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Nilo E. Tanalega, SJ - Missionary for Overseas Filipino Workers

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Nilo E. Tanalega, SJ - Missionary for Overseas Filipino Workers

Roberto Archie R. Carampatan, sj (PHI)

Labor migration from the Philippines continues to rise, as employment prospects, both for skilled and non-skilled workers, in the country remain limited. At present, there are roughly 10 million Filipino international migrant workers all over the world. They are referred as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW).

The unofficial count of Filipinos who left the country in 2013 was pegged at 1.3 million. Moreover, the feminization of labor migration continues as Filipino women remain courageous in leaving their families to work as household service workers, mostly in the Middle East, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Considered a temporary labor supply to the construction boom in the Middle East in the 1970s has become a permanent, and a growing phenomenon. The Philippine government must have found this very convenient to alleviate the ailing economy. If you ask young Filipinos what they want to become when they grow up, they would tell you that they want to work abroad.

The Philippine government has hailed the OFW as "modern heroes" for their dollar remittances that are crucial in keeping the domestic economy afloat. Moreover, the government has been trying its best to protect the welfare of OFWs. However, what has been lacking all these years is adequate mental health care for the OFWs and the families they left behind. This is where the work of Jesuit priest, Fr. Nilo E. Tanalega, becomes crucial.

Fr. Tanalega founded UGAT Foundation Inc., with another Jesuit and some lay collaborators sometime in 1986 when he came back from New York after his doctoral studies in pastoral counseling.

It took extensive three years of consultation and planning to come up with the following values for UGAT Foundation: (a) we need to respond to the call of the Catholic Church to the "preferential option to the poor"; (b) we cannot be saddled by funding agencies (lingering dependency and time consuming reports); (c) we adjust and accommodate ourselves to whatever the communities can provide, i.e. the basic needs for food and transportation; (d) we apply the spirit of the gospels as possible, i.e. "carry no two cloaks or sandals" and "whatever they feed you, eat"; (e) in solidarity with the poor, we have to live by the sweat of our brow.

UGAT programs

The psycho-social cost of labor migration is difficult to quantify. For four decades now, the Philippine society has to contain generations of young Filipinos who grew up without parent or parents. Fr. Tanalega and his co-founder saw the damage to the individuals and families due to labor migration.

In general, Filipinos are family-oriented, but with the phenomenon of parents leaving for overseas work, eroded the values of family support system. Children are left to their grandparents or other adult members of the extended family. Abuse and neglect are not uncommon. To compensate their absence, overseas parents often over indulge their children with money and gadgets. A diocesan seminarian whose parents are OFWs opined, "It seems my parents never realized that it's not money, nor gadgets, that I really wanted from them."

To help the OFWs and their families deal with the consequence of separation, Fr. Tanalega has designed formation programs for the migrants at their jobsites and for the families left behind in the country. He and his team of counselors have been going to jobsites like Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe, and Dubai to conduct seminar-workshops on peer counseling, on basic and advance counseling skills, and on raising functional families from abroad.

In the homefront, he designed many psycho-social formation programs namely: a program for the remaining spouses of OFWs; program for the wives and families of seafarers; program for children of OFWs; value clarification for those who are preparing to leave for overseas work; value formation on family reintegration for returning migrants; psycho-social processing for victims of sea piracy; and basic and advance counseling skill training for teachers in dealing with children of OFWs.

Moreover, UGAT has been providing psychological services to two major agencies of the Philippine government: Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). For OWWA, UGAT counselors conduct stress debriefing and individual counseling to the repatriated OFWs - mostly abused household service workers from the Middle East; and for DFA staff, who are either preparing for foreign assignment or returned from their duty abroad, the team provides wellness formation program.

As UGAT celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2015, the challenge is to constantly re-invent UGAT's formation programs, interventions, and approaches to effectively deal with the varieties of needs across family situations, political, economic pressures, especially in the international scene.

UGAT team (one Jesuit priest; two Jesuit scholastics; two full-time staff; and a host of volunteer counselors) is excited to carry on UGAT's mission. They believe that UGAT Foundation has come to existence because Fr. Tanalega and his co-founders were inspired by God. If God has willed UGAT, He will sustain it.

Read more on Philippine labor migrations phenomenon.