MANILA – At 34, Dovelyn Agunias has come full circle, so to speak. As a child, she experienced what it was like to be a daughter of a migrant worker; to grow up with one less parent around; to personally feel what it was like to be a worker overseas; and to finally return home to the Philippines with knowledge and skills at hand.
“I, myself is a returnee. I am returning here and we are moving our regional office in Bangkok with the support of the CFO (Commission on Filipino Overseas). We’re doing that because we share this dream that we want the Philippines to be the center for migration policy and research in the Asia Pacific region,” Agunias said during her speech at the 2nd Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora last month.
Agunias is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit migration think-tank in Washington DC.
“My job is to really understand what is missing on migration in Asia and what the governments are thinking,” she said.
At first glance, one would think that Agunias have not experienced any hardships in life. In fact, it was through her family’s hurdles in life that helped shape the woman that she is now.
She was about eight years old when her father, a tailor, got sick with tuberculosis. The family, who lived along the train tracks in an informal settlers area in Sampaloc, Manila, was buried in debt.
A relative broached the idea of overseas work to her mother, a teacher of 20 years.
“She left two weeks before my 9th birthday. I remember going to the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) and everything,” Agunias said.
As a child who could not yet fully grasp the concept of why one of her parents had to work abroad to offer a better option for the family, her mother lightly explained to her that she would be earning as much as the Philippine president.
“So, all I need to do was to take care of myself and take care of my father and get really good grades. Sabi ko ‘Oh! I can do that! We made a pact that she would earn as much as the money of the president and then come back. We’re gonna build a house,” she said.
Her mother worked at various factories in Iceland and, since then, would spend vacation with the family every three years.
“I'd see her maybe 2 weeks at that time until I finished high school,” she said.
Like many children of OFWs, Agunias admitted going through a period of resentment growing up without her mother around. But fortunately, she surpassed it with the help of her father and other relatives.
“My father is a really big support to me. He was really there for me and I had a good safety net andyan mga cousins, auntie ko and so I have all the help support that I needed. It was easier than what you would usually think.”
“This is sometimes negative di ba? But what people don't understand is that these families are desperate and actually, to be honest with you, I'd rather not be with my mom rather than starve or rather my father die of tuberculosis. Kailangan bigyan natin ng context yan it's important for everyone na bigyan naman nila ng credit, ang mga migrants,” she said.
The decision to leave wasn't that easy for the family, she said.
“They make this decision because they think it’s the best decision for them. They weigh the options. That's what we did. We weighed the options and from there will make the best decisions we could do. And, I think that's why migration is very empowering. It could change your life. You’re lucky, but of course, marami tayong mga kababayan who are not,” she explained.
Part of her work brought her to the Middle East, in Dubai and in Jordan, where she personally saw how difficult the lives of kababayans there.
“How do you improve it, is the question. Because it could be improved. Maraming pwedeng gawin,” she said.
Although she got into the University of the Philippines, Agunias decided to try and follow her mother’s footsteps by going to Iceland after graduating from high school.
“I ended up working in a factory and doing domestic work and then I said to myself ‘I'm gonna give myself one year and a half’ and then I went back to UP,” Agunias said.
She earned a lot from working in Iceland and her mother allowed her to keep the money.
“But I said I'd rather go home and do something with my life. But I would go back. Like I went back the third year. Three and a half sems lang ako sa UP. So one sem I went back to Iceland and worked sa laundry naman. Nagpa-plantsa ako ng mga suits,” she said.
She moved to the US when she married her husband. It was her husband who suggested that she get a degree.
“So I finished my degree sa UP pol sci (political science) and then I went back to the US and from there I realized mahirap sa US if you don’t go to grad school because if you’re a migrant in the US and you don't have networks, you’re not gonna get a job,” she said.
Back in the US, she had to work as a receptionist in a hotel there. It was there that she realized the need to further her studies.
“I got into Georgetown and it changes everything. Once you go to Georgetown its actually one of the schools na number one sa foreign affairs. That's where Luli Arroyo went to,” she said.
She added, laughing, that although her mother did not earn as much as the Philippine president as she promised then, the thought of sending her to the same school as that of the daughter of the president, was worth it.
“But that opened up a lot of doors for me. I got a scholarship, I didn't pay for anything but after that things were easy because I was in Washington D.C.,” said Agunias.
Her success is not without the help and support of her husband and two children, she said.
“This is risky for us to move in Manila,” she said, but she is just thankful that she gets to bring her family wherever she goes.
“My parents sacrificed because we don't have a choice. Now, I have a choice to bring my kids so hindi pwedeng maghiwalay. We go together kahit saan. Right now one of the reasons why were here is because nandito na parents ko,” she said.