I write this column from Turin, Italy where last Sunday I presided over the graduation ceremonies of the latest batch of the Ateneo School of Government’s Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship course, offered to Filipinos overseas. The graduation in Turin of 49 LSE students was preceded by a similar ceremony in Dubai where 45 students completed this course. From here, I will proceed to Milan and Rome for LSE graduations in Italy’s two biggest cities.
LSE is a unique opportunity the Ateneo School of Government offers to Filipinos overseas. We implement this in partnership with the Overseas Filipinos Society for the Promotion of Economic Security, the Social Enterprises Development Partnerships Inc., and agencies of the Philippine government, from the Department of Foreign Affairs (through our embassies and consulates), Commission on Filipinos Overseas, the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. We also work with local organizations such as the Philippine Business Council in Dubai where the program was also supported by Western Union and Barrio Fiesta. The anchor of LSE is, however, Filipino teachers and professionals, both in the Philippines and abroad, who volunteer their services to deliver this training program wherever needed.
The recently published book “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Changed Lives of Overseas Filipino Workers.” holds the narratives of ten LSE graduates in Italy. We will explore these stories more deeply in succeeding columns, but in common they relate the hardship at home that drove them, and many fellow Filipinos, to try their luck in employment overseas, the challenges they faced in uncertain lands and times, and the confidence, perspectives, and skills they gained as a result of LSE. They also impart hope for other Filipinos the world over, that their new lives far from family and home need not be crippling nor despairing; that they are neither alone nor without help in transforming and uplifting their respective lives.
Filipinos overseas must navigate foreign cultures and communities—very difficult especially when the native language is not English, and the way of life diverges greatly from the Filipino familiar. Many of them are armed with college degrees, but accept lower-skilled jobs abroad if only for the higher income and the lack of employment at home. Without the comfort of family and friends (except for those who could bring their families along), loneliness can sometimes breed despair: LSE instructors observed the need for psychological counseling among diaspora Filipinos. Distressingly, though their remittances are also used to fund the education and welfare of their less fortunate relations, they sometimes feed extravagant and unsustainable consumer lifestyles here at home, relatives boasting of new cars, gadgetry, or clothes (and, sadly, little else).
We should also consider that migrants have little political and social power in their host nations. Racism and bigotry can be a problem even in enlightened modern societies. Even discounting racism, though, the pressures of labor competition and the natural responsibilities of a state to its own people create a turbulent wake for diaspora Filipinos to swim through—see, for example, the immigration debates in the United States and Europe (which have both racist and economic undertones, depending upon the actors and issues involved). Altogether, though we call them modern-day heroes, many Filipinos overseas meet formidable challenges.
LSE aims to break the cycle of these chains. It provides courses in leadership, financial literacy, and social entrepreneurship, over the course of six months—and, should the LSE student wish to implement his newfound skills in the setting-up of a business activity, a practicum course for guidance and mentoring. Part of the contract with the student is that she (73 percent of LSE students to date are female) would become an agent of change – making a positive difference in themselves, their families, and in the migrant Filipino community.
With the four graduations this month, the LSE alumni now number more than 400 – majority from Italy (we also implemented the program in Naples and Florence), with Hong Kong and Dubai having produced graduates as well. Already in Hong Kong, two new batches are undergoing the program and we expect to expand this year to: Paris, Brussels, Macau and Singapore.
LSE graduates have set up a diversity of businesses from a savings club to a magazine for Filipino communities in Europe; from tutoring services for overseas Filipino children to catering outfits. More than just alternative revenue streams, though, the course has provided much-needed confidence and morale boosts, convincing our students of the need to take charge of their destinies. They have taken greater leadership roles both within their families and the diaspora communities. They’ve placed strict limits on how their remittances are spent back home, with an aim to save and invest instead of unsustainable consumerism. Some volunteers have become counselors to their peers and to Filipino youth abroad, ministering to the needs of the psyche as well as of the body.
In the next two columns, I will write about “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers” itself: its observations of the lives of Filipinos abroad, through the eyes of ten migrant workers in Italy, and of the power hope can hold on their lives. In the end, after all, this is what the LSE is all about.
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