By Pepper Marcelo
I have been married for five years and have a three-year-old daughter. We are doing okay but dream of having our own home and traveling. My auntie in the Dubai has offered me help in getting a job there but I am worried about leaving my family behind. I have heard of other stories of how marriages have broken up because the long-distance. What should I do?
– Farah of Sta. Rosa, Laguna, posted on www.ofwonline.com
For many of the estimated 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), coping with life abroad is a stressful, sometimes terrifying experience. For those who have spouses and children left at home, severe homesickness could lead to mental stress and psychological illness. The family left behind can be negatively affected as well.
It is sad to note that while the government constantly harps on the contributions of the OFWs in propping up the national economy, it has miserably failed to provide adequate services to address the physical, emotional and psychological needs of OFWs and their families. What makes the situation doubly pathetic is that even the basic and simple need of OFWs to communicate with their families has been totally neglected by authorities. One would expect that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, with the millions of pesos it collects from OFWs, would tap cheap technology such as the Internet to provide counseling and communication services to the workers and their families.
Thankfully, there are a few non-governmental organizations that attempt to alleviate the miserable situation of our migrant workers. One such private initiative addresses the need for a Help Line for OFWs and their families where they can seek counseling and expert advice.
“That’s where we come in. We tend to be the social support for OFWs who feel they cannot talk to friends or family,” says Dr. Regina Hechanova-Alampay, founder of OFW Online, a 24-hour free online service for overseas Filipino workers and their families.
An organizational psychologist who has done significant research relating to the psychology of the Filipino within a work environment, Alampay has trained employers, managers and workers on how to become more effective in their work. She is currently an associate professor at the Psychology department at the Ateneo de Manila University and the Executive Director of the Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development (Ateneo CORD).
Based on her extensive experience, Alampay knows first-hand how difficult life is for the OFW, particularly the psychological toll of living abroad for extended period of time on both the worker and the family left behind.
The idea for OFW Online was born in 2007 while Alampay was attending a conference on Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT for D). “They were showcasing how technology was being used to address social problems. I was the only psychologist in that conference and it made me think, ‘Why can’t we harness technology to help OFWs’?”
She said that it took some time to obtain funding for the project. She credits the Singapore Internet Research Centre (funded by the International Development Research Center of Canada) for supporting the project.
OFW Online currently has 18 professional counselors who offer their services seven days a week from 9:00 am to 12:00 midnight. The counselors provide free consultation according to their specializations, such as marital issues, personal development, family matters, work issues and cultural adjustment.
The website has three primary features: Counseling which allows users to chat online with a counselor in a set amount of time, usually one hour (although follow-up sessions can be scheduled); Family Chat which allows OFWs to talk privately with family members; and Forums, where OFWs and their families can post messages.
To date, the website has had more than 25,000 visitors, with counseling exclusively done through chat or email. Asked whether not being able to personally interact with their client one-on-one has its drawbacks, Alampay admits that Internet communication has its advantages and disadvantages.
“On one hand, the anonymity is liberating for some users who would not ordinarily seek face to face counseling,” she says. “On the other hand, this kind of counseling is not appropriate for people with clinical disorders or suicidal tendencies.”
She says the most prevalent problems she and her colleagues are most often faced with are issues relational in nature, i.e., problems with marital relationships and parent-child relationships. “The separation from family is really tough on both the worker and those left behind. It is difficult to maintain intimacy and communications across the miles and that is often the source of difficulties,” she explains.
Alampay emphasizes that there are social costs to migration and a decision to work abroad needs to be thought out very carefully beyond monetary gain. “When possible, I would suggest trying to keep the family together to avoid the difficulties that arise from prolonged separation.”
If one needs more assistance than the internet can provide, she suggests that they seek out a professional counselor in their location. “Sometimes, this can be found in the churches (as in Hong Kong) or nonprofit organizations that may be able to refer them to someone who can help them.”
For her significant contributions to public service, Alampay was named one of 2010’s “The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service” (TOWNS). The award is presented by the TOWNS Foundation to outstanding Filipino women ages 21 to 45 years old who have contributed positively to strengthening national capability and in shaping the nation’s future and served as catalysts for economic, social, and cultural development by providing pro bono their time, talent and resources to government, business media, the arts, the academe, sports, and non-government organizations.
“I feel extremely grateful for the acknowledgment but at the same time humbled because the work isn’t just mine,” she says. “OFW Online was my idea and I got it started but there are many other people who are involved in this and it is in their behalf that I accepted the award.”
With 20 years experience as a human resources consultant in organizations both in the Philippines and in the US, Alampay has taught companies to be culturally relevant and globally competitive in an industrial and corporate setting. “Basically, our role is to ensure that workers are happy, well and productive,” she says. “At the same time, we also assist groups and organizations in becoming more effective, competitive and sustainable.”
In award-winning publications that she has written, such as The Way We Work: Research and Best Practices in Philippine Organizations, Leading Philippine Organizations in a Changing World and For the People, With the People: Developing Social Enterprises in the Philippines, she calls attention to the cultural difference between how work is viewed and treated by Filipinos and the rest of the world, particularly Western society.
For more information about OFW Online, check out its website at www. ofwonline.com.