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  • Jun Terra

Heroes for all seasons: Filipinos abroad

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

by Jun Terra

A race of survivors Filipinos are survivors. They need to be. After all, they live on a string of volcanic islands that are likely to explode anytime, albeit they are beautiful, fertile and rich in all kinds of natural resources. These islands on the westernmost rim of the great Pacific ocean are tips of the Asian plate whose constant shifts and collisions with the submarine Pacific plate produce earthquakes, landslides, tidal waves volcanic eruptions, the birth and submergence of islands under the sea, and regular alternation of typhoons and droughts. Quite rightly this most volatile region on earth is known as the “ring of fire.” People of the islands on this ring of fire have had to adapt their lives to the nature of their geography. Their own nature is shaped by their environment even as they try to mould its characteristics for their benefit. Many recent example of the Filipino’s survival instinct are fresh in memory. When Mt. Pinatubo exploded burying houses, churches, farmlands, orchards, entire towns that have lasted for centuries - in a word, the infrastructures that make life possible – under thick layers of volcanic ash known as lahar, whole populations moved away from the devastation to rebuild their lives in other towns, without panic, without drama. Television and newspaper coverage of the events captured vivid images of people calmly taking with them what they could to start a new life, faces covered with scarves or pieces of cloth so as not to breathe in the dust and fumes. The migrations were carried out in an orderly way. Without minimising the tragedy that the eruption created, what came across from the victims was the acceptance that this was something that will happen again and again. Within a few months they were back on their feet, carving a new livelihood and making something out of what nature had thrown at them. As farming was no longer possible, the fields having been buried under hardened ash, they summoned their other, hitherto, untapped skills. They started quarrying the hardened lahar and cutting them into blocks for building materials that they could sell. In the run-up to Christmas after the eruptions, they employed their hidden talents as sculptors, carving nativity scenes from the hardened volcanic ash. It was touching to see statues of the Holy Family, with the new born Jesus in a manger , the Three Kings, the sheep, the cow and all the other animals, all sculpted from the very ash that caused their tragedy. They sold these sculptures in the cities of the country and even exported them abroad. I bought a few sets to give away as Christmas presents to foreign friends. There could not be a more poignant example of survival than this. A history of upheavals If nature in the Philippines is characterised by volatility, the history of its people is seldom tranquil. It is marked by regular social and political upheavals that have come to be accepted as givens. Hardly had the country recovered from the ravages of Japanese occupation during the second world war than it had to contend immediately with peasant unrest and communist insurgency in the various islands. Over thirty years ago, at the height of the cold war between the US and the USSR, the Philippines was considered by a succession of American governments as their “right arm” in Asia and encouraged and supported a government of martial law in the country in their fight against communism in the region. When the military rule ended in 1986 and civilian governments faithful to the US agenda for the region took over, the basic social and economic causes of unrest in the country remained unresolved and warfare continues at a low but constant level, flaring up from time to time. Amidst the background of unrest and armed confrontations in the countryside, politicians carry on as politicians do, squabbling and struggling for power and position and pulling in the Catholic Church, the Military establishment and millions of people in the process. Fearful of instability, foreign investors are shying away from the country. During the Asian financial crisis a few years back, The Filipinos’ resilience came to the fore once more and they sat out the crisis until it passed over. Their resilience in facing the financial crisis and its social and political impact may be partly explained by their being used to living in unstable natural and man-made conditions. They have become inured to all forms of calamity. But that is only part of the story. Their resilience has been and is bolstered by the constant and continuing moral and financial support of their relatives and compatriots in the diaspora. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the country’s history that can trace its beginning to only thirty odd years ago when Filipinos started working, settling and building communities in several countries around the world – not by choice but driven by the country’s lack of economic and social opportunities. A new dimension has been added to the capacity of the Filipinos in the Philippines for survival: the support of Filipino communities overseas. Currently, the country is experiencing another prolonged political upheaval with its current government – generally regarded as illegitimate – besieged by investigations for alleged involvement in graft, electoral cheating, bribery, corruption, political assassinations, bribery, etc. On top of this, the world rice and food crisis is affecting the majority of the population of the country quite badly. This is another period that is testing the Filipino’s resilience. Filipinos abroad: heroes for all seasons Time and again, Filipinos abroad have shown their enthusiasm in helping their country of origin in good times as well as bad. During the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions and its aftermath, the response of the Filipino communities in the diaspora was swift, decisive and without reservation. They raised funds, sent money, food medicine and clothing to the victims. Their support did not end there. They helped in rehabilitating their livelihood through local organisations and they continue their support to this day. In this period of the rice