Meet the Filipinos who mind Irish children, but can’t see their own

Many undocumented workers in Ireland cannot see their families for years on end

Alma’s family at their home in The Philippines. Photographs: Kimberly dela Cruz

Alma’s family at their home in The Philippines. Photographs: Kimberly dela Cruz


Malasiqui, north of Manila, October 2018

Jollibee is a red and yellow fast food joint with a branch in every town. Everyone around me is eating fried chicken, though it’s only 10am. I’m waiting for a small boy who hasn’t seen his mother since he was two years old.

Nine-year-old Matthew bounces in, wearing a green and white tracksuit, dragging a Lightning McQueen schoolbag behind him. “Can I have a soda?” I’m impressed with his English. “I learned it through YouTube.”

Matthew’s aunt has just picked him up from school, a place he has mixed feelings about.

“I was bullied for a while, so I stayed at home. Then I learned on YouTube that if you don’t go to school, you can’t be a scientist.”

He slurps his soda. “I’d like to teleport to the past so our mum is still with us.”

I had met Matthew’s mother Alma at a Filipino fiesta in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Over roast suckling pig and pork adobo, Alma told me she had been a teacher in The Philippines, but that life changed dramatically when her husband had an accident.

“He was badly injured, which resulted in chaos, and financial problems. I came on a tourist visa in 2011, and I’m still here. If I go home I can’t come back.”

Alma works as a carer for a woman in her 90s – “we can still play Scrabble”. While there are thousands of Filipinos in Ireland legally (and many now also have Irish citizenship), it’s estimated there are more than 2,000 undocumented workers, many of them carers.

Alma started off minding children. “Once I introduced the Irish kids I was minding to my kids on Facetime. My youngest asked me are those your children . . .” A tear escapes from one eye. “It’s very hard. I can’t hug my own kids.”

Matthew and I head back to the compound where he lives with his dad and siblings, grandmother and other relatives. We sit in the living room, under a faded wedding photo of Alma and Robin.

Alma and her son Matthew communicate by social media.
Alma and her son Matthew communicate by social media.

A phone rings. It’s Alma on Messenger, in her pyjamas in Dublin. It’s three in the morning in Ireland.

“ Hi everyone! What are you having for lunch?”

“Ma, I need money to pay my final exam on Monday,” says Mark, who’s 20.

“Okay, okay,”

“Ma, I forgot to answer one of the questions in the exam.” Matthew is almost inside the phone.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “you will be fine.”

Someone moves Alma onto the table and props her upright.

“Sometimes she will be on the phone for three hours in the evening,” says Robin.

The conversations aren’t necessarily one on one, and aren’t always continuous. Rather Alma is a sort of extra-terrestrial, extra person in the room. An absent presence, a present absence.

The screen freezes. “Connection lost.”

Robin, who’s wearing a purple Dublin tee-shirt, lifts up his trouser leg to show me his prosthetic leg. “We have a loan because of the accident. I’m also having dialysis. There are so many loans, the letters from the bank keep coming.”

The longer I study the longer she has to stay there. I still have two years to go

The phone rings again. It’s Alma. “The longer I study the longer she has to stay there,” says Mark. “I still have two years to go.” He looks down at the phone. “Sometimes I feel bad about it, I thought she would only be gone, like, one year.”

The screen freezes. “Connection lost.” Again.

Patrician School Hall, Newbridge, Co Kildare, September 2018

Connection is what keeps Filipinos going, far from home. Like Irish emigrants of old, they coalesce around churches, and religious events. Most of the people at this fiesta in Newbridge are from the same small town called Tangub. The day began with Mass, attended by more than 200 people, and is continuing with a feast of Filipino food.

Most are legal, having arrived during the Celtic tiger era when work permits were readily available for workers from non-EU countries. Ireland needed nurses and carers, and Filipinos seemed particularly suited to the task.

Flor leaves her home in Naas for Limerick every Sunday night and comes back on Friday. She’s a carer for an 86-year-old woman who has dementia. “It’s a tough job, but she is very kind. The Irish are good.”

