Where’s home for OFWs? Filipino/Thai hostages caught in the middle in Middle East? And Stephen Guillermo’s birthday
One expected to see the 13 Israeli women and children swapped out for 39 Palestinians in the first major exchange of hostages over the weekend.
Turned out the Post-Thanksgiving week’s Black Friday was more like “Asian Friday” with a little something extra to be thankful for.
The breathless reporting had to honor the big surprise: Among the first released last Friday included “10 Thais and one Filipino.”
Who amongst us expected to hear that phrase?
They weren’t Asian American, but Asian Nationals. Still, any AAPI who had been keeping at arm’s length from the news of the day was instantly drawn into the story like never before. The global crisis had an Asian face with Asians caught in the middle.
Vetoon Phoome, 33, was in the group released Friday that included nine Thai men and one Thai woman. Like most of them, Phoome had been one of the 30,000 Thai nationals working on Israeli farms. Upon his release, Phoome, who worked on a potato and pomegranate farm near Gaza, told his sister, Rungarun Wichangern, on a video call not to worry and that he had not been tortured, according to a report in The Guardian.
By Sunday, four additional Thai hostages were released, leaving 16 still being held, according to the Thai government. Officials said since Oct. 7, 39 Thai nationals had been killed, the largest number of foreign people killed or missing because of the war.
I have visited Thailand and love the Thai, but that wasn’t the part of the news that got me.
The one Filipino
The 33-year-old was not an ag worker but lived and worked as a caregiver to 80-year-old Amitai Ben Zvi in the Kibbutz Nir Oz, the original strike point of Hamas on Oct. 7.
On that day, Pacheco called his friends to tell them he was being kidnapped and that Zvi, whom he had cared for in the last four years, had been killed, according to the Times of Israel.
It was the last time Pacheco was heard from until last weekend, 49 days after his ordeal began.
From pictures released by the Philippine Embassy officials in Israel, you can tell who was held hostage. Pacheco is the one who looks like he missed more than a meal or two. Reports among hostages of not having enough food and malnutrition were common.
“I’m only alive because of the Lord,” Pacheco was quoted by the Philippine Embassy. “Even on the day they abducted me, I was really thinking about my family. While I was in Gaza, I just wanted to live for my family.”
The price of diaspora
And isn’t that the case in the Philippine Diaspora, where one is always thinking about the survival of one’s family. For Pacheco, it’s his wife, Clarice Joy, and three children. Because there was no suitable work in the Philippines, one is forced to go thousands of miles away—15 hours by air—to work as a caretaker in Israel. It is the only way to be your own family’s financial caretaker.
And that’s the price of diaspora.
It’s the grim Filipino reality.
My own family regularly did contract work in the Middle East since the 1970s. One of my female cousins married and has made her life there.
She wears a burqa, an indication that the immigrant dream isn’t always through America. And what is the choice if you’re Filipino? You get lucky with the immigration roulette wheel. Not America? Then maybe Canada? Israel?
Or maybe your family stays and you support your family the only way you can. By leaving them behind, seeking work where you can get it, sending remittances back and rarely seeing your family except virtually.
Unnatural natural way of life for OFWs
You’re a virtual family on the app of your choice. It’s modern life for the masses of Filipinos who take a contract job overseas, living the unnatural natural way of life in the Philippines and apparently in Thailand too. These released hostages from Asia were service workers desperately seeking ways to serve in order to provide for their own families.
The released Thai hostages were expected to be united with their families in Thailand. But for Jimmy Pacheco it was still unclear.
To Israel, Pacheco is seen as a kind of hero. He was cheered when he was released from an Israeli hospital. People chanted “Jimmy, Jimmy.”
Life of an OFW after captivity
For his service under duress, Pacheco was even promised lifetime social security benefits and stipends from the Israeli government, a gesture similar to that given Israelis who are victims of terrorist attacks.
What did the Philippine government do? Reportedly said it would provide financial assistance should Pacheco return home.
Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Eduardo De Vega even said it was up to Pacheco whether to stay in Israel or come home. “He already is based there; he has a job,” De Vega said at a news conference. “If his wife wants to visit him there, she won’t need a visa. We can pay for it if she wants to go on a compassionate visit.”
I thought it was an odd answer. Strange, really.
But it is the sad commentary of what kind of normal a Filipino can expect after a hostage taking.
Pacheco survives being taken by Hamas to an undisclosed place in Gaza. If that were you, wouldn’t you want to go back to the loving arms of family in the Philippines immediately to experience the relative comfort of home?
Or could you afford to? Maybe that’s not an automatic answer when in your native land diaspora is the way of life for far too many.
Consider how this has always been the case. Leaving and remitting was always an option. My father was in the first group to come en masse to America in the 1920s. He was a colonized American national born in the Philippines. Once he left, he never went back to the Philippines to live.
For my dad, the balance of life has always tipped America’s way, even with the racism and discrimination he faced.
Where’s home for OFWs?
But where is home for those in the Filipino diaspora, many of whom find their way to both Israel and places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates?
Jimmy Pacheco is free from Hamas and can go back home to Asia, but his best option may be to stay put in a war zone and remit money back to the islands.
That’s the irony for Asians caught in the middle in Gaza, to be out of place, far from home, in a war that is above all about the right to a homeland.
Where’s home? Everyone in the Israel Hamas war is asking that question.
The Guillermo family immigration story began when my father came to the U.S. from the Philippines as a colonized American in 1928. After the immigration law changed in 1965, his nephew arrived and petitioned for his brothers and sisters. Decades of visa backlogs and snafus later, the next big wave of the Guillermo family finally arrived to the U.S. in the 1990s. Stephen was one of them. Born in the Philippines and raised in San Francisco, he was a Guillermo 1.5’r. But he died American-style, gunned down in 2014 when he entered the wrong apartment in his building.
Did we get justice?
All we got was a digital tombstone up at the Giants baseball scoreboard days before the funeral.
November 27th would have been Stephen’s 36th birthday.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. See his micro-talk show on YouTube.com/@emilamok1