From ONE Magazine

In a Land of Refugees

They come decked out in their finest: Pristine white, lacy blouses complement blue jeans and colorful trousers. Scores of Filipino women, mostly young, pack the wooden pews of Our Lady of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church in the Jordanian capital city of Amman.

Father Gerald Metal hails from the Philippines, too, and provides words of encouragement to the community before beginning to celebrate the Mass. Behind him, a huge mosaic of a shining Archangel Gabriel declares to a humble, astonished Virgin Mary the miracle she is about to experience.

For many in this congregation of domestic helpers — along with a sprinkling of foreign diplomats and aid workers — a miracle is exactly what they need.

Once a sparsely settled kingdom squeezed between Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan has become the refuge and safe haven for millions of refugees. For decades, waves of Palestinians flooded the resource-poor nation; they have since been joined by Iraqis and Syrians fleeing extremism and war in their respective homelands. Yet despite the general instability of the region, migrant workers from the Philippines continue to seek work there to support their families — a decision often burdened with regrets.

A member of the choir, Aurea Gutierrez Perlai, leads the communion hymn, dressed in a pink floral blouse, her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. The past 25 years have been full of unexpected challenges for Ms. Perlai.

“I came here in 1994 because my aunt encouraged me to come and work. But from the beginning, I regretted my decision,” she says with a pained expression after Mass.

“I’m a college graduate and a teacher; it was very difficult for me to accept that I was just cleaning a house. I was earning $150 a month from a Jordanian family that had me work all hours of the day,” explains the 49-year-old mother from Silang, in the province of Cavite. That could mean 12 or more hours a day, in some households.

Chatting after the liturgy, some congregants say they are only able to attend Mass once a month, because they receive so little time off. This is in flagrant violation of Jordanian labor law, as well as the customary practice of permitting at least one day off per week. But if they complain, employers often respond by confiscating passports or locking workers inside the house.

Ms. Perlai’s heavy workload lasted for three years before she was able to move on to employment with the Spanish Embassy, where she worked for 19 years. She now works at the Norwegian Embassy as a cook, enjoying an eight-hour workday, weekends off and a high salary.

Although Ms. Perlai’s employment situation improved dramatically, her marriage, in the meantime, collapsed.

“My Filipino husband is here in Jordan, but we are separated. I am the only one supporting our children,” she says, her dark eyes welling with tears.

“He never comes to see them.

“I don’t know what happened to our relationship,” she adds quietly. “He found another woman and has another family now. He has two other children who are younger than mine. I continue to pray about this situation and for my children.”

Yet in the midst of such challenges, Ms. Perlai says she has found support through a pair of Filipina women who belong to a community of the Catholic Church known as the Teresian Association.

“Elisa [Estrada] and Amabel [Sibug] invited me and the children to get involved in the choir at church. My daughter, Nicole, now 13, plays guitar for the choir. Amabel taught her how to play and is working with Nicole on her very first recital. And my son, Jordan, who is 11, serves at the altar,” Ms. Perlai says proudly.

“They are like mothers to us. They stand beside us, asking us always what we may need, and how they can support us.”

An international community of the faithful present in 30 countries, the Teresian Association seeks to transform society in light of the Gospel through education and culture.

Both Ms. Estrada and Ms. Sibug say they draw inspiration from the martyr St. Pedro Poveda, the founder of the Teresians, whose ministry emphasized love, sacrifice and hard work.

“We are here only to walk with them. We are not the solution to their problems; Jesus is. Our own strength is in prayer,” says Ms. Estrada.

This, indeed, is how the two begin every day: “Amabel and I pray the rosary together.”

“We value and respect people because in each individual is the image of Christ,” says the Teresian, whose vocation was born in Iloilo, a city in the central Philippines. She initially served in Bethlehem and Jerusalem for nearly a decade before coming to Jordan in 1985.

Once she was settled in Amman, she provided shelter to abused Filipinas in a tiny house she once shared with her fellow Teresians.

“I provided counseling to women who were beaten, and who were abused verbally and sexually. But the situation has very much improved now,” she says. “Our role is to accompany people, like Jesus walking on the Road to Emmaus, questioning and supporting them.

“I also like working with Jordanians. I look in their eyes and see Jesus. I pray, ‘Jesus, bless this person you sent to me.’ So, I love that. I am so happy he gave me the field to share the gift of my vocation.”

Prior to joining Ms. Estrada in the ministry, Ms. Sibug, from Pampanga, worked in Jordan as a secretary at a local company. She helped the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood — who were then very active working among at-risk mothers and their infants throughout the kingdom — with music ministry by playing the guitar during Mass and assisting with other choir activities. After the sisters returned to Europe, she joined the Teresians for a simple reason: “for prayer and ministering to the people,” she says, smiling.

