Americans were universally astonished when we told them we were moving to Saudi Arabia. Moving to any foreign country is something Americans don’t tend to do, and even international travel is unusual. According to State Department statistics, only about a third of American citizens have a passport.
But in an expat community in the Middle East, you see very quickly how unusual the American norms are. Foreigners here come from and live easily all over the world. Europeans, southeast Asians, and Africans follow employment across national borders as easily as an American from California moves to Texas. (That is, there are some yawning cultural differences but nobody thinks you’ve done anything remarkable.)
And there are a LOT of foreigners here. Estimates range from about a quarter to a third of the Saudi population at any moment is made up of foreign workers. The majority come from India and Pakistan, then Egypt and Yemen, but right behind them are workers from the Philippines. And in this country typified by sand and rock and walls and restrictions and yes, hardship, the Filipinos are a joy.
In every public-facing, care-giving, and hospitality-based profession, you’ll find Filipinos. Nurses, hotel employees, retail workers, maids, customer-service workers, all Filipinos. At Chili’s, where we have eaten maybe three times since I’ve been here, the host greets us like long-lost friends when we come to the door. In western-style restaurants with soft drink refills, my glass has never gone empty. Every refill comes with a fresh straw unwrapped for me and a fresh lemon. Hotel concierges remember your name. Nurses make you feel as if it’s their privilege to care for you, that they love you and want you to be well and comfortable.
I don’t know what the culture at home is like to produce people who are so universally warm and caring. They have come to a place where they are unappreciated and often abused, and they do it out of devotion to their families. You can find them at work all over the Middle East, in Europe, in America, and elsewhere, usually one family member working to support a circle of people at home in the Philippines. They may go years without seeing their families, sacrificing the joy and companionship of loved ones to provide them with what they need. And they do it with unrelenting kindness.
Their suffering from an earthquake, followed by a devastating typhoon, tears my heart. Many of the foreigners I know are Filipinos, and through the web of those who know people who know people we have checked anxiously to learn whether family members are all right. Edith, the sweet and smiling and hardworking woman who appears at the stroke of 9:00 a.m. every other Monday morning to clean my house, didn’t get to cross the threshold this morning before I asked whether her family was okay. “Yes, ma’am,” she said with a sad smile. Relief keeps company with grief for those who are not so fortunate.
I’ve heard ministers in the United States point to sin as the cause for Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey or Katrina in New Orleans, drought in the West, earthquakes or other natural disasters. To them I hold up the people of the Philippines. There is no faith that could find support for the idea that these people did anything to deserve what has happened to them. Their bodies suffer because they live in an unstable world, near the sea. Their souls suffer because they love one another.
A year ago, I attended a funeral that was particularly unwelcome. I ached for friends whose suffering I could do nothing to lessen. Driving to the cemetery with the funeral procession, I started to notice cars pulling off to the side of the road as we passed, not for any traffic reason, but to honor us. Strangers, standing aside to acknowledge and share–even for a moment–the sorrow of fellow human beings. Afterward, hollowed out physically and emotionally by the long day, Steve and I stopped at a favorite eatery. When the cook’s wife brought my warm, soft torta I had to blink away tears to tell her where I’d been and how grateful I was for this lovingly prepared food. She smiled and nodded and looked into my eyes for a moment. “Yes,” was all she said. “Mexican sandwich is good.” And walked away. And I was comforted.
We can do little, us workaday citizens of faraway countries, to ease the suffering of these good people. For their suffering bodies, I will give what I can to relief efforts already underway around me, and encourage others to do the same. And for their suffering souls, I can honor them. I can lay off being snarky for a day and make my contribution to the web that binds us all to each other and bears us each up. My heart goes to the Philippines, and all those whose hearts are there now. I weep with you.