Flor’s husband came to Ireland in 2002, and she joined him in 2006. They’re both now Irish citizens. She has been able to send her children to school and college in The Philippines.

“Life there is difficult. You can’t build a house, have a car, pay for study.”

Crucially, she can travel home occasionally to visit her family.

There’s one woman at the fiesta who seems to know everybody. Edwine Costello, known to everyone as Gaga, first came to Ireland in 1988. She married an Irishman and set up a recruitment agency. She reckons she brought 600 Filipinos to work here legally between 2001 and 2009.

“Green Isle Foods, Comerford’s Bakery, Ashford Castle . . . I am proud to say many of them are Irish citizens now, married with mortgages, and doing very well.”

If you are undocumented here, and are no trouble, they will leave you alone

Costello is aware of those here without papers, but says she can’t get them work permits. “It all finished in 2009. If you are undocumented here, and are no trouble, they will leave you alone. But there have been a few cases of arguments where Filipinos have reported against each other, and they’ve been deported.”

Maria and Clay went to school together in Tangub and discovered on Friendster that they were both in Ireland. Like Flor, they work as carers. The difference is they are both illegal, or undocumented. Filipinos have adopted the terminology that Irish politicians use to lobby for the regularisation of Irish citizens in the US, who are in a similar situation.

Maria hasn’t been home for 10 years.

“My father died two years ago, but I couldn’t go home. You have to deal with it.

If I went I probably I wouldn’t get back in. My kids have a better life here and I have to think of them.”

Clay has cared for several different elderly people in her time here, as inevitably some go into a nursing home, or die. “The last woman, I was with her when she died. I minded her for three years and it was hard letting her go. I’m still in touch with that family.”

The work can be tough and lonely, as many of those she has looked after had dementia. “You need all the tricks. You have to sing every song you ever knew. Sometimes you have to dance.”

Clay and Maria are both conscious they are caring for older Irish people, while being unable to care directly for their own parents. “My father doesn’t want to see me on video call, he just wants to talk,” says Clay. “He gets too upset if he sees me.”

The bond with home is a complex one, and the balikbayan gift box, shipped by sea for Christmas, is an important link. “It’s something they look forward to, says Maria. “We start buying stuff in the sales on St Stephens’s Day!”

“There will be different parcels for nieces and nephews,” says Clay. “Every time you buy something, you are thinking of them.”

Tangub, Mindanao, October 2018

“The balikbayan is supposed to arrive by Christmas, but it will be here by early March.” Clay’s father is laughing. “Presents for the kids, sometimes things like luncheon meat that we can get here, but we are not going to send it back! Oh, and here, look.”

He leads me to the hall in his house on the outskirts of Tangub. “All my shoes have come from Ireland.”

His eyes moisten. “We miss her, but that is her life now.”

Tangub is a small city on Mindanao, an island Philippines President Duterte has put under martial law. Here, poverty is softened by bougainvillea, and cushioned by remittances sent back by the estimated 1,000 Tangubanon living abroad, many in Ireland.

“Clay has been very good to us,” says her brother, over coffee and cassava cake. “She’s supporting us financially, especially for my mother’s medical expenses.”

The medication alone costs more than €100 a week, a fortune in the Philippines. “But our big wish is that she could come home. A few times we’ve thought my mother is going to pass away, but thankfully she is still alive.”

Clay’s family direct us to Maria’s family home. Her mother greets me with cold drinks and a small, shy smile. She lives with two of Maria’s seven brothers, but misses Maria because “she is the only girl”.

“She’s caring for an old woman. She moved her whole life there, to make money.” Her foot taps on the floor. “I’ve only seen her children on Skype, for Christmas and birthdays. I always ask her when she is coming back.”

One of Maria’s brothers is an electrician on a cruise ship, but even he managed to get home when their father died. “It’s hard for Maria, to be alone when family things happen. Even for our dad’s wake she was not here. It was really sad and our mother was very disappointed.”

He has managed to get a contract on a ship that will visit Dublin twice next year. “I’ll probably only have a few hours off, but at least I will get to see her, for the first time in 10 years.”