“Life has never been the same again.”

Ms. Sibug prepares children and their parents for catechism and other spiritual formation programs. She often assists Father Gerald in presenting spiritual workshops, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus as revealed to the French sister and mystic, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

“People who participate in our ministry come to know the Lord, and see their lives changed as they continue to follow Jesus,” says Ms. Sibug, whose eyes sparkle when she speaks of her work.

But many Filipinas have also benefited from her solid business background.

“I gave serious counseling to a single woman who was sending all of her money home to her family in the Philippines,” she says. “I taught her how to budget her finances properly. Now she has land, a house and a productive farm from which her nieces and nephews are earning incomes from selling the produce.”

Ms. Sibug decries the poverty that drives her compatriots to go abroad in search of work.

“What is important is to provide food and education for our children, but some people exchange the embrace of our children for a dollar. That’s sad when some are away from their families for 20 or 30 years.”

The Teresian Association provides the two lay missionaries with materials, education and the formation necessary to support spiritual direction, psychosocial integration and emotional and human development.

The main venue for their activities is the Pontifical Mission Library in the heart of Amman’s Jebel Hussein district, which the Teresians have administered with Catholic Near East Welfare Association for decades. Every Friday, more than 60 people from the Filipino community gather there for the noon Mass led by the community’s chaplain, Father Gerald. Afterward, they enjoy friendship and fellowship over a meal, followed by spiritual instruction and reflection.

In addition to their outreach with the Filipino migrant community, the Teresians use the center as a place for education and formation for students of the area’s Catholic schools and even as a studio to produce programs on a variety of topics that are streamed through the internet for the remote Bedouin Christian villages in the south of the country. Religious instruction includes preparation of children and adults for receiving the sacraments and for serving at the altar, adult faith formation and health care assistance for the elderly. The Teresians also reach out to Iraqi refugees, offering courses in English as a second language, which is open to Christians and Muslims alike.

“The Teresians know how to relate to the migrant worker community in Jordan,” says Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq. “At our Pontifical Mission Community Center, migrants know they have ‘a home away from home.’ They receive counseling and ways to manage stress, including advice on dealing with problems encountered with their employers.”

This ministry, he adds, is growing in both size and need.

“We are potentially adding 28,000 Christians to Jordan’s population, and this is very important,” says Mr. Bahou of Jordan’s small but influential Christian community.

“More and more programs will help these people. They need to know their rights and how to resolve problems.” The Philippines’ ambassador to Jordan has even spoken at the center on guest workers’ rights and responsibilities.

“Although you may be alone in Jordan, you don’t know loneliness,” says Fo Salas, 49, from Manila. “I have grown spiritually because I am in this community of believers, and also attend church.”

Ms. Salas has been in Jordan for 12 years, the last six of which have been spent working for a Swiss diplomatic family.

“Father Gerald, Elisa and Amabel are very active and help us to grow in our faith. We learn more about prayer and how to pray,” she says. “We can relate everything they talk about to our own lives. It’s really amazing what they share. They are our inspiration.

“Jordan is not our country. Sometimes you are alone, and you feel unhappy. We need these people and this kind of community to lift our spirits and refresh our minds,” she says, adding how fortunate she was in finding her faith community.

Ms. Salas accompanies Father Gerald on visits to a safe house run by the Filipino Embassy in Amman. The house shelters mainly women who have been abused by their employers and who are awaiting flights to return home to the Philippines.

“Once they are out of the shelter, they send me thank-you messages,” says Father Gerald of the notes that remind him of the critical need for this pastoral work.

“‘Father, because of you, we were able to last out our days in the shelter,’” he remembers one such message. “‘Otherwise, we were going to commit suicide.’

“There have already been some cases of suicide,” he adds, visibly upset. He attributes such cases to abusive employers who restrict the workers from any form of relief — church, friends or community.

“Many ask if I get tired,” Ms. Estrada says of her work providing near-constant support to the community. “If you are in love, you may get physically tired, but deep inside, you are happy because you are able to do something.”

Ms. Estrada recalls the story of one woman who now lives in Canada. The woman sent her a text message to thank her for loving her despite her own transgressions. Through the Teresians’ steadfast accompaniment, the message said, her life was transformed.

“I tell them when they come to church to speak with Jesus during the Eucharist. He is the one who is responsible for their future because he says that he would never leave us or forsake us.

“I remind them of this,” Ms. Estrada says.

“What people need is laughter, joy and support.”

Based in the Middle East, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.