crisis in the country, reports say their remittance has jumped up from US$8billion to US$14.billion, showing their quick response . At the last count, overseas Filipinos number more than 6 million. The majority have settled in various adopted countries and they are beginning to build viable and vibrant communities. The saying: “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, maybe a cliché, but there is a lot of truth in it. The attachment of Filipinos to their attachment home country has become stronger. In a year their financial contribution to the Philippine economy comes up to more than US$8 billion. This amount is bigger than that of the Japanese Miyazawa plan to help economic recovery in the country which stood at US$1 billion. It dwarfs the contribution from the sale of some of the multinationals in the Philippines (San Miguel, US$591.5 million; Philippine Long Distance Telephone, US$385 million). The biggest single British investment in the Philippines spearheaded by Shell and British gas is in the extraction of natural gas at the Malampaya fields off Palawan. It amounts to US$5billion. It is a one off investment, and after this, it is profits all the way to the bank for the investors. This amount is equivalent only to half a year’s remittance from Filipinos abroad, which continues year after year. Single investments of many foreign companies in the Philippines cannot begin to approach the amount sent annually by Filipinos abroad. Translated into social terms, its contribution to the stability of the country is immense. Filipinos abroad have become the main supporter of the Philippines morally and materially and their remittance has become one of the main pillars of the country’s economy, without which its political and social fabric would be torn to shreds by the tensions brought about by the poverty and lack of opportunities for the majority within the country. Without any fanfare, overseas Filipino scientists, technologists., doctors, businessmen, teachers and other professionals regularly go to the Philippines to share their expertise with their local colleagues and through local organisations and institutions, helping in developmental projects in the country. Many overseas Filipinos support local, community-based charity organisations avoiding the mediation of politicians as much as possible in the process. Abroad, in the countries they have settled in, Filipinos, against all odds, try to raise a positive profile of the country, and endeavour to explain the oftentimes tangled events in the Philippines to bemused international observers. Through their actuations in their adopted countries they build bridges with other peoples and cultures. Overseas Filipinos have become - not by design, but through their concern, steadfastness, constancy, and dependability in helping their mother country - “modern day heroes, ” as one glib politician put it. A phrase, to my mind that would describe them more accurately is this: “heroes for all seasons.” For they are there for the Philippines, in fair weather or foul, without fail and without hesitation. In effect, they have become a ready-made international network the country could rely on. Despite this, Filipino communities abroad are officially undervalued. They seem to be perceived by the country’s politicians only as a source of direct financial support to keep the country's economy afloat while they carry on with their shenanigans. The granting of dual nationality and the right to vote for overseas Filipinos for which they have had to fight and campaign hard for many years has further encouraged them to have a stronger commitment to the Philippines and now makes their involvement in the affairs of the country more real and meaningful. One of issues now exercising the minds of the older generation of Filipinos abroad is the question of the second generation, born and bred in their adopted countries and with little knowledge and identification with the parents’ country of origin. Not satisfied with their own support, they are preparing their offsprings, the second generation to take on the task of providing support for the Philippines when they are no longer active or have moved on. Through various community educational and leisure activities, both structured and impromptu, they have been introducing the second generation to the better values and aspects of Philippine culture, a task doubly difficult because they grow up amidst the Western media’s highlighting almost always only the negative aspects of the country’s political and social system and confirmed by the reality of rampant political corruption and the widespread poverty among the general population. In this task of building and strengthening the international support system that they have created, Filipinos in the diaspora need the help of individuals who can appreciate what they are doing and that of official as well as unofficial institutions and organisations in the Philippines. For instance, instead of making its embassies concentrate mainly on courting foreign investors, the government of the country could build sturdier bridges and stronger links with its own people, its kith and kin abroad and set aside some funds for genuine partnership programmes. This would cost less than the amounts bureaucrats lavish on chasing foreign investors in organised junkets. Mind you, there won’t be the under the table deals, bribes, big handouts, windfalls and commissions that dealing with foreign multinationals oftentimes brings to politicians. However, if there is any lesson to be learned from the many crises that country has been going through since the return of civilian rule in 1986, it is this: the Philippines cannot depend on foreign investors whose chief aim is to make profit from their investments nor on other countries for help. The globalised market economy which successive governments after 1986 have blindly embraced is harsh and no one will look after the country’s welfare but itself. However, it can always be sure of the unselfish support of Filipinos in the diaspora who, although they work and live abroad and have taken on other nationalities, maintain a deep and abiding concern for their country of origin and its destiny. Jun Terra, London [First published in EuroFilipino Journal, 2008]

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