Maria’s friend Joy has also been in Ireland for 10 years, leaving her children and husband behind. Joy’s house is bigger than its neighbours and was built with the money she has earned in Ireland, but she has never seen it. Her daughter Christine translates, as we sit down to a Filipino feast of local shrimp, pork stew and rice.

“We were a poor family. We could never have gone to college if our mother stayed here.”

Joy’s husband Wilfrid explains that she tried to go to Ireland legally when work permits were still available, but says she was scammed by a local recruitment agent he called “Joe”.

“Joe” later arranged a tourist visa for another large fee. “We took out a loan for that,” he says.

Thirteen-year old Kurt Jay was only three when his mother Joy left for Ireland.
Thirteen-year old Kurt Jay was only three when his mother Joy left for Ireland.

On the dresser are photos of two of their sons in merchant marine uniforms. They both studied seafaring. Christine is studying medical technology. But the youngest, Kurt Jay, has only started high school. He was only three when his mother left.

Wilfrid ruffles his son’s hair, as Christine calculates. “Five more years of high school and four of college. Maybe she will have to stay nine more years, less if the older ones can help.”

More than 12 million Filipinos are “Overseas Filipino Workers”, and many of them are women in similar situations. “Culturally, it’s the role of the woman to save the family,” says Dr Sylvia E Claudio, dean of the College of Social Work at the University of the Philippines.

There is a lot of misery and homesickness, but this is not abandonment, but a fulfilment of the role of the mother

“There is a lot of misery and homesickness, but this is not abandonment, but a fulfilment of the role of the mother. You will see to the survival of your family, no matter the cost to yourself.”

A woman who works with the families of migrants in Tangub tells me there can be a high social cost. “Many of the men are in other relationships, and the children know it. We have a saying here “suma kabilang buhay”, which means someone has died and moved on to the next life. But they say their fathers are “suma kabilang bahay” – gone to the next house. It’s not a good model for children.”

And she says it’s tough on the overseas women in other ways. “They will tell me that people will call them when they need money, but they won’t ask how they are feeling. Sometimes they just need someone to call them to say hello.”

Flight Manila-Dubai-Dublin, November 2018

Travelling home, on the same route most women use to get to Ireland, I’m very conscious I had an opportunity to visit their families when they cannot, and to come and go as I please.

“Lots of people want to go home,” says Alma. “They can’t bear the pain. When we meet in our church group, sometimes we cry and cry.”

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) is calling for a scheme to allow those here for more than four years to come forward and regularise their status. “In these particular cases, it’s about how much do we value caring,” says Helen Lowry of MRCI. “This is essential work and these jobs are not being filled by Irish or EU/EEA workers.”

“The reality is that migration is regulated to suit the needs of advanced capitalism,” says Claudio. “States may have an anti-immigration policy, but in this case they need actual women to cross borders to take care of actual people. You can’t get a robot to do it, and you can’t send your old people here.”

Currently, the only option for an undocumented person is to apply to the Department of Justice for permission to remain, which is decided on a case-by-case basis. MRCI says this isn’t a solution, as it essentially means triggering a deportation order. The person can then appeal on humanitarian grounds, but this is completely at the discretion of the Minister and can be a high-risk strategy. However it’s one Alma has now decided to pursue.

MRCI says there is public support for people in this situation. “Irish families are crying out for solutions for their carers,” says Lowry. “People want to die at home.”

I can’t help but notice one gaping cultural difference; in all the Filipino families I visited, older people were living with one or more of their children. Nursing homes, or the idea of a stranger caring for a parent, are virtually unknown.

As the plane lands in Dublin, the image in my mind is of Alma’s mother, sitting in her yard in her pink dress, holding a cane topped with pink flowers. She worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong when she was younger, but at least she could come home once a year to see Alma and her other children.

The cycle is continuing but at a greater cost. “I really want her to come back because I am sick. So many years I haven’t seen her.”

There’s one fat tear on her cheek.

“I want Alma to come home before I die.”

Some names have been changed

This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund
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