IT was my first time to visit Qatar. After a nine-hour flight, my friends and I stepped into a world-class airport and rode a “car lift” (“taxi” in our parlance) to Doha, seeing its gleaming skyscrapers and modern streetlights glow in the night. The words “sleek and modern” came to mind, as buildings of odd shapes and sizes as well as wide, smooth roads and bridges welcomed us.
It was a short trip, timed for this writer to witness the last stop in President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s Middle East journey. Joining me were Fort Jose and former OWWA Administrator Carmelita Dimzon.
What brought warmth to Qatar’s concrete and metal jungle were the Filipinos that we met during our brief stay.
Sheila Clarete Simbajon from Tagbilaran, Bohol, has found success in Doha, Qatar. The UP graduate is deputy managing director and a business partner at Gala Hospitality as well as human resource adviser at Aspire Katara Hospitality, both thriving businesses in Qatar. She is smart, confident and knows the hospitality industry like the back of her hand.
Over lunch at the posh Sukar Pasha Ottoman Lounge, Sheila called up the chef to ask his help in choosing the best Turkish dishes for us, conversed with the waiter in French, and proceeded to share her story.
This remarkable lady went on to study at the Hotel Institute Montrieux in Switzerland after obtaining her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Philippines.She was in Europe when the transition from individual currencies to the “euro” began.
Sheila worked in France as a waitress, cleaned the mansions of rich people in Provence, and sewed curtains and pillows from 1999 to 2002. Thereafter, she worked in Dubai until a friend encouraged her to join the Doha Asian Games organizing committee in 2006. She started as a catering supervisor, then got promoted to catering coordinator after successfully setting up the catering command center for the Doha Asian Games.
“With my boss as my mentor, I learned how to set up and run a catering command center with established procedures for ordering food for 12,000 athletes and hundreds of other VIPs and media people,” Sheila said, relying on her confidence and the resourcefulness that she attributed to being a UP hotel and restaurant management graduate.
Today, Sheila runs two major companies in Qatar and goes on a recruitment spree for workers from the Philippines, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nepal, and other countries as well.
I asked her to offer advice to prospective OFWs. “Don’t expect too much. Just don’t focus on the money. Think about career goals and work your way up.”
Last Saturday, Sheila was among the 7,500 OFWs who attended the Filipino community gathering at the Lussail Sports Stadium where President Duterte came and conquered.
She cried when the Philippine National Anthem was sung. She laughed at the President’s jokes and felt an emotional connection to the man the OFWs lovingly call their “Tatay”.
I asked her how she felt after her dream of seeing the President in person had come to pass. “For a long time, OFWs like me feel abandoned by our government. Now, I’m happy and hopeful. What moved me the most was when he said he loves the Filipino people so much. He has made OFWs like me proud to represent our country.”
Junnette Galope, who has been working in Qatar for only six months, said she cried during the Filipino community event. “I cried because I really felt the sincerity of the President when he said that change will be coming soon to the Philippines. I felt happy and proud to be a Filipino.”
President Duterte went to the Middle East with a mission: to help our OFWs and the country by building stronger ties with our allies in the Gulf region. In the eyes of our OFWs, his mission was a great success.
Representing Congress in the presidential delegation, ACTS-OFW party-list representative Aniceto “John” Bertiz noted that the President’s visit to the Middle East served to strengthen bilateral ties between the Philippines and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Equally important, he said, was that the morale of Filipino communities in these three countries went up a gazillion percent.
How beloved is President Digong among our OFWs? I got this message from an OFW in Qatar via Facebook: “Di ko nga alam kung ano susuotin ko. Hay. Parang high school na excited sa JS prom dahil makikita mo crush mo! Ni minsan hindi ko naramdaman ang pagmamahal ng isang Pangulo simula ng sinilang ako. Ito lang ang pangulo na handa akong suportahan.” (“I don’t know what I’ll wear. Sigh! It’s like I’m back in high school excited over the JS prom because I’ll be seeing my crush there. Not once have I felt the love of a President since the day I was born. This is the only President that I am prepared to support.”)