The Philippine Refugee Processing Center in mid-80s

The Philippine Refugee Processing Center in mid-80s


In May I began a series of articles about the Philippines for our local paper, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.  The fifth article will appear tomorrow.  I’ve drawn heavily on previous blog posts for some of the articles and written new material for others.  Here is the first one, published on May 13.

In June 1987, Linda and I moved to the Philippines with our children Anna and Sam. The day after our arrival in Manila, we took a four-hour van ride around Manila Bay and through the mountains of the Bataan Peninsula, the site of the Bataan Death March. The van took us to the town of Morong, and then up the hill to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center where we would work for the next two and a half years.

The refugee center was home to as many as 14,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, including  Vietnamese, Cambodians and Lao,  who passed through for six months at a time on their way to resettlement in the U.S. We were not a first asylum camp like those throughout Asia, where Vietnamese boat people and Cambodian refugees from the Killing Fields often spent years waiting for the chance to resettle in a third country. Instead, we were a way station on the way to a new life.

The U.S. State Department funded education programs to prepare young and old for this new life. Linda and I worked in Preparing Refugees for Elementary Programs. We trained Filipino teachers to teach English and the other elementary subjects, as well as the routine of the American school day, in the way we hoped children would be taught when they arrived in the U.S. — interactive, hands-on learning.

The agency we worked for, World Relief, was one of many in the camp that provided different services for refugees. Most of the agency staff were Filipino, but many expatriates worked in the refugee center, too, including Americans, Germans, Norwegians and Thai. As there was no barrier between our homes and the refugee neighborhoods, we could visit freely back and forth, and my family did. Work was intense and exciting. We relaxed in the tiny homes or “billets” of refugee friends, sometimes taking a van-load to the beautiful beach in Morong or cooking out at our home with them. Some of those friendships are still strong.

We also relaxed by traveling around the Philippines, a most beautiful archipelago of 7,107 islands (give or take a few). We traveled to tribal areas in the mountainous north and the Muslim south, to beaches and village festivals and the huge city of Manila. We often traveled with our best friend on the staff, Lina Hervas, who helped many of us expats learn some Tagalog and understand the cultures we found ourselves in.

Through these travels and our daily interactions with Filipino colleagues, I came to appreciate the deep importance of relationships in Philippine culture. The word “utang” (debt, account) expands into “utang na loob” (obligation, a moral debt). Members of a family and close friends are bound in a network of mutual obligation and indebtedness that is central to daily life and the social fabric.

I began to understand this in the late 1980s and learned more on some subsequent visits back. My understanding is much deeper now.

Linda died in 2007, and one year later, on a trip back to the Philippines, I fell in love with Lina. Fortunately she fell in love with me, too. It took 15 months for her to get a visa to come to live here, so I saw her a lot there, met her family and spent time with old and new friends.

We’re now spending several months of every year in the Philippines. I am learning more Tagalog, and observing and understanding more about the culture there. Perhaps I’m a little wiser than 25 years ago?

It was on my last trip, from late January to early April, that I began to keep a blog called “Journeys.” I notice, looking back over the entries, that the theme of relationship is central to many of the posts from the Philippines. I’d like to share some of these stories with you in upcoming issues.