Home is where the heart is


And the hurt for Filipino nurses is being so far from their kin at Christmas time.

FILIPINO NURSE Nora Robles will be sharing in her family's traditional celebrations at midnight on Christmas Eve in the southern Philippines. She will watch her son, her parents, four sisters and extended family opening gifts.

But 38-year-old Robles will be sitting upstairs in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Naas, Co Kildare, at four in the afternoon, thousands of miles away. She must depend on the video link in her laptop computer to bring her into her home in Mindanao.

She is hoping the signal will hold up at this busy time of year for telecommunications in and out of the Philippines, where 10 per cent of the 90 million population are registered as overseas workers.

Robles is one of millions of Filipino mothers working abroad while their children are raised at home without them. A study commissioned by Unicef estimates that one in four children in the Philippines has at least one parent employed abroad, and more than half of those emigrating now are mothers who find it easier than their husbands to get better paid jobs, as nurses, care assistants and housekeepers.

Working at a nursing home in Maynooth, Robles is used to being apart from her family and tells herself that seeing them happy is her happiness. But it still hurts, particularly at Christmas.

"I will not let them see me cry. I will switch off the camera sometimes because I do not want to let them see me sad," says Robles, who shares the Naas house with a single Filipino woman.

The instant communication with her family is one consolation. When she first started working abroad, in Taiwan, houses in her town did not have phones. She used to have to rely on letters or ring the town's one phone centre and the operator would go to fetch her mother and her son, Rheinhart, for a follow-up call an hour later.

Rheinhart was eight when Robles left the Philippines 10 years ago.

She had become pregnant during her first year of nursing studies but finished the course while her parents looked after the baby. She then worked as a registered nurse there for four years.

However, the plan was always to go abroad if she could, to secure a lucrative foreign salary. Her husband was working as a sailor, returning home for just three months each year, but his money was going towards their son's education.

"I would really like to pay back my parents," she explains. "It was a double responsibility for my parents: they were taking care of my son and they were sending me to college."

Going abroad as a mother is very hard, she says. "It's really a suffering; it's a surrendering." Yet divided families are an accepted fact of life in the Philippines.

She has seen the children of fellow migrants get into trouble and become drug addicts. "When a son knows his parents are abroad they are only thinking they have plenty of money," she says.

"Before deciding to leave I really made sure there would be a significant other in place of me, who was going to take care of my son like me, and that is my mother. I really make sure that I can have money and that my son will become a better man.

"As a mother, you must always be the light of your son. So even though I am away I will make sure that I am the light for him and not my mother." She says there is a tendency for grandparents to spoil their grandchildren.

"When I went home after a year and a half, I noticed that my son had changed. For instance, it was a rule for me that my son never held money and then I saw my mother sneaking money to him."

She decided to end her contract in Taiwan after three years. "When he was still young, under seven, I knew he already had some values learned at that stage. That is why I was sure that I could leave him.

"Then at 10, 11, 12, there would be different values when he became a teenager. So I decided to stop, to focus on my son, to help him become a better man. So his future wife and children will not suffer because the man is like a mama's pet!"

When Rheinhart reached third grade in high school in 2003, Robles said she felt enough trust in her son to leave again. "It's like a kite: at 11, 12, 13, I am always holding him. After that I know that I can release him, let him fly."

She applied for jobs abroad, aiming at the US, "but I ended up here in 2006", having spent one year in Saudi on the way. Her son was 15 when she left again and she and her husband also separated that year.

Rheinhart had not seen his mother for more than a year and a half when he came to Ireland for three months last summer.

"He graduated from high school with my mother and my father, my sisters and his cousins." Another milestone that Robles missed.

"You can feel the emptiness, but for me living here, as long as they are happy, I can send money, send obligations, that is my happiness."

She is also looking forward to a bit more freedom for herself after her son graduates in nursing in the Philippines. He had wanted to study political science with a view to doing law, but she convinced him that nursing is the passport out of the Philippines and that he could take up law at a later stage, in another country.

They enjoy a close relationship and sometimes, when she is tired and depressed on the night shift, she will ring his mobile at 2am "just to hear my son's voice". But she tries to make sure she's in an upbeat mood when she rings for chats.

However, she believes it is important that children of absent parents realise the sacrifices and hard work that lie behind the money sent home to the Philippines. The perception is that if your parents are abroad, you have plenty of money.

"When my son was here, I let him see the reality of our life here. I let him see when we are working 12 hours a night that I am really tired.

"I brought him to the nursing home I was working in then. I let him see the nature of our job. Your children, even if you tell them about it, they cannot really feel, or empathise. For them they say 'you are a nurse, a nurse is easy'.

"So I let him see the reality of working as a nurse: you are going to clean the bum, you are going to lift the resident. So he can see that having the money to give to him is not really that easy."

Robles finds it "discouraging" being away from her family in exchange for the money - not to become rich but to help all her extended family. But she is confident that the way she has balanced blocks of time at home and away has helped secure the future for her son; that he will be "a good man and that he can have a better job soon", and that he in turn can help support her in her old age.

Meanwhile, long after her family have gone to bed in the Philippines, Robles will be off to midnight Mass in Ballycane church in Naas, to see in another cold Christmas morning, alone in a foreign land.