Bgy San Vicente, Butuan City

Domestic Worker, Kuwait, Lebanon, 2000-2008

Small Business Owner, 2008 to present

The Street Smart College Drop-Out

By J. Dela Torre

pulidoBarangay San Vicente is the third most populous in Butuan City, straddling the mighty Agusan River, and to own and operate a sari-sari store right in the barangay center and beside the highway was right on the money, the most critical of all factors for business success being location, location, location. Nelsie must’ve been aware of the importance of location when she purchased out of her savings from working abroad this spot now occupied by her small business, and the lot right next to it for future expansion. For someone who hasn’t graduated from college, she displayed business savvy in choosing this spot, and in the way she dealt with customers during the interview.

Born in Bayugan, Agusan del Sur, Nelsie had 8 brothers and sisters. Food and shelter were eked out from the meager earnings of her father, a marginal farmer. She was a working student at the Agusan National High School, night class. After graduating from high school, she asked her employer to help her through college, and, fortunately, the employer obliged.  On her first year in college at the NORMISIS, now Caraga State University, she married Warlito, her present husband. She had a leg up in college, taking up AB Sociology, but on her third year, her family went through a severe financial crisis, which needed her personal attention. She never wanted to go abroad for work, preferring to finish her college education and work her way up. She figured that as long as she worked hard, her pay would increase over time. But her fate led her somewhere else. In the meantime, she had to attend to her husband’s case which saw him end up in jail for 8 months.

Nelsie narrated her story in an upfront and unembellished manner, not even pausing at what clearly were embarrassing incidents in her life, like the incarceration of her husband. We were right in front of her store, her stock and wares hanging down from the low roof like some fiesta buntings, tricycles and motorbikes zipping by. She was furiously fanning herself to ward away the heat wave, while my own sweat was dribbling down my chest.

“I couldn’t find any other solution to our financial problems but for me to go abroad and work,” she found herself justifying her decision.

In 2000, she was in Kuwait, working for an employer who treated her shabbily and didn’t care one way or the other whether she had eaten or rested after a hard day’s work. But she endured the constant hunger pangs because she had to raise money to pay their debts back home, accumulated due to her husband’s jailing and her father being in and out of the hospital. She stayed with her employer for almost two years. At one time, she was so fed up she wanted to go to the Embassy to complain. But she was so broke she tried to borrow money for bus fare from a Filipina friend. She refused to lend the money to Nelsie, and she realized this is how life was overseas: you have nobody but yourself to rely on for help.

Finally, she came to the end of her wits, and decided to escape to the Embassy. She still had a month’s salary coming to her, but she didn’t mind it as reaching the Embassy was more important to her. At the POLO shelter, she met all sorts of Filipina domestic helpers who have run away from their employers with problems of all types and severity. This only served to strengthen her resolve not to go back to Kuwait anymore. She had saved enough to start a small business, she thought, and she wanted a new start in life. Anyway, she figured she had already sent enough money to her husband and her parents, so it was time for her to think about herself and the business she was planning to start.

She put up the sari-sari store, and began to build her small house. But after two months at home, her savings were gone. She needed to go back abroad to finish her house construction and to put in more capital to her store. She found a job in Lebanon in 2003. But the Israeli-Lebanese conflict forced her to consider returning to the Philippines, but how, she asked herself. Her husband and her parents also begged her to come home. On TV, she learned also that she wasn’t alone as the entire Filipino community in Lebanon was also suffering from the same anxiety and physical deprivations arising from the war. But she decided to hang on and prayed hard. The smoke and the dust finally settled, and Nelsie managed to stay on for another year. All the while she was thinking of her younger sister whom she wanted to finish college. It didn’t matter, Nelsie told her, that I’m sacrificing a lot, for as long as you can complete your college education and thus be able to help our family. The same sister is now in Turkey, married and working as a caregiver, and sending money home. She has also invested in her own house and lot in Butuan.

