWs here could be higher because some remain undocumented.
Jap, Emma, and Lily belong to the early wave of migrant workers in Italy. Only Lily was spared the travails of the early days. Emma pawned everything she could, including a small lot in Mabini, to raise the P120,000 placement fee asked by a travel agency and a few hundreds of dollars for pocket money.
When she was finally ready, she packed her bags, said goodbye to her husband and three kids and set off for Rome, aware that her journey was fraught with peril.
During the briefing given by a staff of the travel agency, she was told the trip would entail riding vans, traveling at night, living in a safehouse and trekking mountains.
She left the Philippines in November 1991 in a flight to Yugoslavia. After staying in a safehouse for a few hours, a woman fetched her and four companions and told them to board a closed van.
But before leaving the safehouse, they were told to leave their luggage and carry only a small bag because they would be walking for hours. “I didn’t want to leave all my things behind, so I wore whatever I could – four panties, three bras, three T-shirts, and two pants,” she said.
They hiked the whole night. Along the way, they would run into Italian police patrols and were told to drop to the ground or slide down the hill to avoid detection.
They reached a mountain around 1 a.m. in the freezing cold. “It was very dark and cold; we didn’t even know where we were heading,” she said.
It took them almost four hours walking to reach another van waiting to take them to a train station where their guide, whom Emma guessed was a Yugoslav, gave them tickets.
“Our pants were soiled. We were very dirty. When we boarded the train, the people were staring at us,” she said. While on the train, she said they did what their guide told them, pretending to be asleep to avoid inspection.
After five hours, Emma said they got off at the Termini, Rome’s central station where she was fetched by a relative who gave her temporary shelter and introduced her to an employer.
Later, they found out they had come from an area in Venice.
Jap’s journey to Italy took a month. A former employee of the National Bureau of Investigation, he left for Rome to follow his wife Len in 1991. At that time, their son Kim was barely three years old.
Like Emma, Jap had to scour for the P120,000 placement fee. He borrowed the money from a neighbor who, he learned later, would charge him high interest rates.
His route took him to Paris, Berlin, and finally Budapest, traveling with a group of 23 Filipinos who appointed him their “leader.”
In Budapest, they were brought to a hotel where there were about 30 more Filipinos, and were met by three foreigners, their guides.
After several days, Jap began to wonder why they had not left the hotel. He learned later that the Filipino agent supposed to pay for the “tawid” or their journey to Italy, had duped their foreign guides.
Jap said he called the head of the travel agency in the Philippines and told him the problem. After a few days, another guide arrived and told them to board five cars.
When they reached a mountain, their trek began. “We heard a loud sound from a vehicle, like a tractor. We were told by our guide to hide. We found out it was an armored tank. We were very frightened,” he said.
When they reached the road, a closed van was waiting for them, but just as they were boarding, Jap found out that five of their companions were missing. He said he tried to call the guide’s attention but the van sped away.
After a few meters, the van stopped. The police came and arrested them. They were brought to a military camp and detained in a room without light. From a small hole, Jap said he saw the police whipping their driver, who was naked.
Tired, hungry and cold, Jap and his team managed a nap in the filthy cell. They were awakened by a banging on the door. It was the commanding officer, ordering them to board a van that brought them to a big supermarket. They were then told to cross a mountain nearby.
Jap found out later that they were already at the Italian border, but before they could step on Italian soil, a group of policemen accosted them and told them not to cross.
They returned near the supermarket where, after a few more hours, a bus fetched them and brought them to the train station where they were given tickets for Italy.
“We were very happy. We even asked the inspector how many hours the travel is. But this turned out to be a wrong move,” he said.
When they were about to alight, a voice from the loudspeaker announced that the group from the Philippines could not go. The train took them back to Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
In Zagreb, they found a hotel and were served food only to find out after three days that their bill was more than all the pocket money they had.
“I called the travel agency again and asked for money. After three days, it came and there was a closed van again that brought us to another safehouse,” he said.
But the police had been tipped off. They raided the safehouse, backed up by four helicopters. But Jap and company were not arrested. They hid in the ceiling where they found company, dozens of other immigrants of different nationalities.
“I didn’t know what to feel. I pitied myself, but I said I had to survive,” he said.
A tapping on the ceiling told them the police had gone. The van brought them to the terminal again and from there, Jap finally reached Rome on December 20, 1991. He had left Batangas on November 19.
He called his wife, using the number he had scribbled on one of his rubber shoes.
Filipinos in Rome either work part-time, taking two jobs at a time, or fulltime, which requires them to live with their employers.
They have Thursday afternoon and the whole of Sunday off. Their employers pay their tax and insurance and each year, they get 13th month pay and a bonus.
The whole month of August is their allotted leave with pay.
Filipinos in Italy, whom President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called the favorite of employers, have come a long way.
Lily has been living in with an 84-year-old woman for nine years and receives close to €1,000 a month.
Emma rents a room from a Filipino family for €200 and works part-time.
Jap and his family rent a house. He works part-time.
They worked without legal documents for years but in 1996, the Italian government offered amnesty that they all availed of.
All said that the fruits of their labor can be seen in their homes in Batangas. Other Batangueños working in Italy have even had their homes built Italian style.
Jap believes, though, that OFWs should not put their money only into beautifying their houses but in business too. In his hometown, he has constructed a dormitory.
Filipinos here have also organized themselves for a stronger voice on their concerns that need addressing. They participate in the election of representatives to conciliaries, groups of migrant workers of various nationalities which elect a head, similar to a congressman. Out of 19 conciliaries in Rome, 10 are headed by a Filipino, according to Lhuillier.
Emma is also a community leader in a church-based group called Santa Croce Community and has a radio program with two other Filipinos that airs every Sunday.
But with the material gains Filipino families in Italy also have to bear the social costs of separation.
Jap said he followed his wife because he knows the consequences of being separated. Emma has had her husband’s papers processed several times so they can be together, but he’s not keen on working abroad. Neither is Lily’s.
Emma said she learned from her children that her husband has a girlfriend. Now she sends money only to her children.
All three had stories of Filipinos living as couples even if they have spouses back home. “Mahal kasi ang lalaki rito, dahil kakaunti [Men are sought after here because there are few of them],” Emma said.
So is the social cost worth it? Emma said she cares only for her children and will continue to work for them.
She said what is important is that they finish their studies and find work, possibly here in Rome, because the pay is better than in the Philippines. Rest assured, she said, their children won’t have to go through the dangers she did to get here.