Advocacy Groups Address Problems of Migrant Workers’ Children

Ten-year-old Kim was a very lonely child. With both her parents – her mother is a Filipina, while her father is Japanese – being Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), she was sent to live with one of her mother’s cousins, although all she wanted was to be with her parents.

Separated from them, the little girl became withdrawn and irritable, snapping at everyone around her. She would spend most of her time in front of the computer, as it was her only means of staying in touch with her parents. Embarrassed by her ‘bad’ behaviour, her aunt would try and find ways of keeping her at home. “She would have such terrible tantrums, that I found difficult to manage. Which is why I hardly took her out,” the aunt recalls.

Today, however, Kim is not that angry little girl anymore. She enjoys doing all the activities that youngsters her age indulge in – playing outdoor games and reading. As for the old irritability, that too has gone. Kim is now extremely popular among her friends.

What is it that has brought about this dramatic transformation? It’s was a new school that she started attending in 2009. When Kim first came to the Kids Alternative Home Academy, a private elementary school in the small town of Pavia, close to the provincial capital of Iloilo in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines, she had a lot of problems adjusting to the new environment. In her previous school, she had been getting low grades in most subjects, especially in reading, and things weren’t any better here.

But her new teachers were able to understand the root cause of her problem. They realised quickly that the little girl didn’t understand their local language, Kiniray-a, and that she spoke and understood only Niponggo.

It was a special two-week behaviour modification programme that changed her. As part of her therapy, she was given routine tasks to complete and was allowed only limited time on the computer. Slowly, her behaviour changed, and her learning capacities improved. She was also able to pick up the local language. Her school reports were now encouraging. In her assessment, her teacher, Merlie Labaniego, who is a Special Education (SPED) specialist, noted, “Kim’s turning out to be a charming and friendly girl and is now very fluent in Kiniray-a. She now loves coming to school and is, in fact, bitterly disappointed if she has to be absent from class sometimes.”

Like Kim there are nearly nine million children in the Philippines – 27 per cent of the total youth population in the country – who have been left behind by either or both their parents who are working abroad. This figure comes from an informal survey done by advocacy groups concerned with migration issues.

While children of migrant workers have better living conditions than their counterparts from non-OFW families – the extra money their parents make translates into better food, clothing, education, and savings – it’s their emotional needs that are completely overlooked and this eventually wreaks havoc on their young lives.

Increasingly, advocacy groups associated with the rights of the overseas Filipinos and their families are realising the significant social costs of migration and are finding ways to overcome them. Kids Alternative Home Academy is one of the many specialised institutions that have come up in recent years.

Ramona Parrenas, herself a product of an OFW family, set it up in 2003 as a pre-school, and today 70 per cent of its 117 students are children of OFWs. “We make it a point to let the children feel that they have a home in this school. That’s why our teachers are trained to demonstrate their warmth and attention, especially towards those who need it the most,” she explains. And teachers are able to identify such children easily since they are prone to emotional and psychological distress and are usually the ones who are seeking attention.

Adds Parrenas, “The regular visitors to our guidance office are children of OFWs. These are also the kids who always have something to hold on to during class, be it a toy, a towel, a cup – as some sort of a security blanket.”

Here’s how the school starts the process of change. At the beginning of the school year, it conducts an orientation, or assessment, of the needs of the students through tests and interviews with parents or guardians. Children with special needs, like those with reading and speech problems, autism and the like, are put in modification programmes designed to help them keep up with the rest of the class. Moreover, the school also has a special arts programme that encourages these children to develop their artistic skills and express their thoughts and feelings through painting, music, dance and drama. Being involved in research and advocacy projects for this special group of children has further opened Parrenas’s eyes to the fact that much more needs to be done for such children.

There other organisations too, running similar programmes. The school-based interevention of the Atikha Overseas Workers and Communities Initiatives, Inc., also addresses the problems of OFW families. Manuals and trainings have been developed to build capacities in children to understand and deal with the realities of having their close family members abroad.

As Parrenas puts it, “Children have to be made to understand that they are not any less, and neither is their family any different, just because their parents are not with them all the time. The fact that they have relatives – their ‘lolos’ and ‘lolas’, aunties and cousins – who love and care for them – is a significant thing. This way, society as a whole is able to see and appreciate the sacrifices that OFWs and their families make, and people will hopefully be more supportive of them.”

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