After finishing her own contract, Nelsie returned to the Philippines, but after only two months, she decided to go back to Lebanon. Again, she worked for another two years and told her employer she didn’t intend to renew her contract. Her employer begged her to stay, and offered to increase her salary twice to make her stay. In 2007, she felt a discomfort in her left chest. She used it as a reason to ask for permission to return to the Philippines, but her employer refused on the ground that she could seek treatment for Nelsie in Lebanon. But she felt the pain growing. She’d actually been to see three doctors already but she didn’t get the relief she wanted. She begged her employer to release her, but again her salary was increased to $400 and a rest day. She reluctantly agreed, but two weeks later, she decided it was time, and so in 2008, she flew home.

Back home, she had already invested in the construction of two boarding houses, so this was what sustained her after her return. She used the NRCO assistance as additional capital for her store.

Is she worried about the many competitors in the same neighborhood?

“Not at all,” she said. “I’ve learned from a DOLE seminar that competition is good, but I just need to differentiate my merchandize. So, I have stocks—like RTW clothes—which my competitors don’t carry.”

Did she have plans to return overseas?

“Working abroad is tempting because of the high pay, but I realize that working away from the family is not worth it. You sacrifice too much for something you can earn here anyway, provided you work hard for it. Although I’m not earning from my business as much as I used to earn abroad, I’m consoled by the fact that I’m here with my family, and I need not worry about them.”

What advice did she have for OFWs who are also planning to go into the small grocery business?

“It’s very important to keep records every day, so you would know whether you made or lost money every day. It is important to keep track of one’s earnings and expenses, so that you preserve the capital and just live on part of the profit,” she counselled.

She also doesn’t recommend that the OFW send home everything she earned: “Just send what is needed by your family. It’s very important that you save money for yourself, to ensure your family has savings at the end of your contract.”

Nelsie is also a member of the local forced-savings pool, to which she contributes P1,000 a week. She has since becoming a member already received nearly P70,000 from the pool, which she invested into buying more merchandize for her store. At this time, she learned about the NRCO assistance to displaced OFWs being handed out by OWWA. She attended a seminar conducted by OWWA, and in no time at all, had additional capital for her store.

The 2-hectare farm which her sister invested in has been leased by a neighbor and is earning a substantial sum for her.

Nelsie has several business ideas in her mind, including an appliance store, and a dry-goods store.

She then ticked off her brothers and sisters who are now either living in Davao or in Manila. They all have also grappled with the harsh realities of poverty, but have risen out of it due to their own hard work and sacrifices. Nelsie as the first to venture abroad has been the key and the spark. She continues to keep an eye on her extended family, not being blessed with children of her own.

Looking back at her life and work overseas, she expressed no regrets because she believes that although she hasn’t achieved her dream of graduating from college, she has nevertheless attained what she set out, which is to get her sister through college, and to save enough to invest in a business.

“The DOLE and other agencies are there to help us, and I can testify to this when I ran away from my employer, but because of the sheer volume of Filipinos working abroad, we can’t always expect them to be there all the time. We should also be able to help ourselves. I suggest therefore that we should be wary about abusive employers and illegal recruiters, learn what is there to learn before we leave for overseas, and just be disciplined about savings. Some of my friends mocked me for not continuing with my work abroad, but I told them, I’m happy here with my business. It doesn’t earn as much as I did before, but I’m here with my family. I encourage all female OFWs to come home and engage in business so we don’t become slaves in other lands forever,” Nelsie concluded.

As I was putting away my video equipment, I realized that I’ve just been educated by somebody who has not even completed a college degree. I thought about all the college graduates who are now jobless, and I thought, they could all learn from Nelsie, diminutive, non-articulate in English, but strong in character, street smart, committed to her family, and willing to take risks to attain her goals in life. I was slightly baffled by the sweet ironies of life, but life isn’t always one simple, predictable, straight line, is it?