JUST LIKE THAT

Our Town

By Jon Melegrito, APALA-DC Member

First time I heard about Filipino teachers in Prince George ’s County being laid-off and possibly forced to return home, I thought they were just innocent victims of a U.S. economy that has put thousands of jobless out in the streets.

I didn’t know the full story then.

To be sure, there’s lots of sympathy for their plight. Community leaders have signed petitions, offered job leads, wrote letters and joined the teachers who continue to picket the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) because of a ruling that unjustly treats them. In the words of one teacher, “like chattel.” Like slaves.

For those who have not been following this painful saga, here’s a synopsis:

DOL had banned PGCPS from processing these teachers’ visas for the next two years because the school district committed certain violations, like requiring the teachers to pay visa and placement fees that should have been shouldered by PGCPS. As a result, about 200 of the almost 800 teachers will be terminated due to visa expiration dates that will occur every month. A few already received their notices in July and more than a dozen got theirs on the first of August. A wave of rolling terminations is now in motion.

It may be legal, but the DOL ruling is patently unjust. The violator, in this case PGCPS, only gets a slap on the wrist while the teachers who were recruited legally to fill a great need, gets shoved off.

Just like that.

To add insult to injury, others in our community have judged these teachers harshly, suggesting that if they have national pride at all and truly love their country they should not fight their removal from the U.S. and simply go home.

Just like that.

Having talked with some of the teachers during the four rallies I have participated in, I have come to fully appreciate their drive to ensure their legal presence in the U.S. It is certainly true that for many, there’s nothing to go back to, having given up everything to come to America and avail of possibilities for a better life. For themselves and their children.

But it’s not the dread of going back but the cold and heartless act of injustice that has fired them up “to make noise.” It’s the cruel act of betrayal that prompts them to speak up.

Photo by Heather Laverty

One of the teachers I talked on August 1 is Maria Ursula Raymundo. Fondly called Solette by family and friends, her visa expired the day before. She had been up all night packing, unable no longer to bear the sight of empty boxes. But she knows she’ll have to pick up the pieces from a shattered life, fill the boxes and move on.

Solette gave me permission to share an open letter she e-mailed on July 8 to her superiors, colleagues and friends at James McHenry Elementary School where she taught. Here’s an excerpt:

“This hurts deeply. If PGCPS did a violation and is now facing debarment, why do we have to suffer because of THEIR negligence and inefficiency? We were quietly doing our jobs trying to provide the best quality education to American children. Suddenly, we wake up one morning, reading an email that we are being terminated. We feel like we are a piece of trash or garbage that THEY do not need anymore so they THROW us away. Just like that? Last May, we received an email saying that they will submit our documents for visa renewal. Because of the good news, we stopped applying for jobs because we trusted that they will do so. Today, without warning, we all received a letter of termination. Is this fair? Is this humane ? Our visas will be expiring a few days from now which means we have to leave. It is not like we simply have to pack our things and move to the next street. We will have to move 11,000 miles away from here !!! And no appropriate warning at all? This is a blatant act of disrespect. Nobody deserves this. I do not want to leave America with the impression that we were treated unfairly and with much disrespect. Hundreds of Filipino teachers, including their families and children are in pain as I write now.

“I regret that I wasn’t even able to say goodbye to my students. I will miss Ruth, who hugs me every morning as she gets down from the bus. I will miss Jamari, who always asks me how my day went. I will miss Nicholas, whose innocent eyes would brighten with the simplest reward I would give him. I will miss Stephanie, who always shows me any new stuff she has. I will miss all of them. Yes, I will also miss Jayden, Jordan, Eduardo, Dante, Ant’wan, Kenneth…not because they were good in my class but because of something they taught me that I can take with me forever. Patience.”

In trying to understand the plight of these teachers, I hope we don’t define them in terms that deprive them of their humanity as fathers and mothers who simply want the best for their children, as sisters and brothers who want to help their families back home, as teachers devoted to their profession and who truly care for America ’s children.

No, they are not “collateral damage” that allows us to conveniently look the other way. They are not just overseas Filipino workers or migrants who happen to have H-IB visas that could be terminated at a bureaucrat’s whim. They are friends and neighbors who live in our midst, worship in our churches, help build our communities. They are not “them.” They are us.

They are Mary Anne, Boots, Angelie, Lori Beth, Cherry, Aileen, Ethel, Jun, Gelmer, Fraulein, Gina, Marina , Jennifer, Melinda, Mercy, Perla, Jia, Wen-Mei. And Solette who is ready to go back home to the Philippines , no matter the outcome of a battle she has valiantly fought.

“But I’m fighting not only for ourselves but for the teachers who will come in the future,” she says. “Even if we don’t see the fruits of our struggle now, I want this to be our legacy to them: that we fought back so we, and everyone who follows us, will be treated with honor, dignity and respect.”

Adds Glaiza Carpio, also a fellow teacher: “It’s part of our national pride, na huwag tayong mag-papa-api (not allow ourselves to be exploited). To keep quiet will only perpetuate the injustice.”

When we summon the best in ourselves to serve others no matter the setbacks and sacrifices, that’s when national pride is most alive and love of country mostly thrives. No matter where we are.

E-mail your comments to jonmele@aol.com

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