Thursday, 10 May 2012

Dreaming of distant shores

It is the end of the semester, the final exams are done and, with the junior students looking forward to their next semester, the seniors preparing for five months of on the job training, and a whole new batch of applicants being put through their paces with the three week orientation programme, it is a time of looking ahead.

For the students at TVED, the skills and qualifications they receive are a route out of poverty, and being able to earn a better living is undoubtedly a key motivation for all of them. Often their desire to earn more is not entirely self-centred: one recurring theme among the students here is their desire, by completing their studies, to assist or support their families.

For many, the idea of travelling abroad to work is an important part of this dream. For most, they don’t have a specific destination in mind: anywhere where their skills will earn them higher wages than they can hope for at home, and from where they can send money back to help their parents or younger siblings to have a better life. With thousands, maybe millions of Filipinos working abroad in every corner of the world (I know, the world is round so it doesn’t have corners, but you know what I mean) for some this may well become a reality.

While I in no way wish to criticize our students for their aspirations, nor cast judgement on their actions, there are two things which sadden me about this dream.

The first is that they feel this is the only option. The only way to leave poverty is to leave the Philippines. With stories of higher wages abroad and surrounded by the evidence (not least in the main fee-paying part of the school) of those who are reaping the financial rewards of working away it is easy to see why this is their dream. There is little debate about the truth of their belief that going abroad offers more opportunities for financial gain than staying here. But in a culture where family and connections are so important and the students talk about close relationships and their love of their families and communities, it seems sad that in order to help those very people they feel they have to go so far away from them. The evidence of the wealth generated by Filipinos working abroad is everywhere here, but there is also plenty of evidence of the damage to social fabric and family relationships. When the children from the main school are discussed, many of the discipline issues come down to students whose parents are abroad, sometimes for years at a time. Abroad, possibly, to give their children a better chance and better education: but is leaving them without parental care really giving them the best hope for the future? What a choice to have to make.

The second is that while the students talk about their desire to travel, the only motivation to do so they ever mention is the desire to earn a better living. I have heard no student speak of wanting to see different environments or experience a different culture, to see the sights or to meet different people. I have not heard them speak of lessons to be learned, nor (even less) of what they have to offer and give to other countries, other than their hours of labour. I feel hugely privileged to have travelled to many different places and met many different people, and I in no way want to suggest the TVED students I work with shouldn’t be able to do the same; nor am I suggesting that those who go abroad will not take part in important cultural exchanges, both giving and receiving, and making many new friends. But it is sad that this aspect of the benefit of travel isn’t even on their radar.

I sincerely hope that all the TVED students have the opportunity to live a better life as a result of their training and if for some that involves going abroad, I hope it is a fruitful and life-giving experience. But I mourn for a world where some can choose to travel to make new friends, and others feel forced to travel leaving friends and family behind; where for some, myself included, travel is an exciting opportunity to discover the world, while others live lives so damaged and limited by poverty they can see no other reason than financial gain.

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