MANILA, January 7, 2003 (STAR) By Rey Arquiza - War in the Middle East is preferable to uncertainty and a gloomy future back home.

Joe Garcia, who works as an auto mechanic in Iraq, expresses the common sentiment of thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) returning to their jobs in the Middle East after spending a long Christmas holiday in the relative safety of home.

Maria de Leon, a domestic helper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, expressed the fear that hounds her and her fellow OFWs: Their children’s futures would be put at risk if they allow themselves to think of their personal safety.

"If I stayed home, how would my three children go to school? And if I could find a job here, would it be enough for us all to survive?" she asks.

De Leon, a widow for three years, rents a small apartment where her mother and three children live. Her eldest child is only 12.

The OFWs, mostly employed as domestic helpers for moneyed Arab employers, said they fight a daily battle against loneliness in a strange place, away from the families that give them the strength and resolve to plod on. They comfort themselves with the thought that they are keeping their families back home alive despite the harsh economic conditions in the Philippines.

Most OFWs said they are paid well and receive a pay scale beyond what they would otherwise earn at home — especially the Filipino nurses who work in Iraq’s government hospitals.

A 21-year-old domestic helper employed in Libya asked, "could we find a job here with an income of what we receive, even as a domestic helper?"

"There are risks involved anywhere you stay," another domestic helper working for an Israeli family in Tel Aviv said. "But (what matters is) how you take care of yourself."

Although many of the OFWs try to put a brave face on their fears, their concern for their own safety is etched on their faces. Looking at them, one can immediately read their common hope that war will not break out in the Middle East.

However, the Middle East-bound OFWs’ fear for their safety was underscored by the departure yesterday of Philippine Special Ambassador to the Middle East Roy Cimatu for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to oversee the evacuation plans for OFWs in the region should the United States openly declare war on Iraq.

***Cimatu team leaves for Middle East

A Philippine mission left yesterday for the Middle East to coordinate all initiatives in ensuring the safety and welfare of some 1.4 million Filipino workers in case the US attacked Iraq.

Led by Special Presidential Envoy Roy Cimatu and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) chief Virgilio Angelo, the mission will visit Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, where most overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are based.

Dubbed as the Middle East Preparedness Team (MEPT), the mission will hold talks with officials of the host countries in securing the safety and welfare of the Filipino workers.

An "emergency handbook" containing evacuation plans will be distributed to OFWs, while host governments will also be asked to give assurance about their safety, Angelo said.

"I want to assure (Filipino workers) and their families here that there is no reason to be alarmed because the Middle East situation is still normal with the workers peacefully doing their jobs," he said. — Aurea Calica, AFP

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