WITH over 180,000 Filipinos living in Italy, the European country is now home to the largest population of overseas Filipino workers in Western Europe. This is according to Italian Ambassador to the Philippines Massimo Roscigno who happily reported to The Sunday Times Magazine in a recent interview that the Filipino community there maintains a close-knit relationship with famed the bayanihan spirit alive and well.
Moreover, the ambassador relates that Filipinos were among the first immigrant groups to work in Italy since the early 1970s. They are known to help one another find employment as domestic helpers, caregivers, sales personnel, and factory workers, among others.
Today, Filipinos constitute the sixth largest foreign community in the country after the Romanians, Albanians, Moroccans, Chinese and Ukrainians. They are concentrated in major cities like Milan, Rome, Bologna, Florence and Turin.
Nevertheless, it is not surprising to find Filipinos in a city like Reggio Calabria where overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Carmencita Perez has been employed as a domestic helper for the last 25 years.
Considered a leader in the town’s equally small Filipino community, she is president of an advocacy group called Mission Driven International (MDI) South Italy, which seeks to assist fellow immigrants in the region in various needs. These range from immigration counseling to the current focus of the organization, which is to ensure that children of OFWs in Southern Italy are given the opportunity to go to school.
For Perez, education is the most important right of every individual, and that which will ensure them of a better future. Thus, she pursued a very ambitious project as MDI president to establish a school for children of OFWs in her community.
“I was able to petition all my three children to Italy, but they were all unable to pursue their studies because besides the language barrier, it is also very expensive to study here,” explained Perez during an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times Magazine this week.
Perez related that as documented Filipinos enjoy the privilege of bringing their kin to Italy, one of their most persistent problems is that rather than study, their children choose to work and help with the family’s finances.
Thankfully, fate led MDI founder Dr. Casimero Dulay to The Manila Times College president Dr. Isagani Cruz in a meeting that resulted in the realization of Perez’ longtime dream.
Just this October a memorandum of agreement between the Filipino organization in Italy and the educational institution in Manila was signed to initially establish a vocational school in Reggio Calabria, Italy. Perez has since been busy procuring the necessary requirements in setting up what will be known as the Università Manila Times in Europa (UMTE).
“I hope someday, this school can also offer higher degree courses so that Filipinos in Italy can pursue their studies and earn a degree,” enthused Perez, who officially serves project coordinator for the remarkable undertaking.
Life before Italy
Fifth child among a brood of six, Carmencita Perez was born in Jaen, Nueva Ecija on November 9, 1961. Her parents, Crisanto and Concordia, were farmers and Perez’ source of strength and inspiration.
“They taught me the value of helping others, especially my father who served as a barangay counselor for 19 years in Nueva Ecija,” shared the proud daughter.
A graduate of Araullio University in Cabanatuan City with a degree in Commerce and a major in Management, Perez determinedly put up her own business after graduation. She married shortly after, and had three children, Hazeleene, Ermen Ivan Chris, and Ian Chris.
To be able to better provide for her brood and help out the rest of her family, Perez decided to find employment in Italy where she began a whole new chapter of her life, one that started off with both difficulties and heartaches.
While adjusting to a new culture and way of life, she had a very tough first year in the European country. She was constantly homesick and missed her children terribly.
“My eldest child was only seven when I left to work in Italy. They were all very young,” Perez recalled. “I’d be with my housemates eating at the dining table and tears would suddenly flow down my cheeks.”
To divert her attention, she worked almost 24 hours a day, juggling three jobs. Her hardships began paying off after 11 years when she was able to petition her two eldest children, and two years later her youngest.
Although she remains proud of her brood who are each leading their own lives in Italy, she had always hoped they could have continued and completed their studies in Italy. She admires them for choosing to work and help with the family expenses, but Perez knows their drive to earn caused them to disregard securing an education.
Helping her ‘kababayan’
“Pawis at dugo (sweat and blood),” according to Perez, are an OFW’s investment as domestic helpers. They spend their days breaking their backs in different households and nursing homes just to be able to send money home to their families in the Philippines. Though they get paid higher salaries, the tradeoff is a breakdown in their relationships with spouses and children, not to mention the toll on their physical well-being and personal growth.
Over the years, Perez found that many immigrant families suffer the same plight as she and children did. A long separation, followed by a reunion where they had to deal with issues brought on by growing apart, and finally differences in priorities.
As Perez said, her children found employment more attractive than finishing their studies, which, in a way, misses the point of why Filipino parents embark to work abroad in the first place.
Thus with all three of her children unable to finish college, Perez’ passion for education became that much stronger as she advocates to put out-of-school youths in Italy back on track. Her drive to do this, she believes, goes all the way back to her own youth when she saw her father’s genuine concern for others.
“People would wake up my father in the middle of the night to settle domestic issues—fighting lovers or quarrelling neighbors. My father would then wake me type up paperwork and help him with his administrative as barangay counselor,” the dutiful daughter remembered. “People just always went up to him and to ask for help, and seeing him do so probably had this effect on me.”
Perez, like many other OFWs around the world, are aware of the fact that their family and friends at home like to believe they earn “sacks of cash.”
“They just don’t realize the difficulty we go through,” she smiled. But while she has not acquired much assets in her 25 years of working in Italy, she feels fulfilled that she has helped her send her nieces and nephews to school in the Philippines.
“I earn enough to help my family. I help my children whenever they need it, and also my brothers and sisters in raising their kids,” she shared. “I can’t help out by lending people money, but through this school that we hope to build very soon in Italy, I know that somehow, I’ll also be able to help many families where I live.”
Talking more about The Manila Times College in Europe, Perez related that the aim of sending youths back to school will not only help them find better employment when they graduate, but through the process keep them from becoming idle, or worse getting into trouble such as drugs.
“There are a lot of out-of-school youths who get involved with drugs over there because they have no means of going to school and too young to be hired for work. If they are in school, they would be more productive,” Perez asserted.
According to TMTC president Dr. Isagani Cruz, students at The Manila Times College in Europe will be required to learn three languages—Italian, English at Filipino—in addition to different technical courses.
Cruz further explained that the basic and demand-driven courses, such as Caregiving, Entrepreneurship, Culinary Arts, and Reflexoogy, with some classes that will hopefully be taught in partner schools Polo Didatico or Universita Popolare Di Roma.
“Since it is difficult for children of OFWs in Italy to get into Italian schools, this Philippine accredited education is just as a good, and will be their first step to a brighter future,” Perez explained.
She is thus looking forward to a whole new year in 2015 where she can see through her advocacy for education, and make the most out of her term as president of Mission Driven International. With The Manila Times College in Europe, she will help her kababayan and their children in a truly life changing way.