Toronto Star Article about the children of Filipina nannies

http://www.thestar.com/article/559855High cost of looking after others' kids TheStar.com - News & Features - High cost of looking after others' kids

Filipina nannies support their own families back home and find they are estranged when their children come here January 03, 2009, Lesley Ciarula Taylor (Immigration Reporter)

Vicky Policarpio left her son when he was 20 months old to come to Toronto and look after someone else's kids. It took her 11 years to bring her boy here.

Judy Gonzalez minded twins in Toronto from the time they were born while her four children, the youngest just turned 3, grew up in the Philippines with a succession of relatives.

When Maria Castro finally reunited with her three children, 11 years after she left them to work as a nanny first in Israel and then in Toronto, her daughter arrived with a grandson in tow and another on the way.

Amid a few tears and a great deal of resilience, the three university-educated former nannies describe the heartbreak of years spent with just a fragile telephone link to their families – and the unexpected, searing pain of reunion with teenaged strangers often angry and wounded by those long years apart.

"I asked my little girl on the phone what she remembered of her mommy and she said, 'Nothing,'" says Gonzalez, 41. "It was hard financially to go home but I did it once a year, just to get a smile back on her face."

She called twice a week. "We love them, but the only way we can show it is by phone."

Her children arrived last April at her home in Pickering. That little girl is 10 now.

Policarpio's son hid in his room when he first arrived in west-end Toronto at age 13 and wore a hoodie pulled tight around his face. His eyes followed his mother around a room, alert and wary.

"I hated that hood," says Policarpio, 45. "I had my sisters here, so I could do my crying behind his back." When finally they argued it out, the teenager said he, too, would get up during the night and cry for his old home.

"What we realize now is that these kids we are sacrificing for are being victimized," Policarpio says. "The first stage of reunification is very hard."

Castro's children were in their twenties when they finally reunited with their mother and father in North York. There was so much conflict and tension that "I felt like giving up and leaving," Castro says. "You can't imagine the pain."

Filipino teenagers, many of them raised by relatives and transplanted in their most volatile years, have one of the highest school dropout rates in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. From a culture that prizes a university education, second-generation Filipinos are doing badly compared to other immigrants, Statistics Canada reports, based on the 2006 census.

There are 20,000 live-in caregivers in Canada, many of them Filipinas. Almost 2,500 women leave the Philippines every day to work around the world as nannies, companions and cleaners, sending money home to children, husbands, brothers and sisters who depend on that cash to eat.

"The choice we have is to die with a hungry stomach or get out," Gonzalez says.

The average separation is eight years.

"We are the lucky ones," Policarpio says. The three women are working now in accounting or business administration and counsel Filipina nannies shattered by their loneliness or their estranged families through the newly created Caregiver Connection.

"Some of them are working three jobs," she says. "Even when their own children come, there is no time to bond. It's clear that some children aren't getting the guidance they need. We hear heartbreaking stories."

Gonzalez and Policarpio praise their former employers, families who encouraged them to go back to school, who didn't make them work around-the-clock and provided work for relatives when they moved on.

Even so, they criticize Canada's live-in caregiver program for indenturing women and treating them "like a transaction between rich and poor countries," in Policarpio's words.

Women aren't allowed to change employers or go to school, she says. If they lose their jobs, they lose their status and their paycheque deductions.

"Lots and lots of caregivers can't get out of the house. They have degrees back home, but they can't upgrade their skills."

Gonzalez says the nanny experience is "totally opposite to what we dream will happen. I hated myself. I used to ask myself, 'Why am I deprived of watching my girl grow up? Why am I looking after someone else's children?' But I had to deal with it."

It's a guilt and an anger they share. "It's why we develop an attachment to the children we look after," Castro says. "Whenever I would hold any child, I would think I was holding my own child. I looked after them as if they were my own because my own were so far away."

Martha Campo, a long-time advocate of caregivers' rights who runs a weekly support group for nannies, says children "are left to fend for themselves" when they get here.

"They get into drug use, gangs. They're bullied at school for their English. They assert themselves and answer back. They're not the kids their mothers thought they would be."

Their mothers are different, too: independent breadwinners who long ago abandoned their traditional submissive roles.

Castro, 49, advocates an immigration policy that lets nannies "come as immigrants and choose their own employers and bring their families. Eliminate the live-in clause and let women choose for themselves."

"We need to let this community know these women can be good citizens of Canada," Gonzalez says. Was it worth it?

"When we look back, the pain is no longer there."

Policarpio's son is now 17. "I've said to him, 'Michael, when you have your own family, let me go back home then. I will take my rest.'"