December 2013. “My father said that my brother needs money for his school tuition,” she said in Tagalog to her friend. “I told him that I need the money to buy a plane ticket to visit them. He suggested that I skip the visit and send the money instead. Am I just a bank machine to them?” she complained. The two women walked a few paces behind me along Via Gaeta.
I just ate a heavy lunch at a Filipino restaurant nearby. But that conversation hit me at the pit of my stomach. I could feel the exasperation and the sense of injustice in her voice. She was spending the holiday season away from her family, working legally (or illegally) to send money to them, and all she got in return was a demand for greater sacrifice.
Via Gaeta and the streets on this side of Roma’s Termini railway station were dotted with money remittance centers and package delivery shops for people like them. The set-up is replicated in each Filipino enclave in Europe, North America, the Middle East and the more prosperous countries of Asia. I surmise that this is true for most other migrant communities worldwide. With each restaurant or shop that brings the migrant closer to home, there’s a money center that reminds one of why one is away from home in the first place. The pressure to send more remittances is persistent.
This is the lot for most people from the Third World who live and work overseas. Unlike the high-earning expatriate from a developed country, the migrant worker spends the prime of her life working two or three jobs for her family who seem to have an insatiable hunger for ever larger remittances. She might finally return to her homeland after years of living away to find younger siblings and children who barely know her.
But the alternative could be worse. A week earlier on a train bound for Bologna, I observed a young man on the platform in Padova say goodbye to his parents through the window a few rows ahead of mine. As soon as the train pulled away, the Filipino father began screaming at his wife. “Why do you always side with your son?” he lamented. “We brought him here to Italy after years of working and saving. And he repays us by taking drugs and falling in with bad company.” His wife tried to console him but his anger couldn’t be soothed. “Was it all worth it? We shouldn’t have brought him here.”
Heartbreak. Broken families. Migrants know that the possibility of failure is immense. And even if the risk of migrating pays off, it often demands tremendous sacrifices. The two conversations I overheard in Italy illustrated that migrants’ tales are as complex as the attitudes toward them.