Pilipinos in Persian Limbo: My Experience with the OFWs of Kish Island


Filipinos stranded on Kish Island, waiting to return to the UAE for work. Author's note: this is the  first, of hopefully several, in a series that provides a glimpse of Pilipino communities around the world through my own travel experiences.

One of my most favorite hobbies out there is to collect stamps. I would travel far and cross countries just to receive an exotic one. I would try to hop around a few nations just so I could help bolster my collection further. Admittedly though, the stamps that I collect aren't ones that you paste into envelopes but are ones that you receive in your passports.

Admittedly, the condition of mine is not at it's best and I've had issues on occasion for it's authenticity (last June I had not one, not two, but five Chinese immigration officers in Shenzen inspect it, much to the annoyance of passengers behind me) but it's almost filled up to the point where I can feel worthy enough to request a replacement. Each stamp inside it can easily evoke memories of trips long past, but there is one that I've valued since receiving it five years ago: the stamp that I received upon entry to Kish Island, Iran. And while the original purpose of my trip was to collect that stamp and say that I visited Iran, I ended up running into a group of overseas Pilipinos who live in legal limbo.

I booked my ticket at a travel agency in the relatively old Bur Dubai district of this otherwise dynamic emirate. An agent greeted me with a "Hello, Kuya. How can I help you?" She is one of the many overseas Filipino workers (OFW) that make up the diverse expatriate population of Dubai - expats make up about 90% of the emirate's population. I proceeded to her desk and joined her friend, a fellow OFW, who was hanging out with her during his break. It was on this day that I made my reservations for a flight to Kish and marks how I found out more of the Filipinos who don't reside, don't work, but wait in that island.

Not wanting to be left behind by the explosive growth going on in the Gulf, the Iranian government designated Kish Island as a free trade zone in hopes of catching some foreign investment flowing into the region. One incentive to encourage growth was that, unlike mainland Iran, Kish didn't have a visa entry requirement. This incentive, however, attracted foreign workers of neighboring countries whose visas were close to expiration. Instead of paying an expensive airfare back to their home countries, they would take a short and cheap flight into Kish, take advantage of the visa waiver, and wait it out until their visas are renewed. Some wait for days, some weeks, and some for months. Ate Travel Agent made sure to emphasize that last point for me when she handed me my ticket:

"Remember, while you may be able to visit for just a day, there are hundreds still waiting to come back to Dubai."

The following morning I found myself in Terminal 2 of Dubai International Airport. Unlike the more glamorous parts of the larger Terminal 1 (along with Terminal 3 which opened after I visited), Terminal 2 was a no-frills building for low-cost carriers and smaller regional carriers that serve destinations I'd typically hear in the news. My most favorite memory out of that place was watching a family with little kids that looked dressed for a day in Disneyland board a flight... to Kabul. The gate of my Kish Island flight was filled with the passengers that make up the demographics of Dubai's working class foreign labor: individuals from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia were seen. I'd hear dialects that I never heard before, which at times was so overwhelming that I saw comfort when I heard a Tagalog speaker floating in the crowd.

The Kish Airlines Fokker 50 has a colorful history.

Now the flight itself was the epitome of unconventional. While our boarding passes gave us a designated seat assignment, it was apparently thrown out once we entered the cabin in a Southwest Airlines-esque free-for-all for onboard seat selection. The Fokker 50 we were on board certainly had a colorful history: overhead signage was in English and Spanish while parts had a smattering German thrown in for diversity, a prime example of Persian resilience despite trade embargoes, which prevent the likes of it's local aviation industry from acquiring spare parts.

I ended up sitting next to a young Pilipina who was about to join the kababayans in limbo at Kish. She hailed from Cagayan; she had left the comforts and familiarity of her home in order to provide for her parents by becoming one of the many OFWs in the region. OFWs there are not strangers to the difficulty of adjusting to the culture shock, the backbreaking hours put in, the rights that they had (or rather didn't have), the crowded conditions of living with six other OFWs in a studio apartment, and more. The list goes on.

As we were chatting and I learned more of my seat mate's history, I remembered the words that Ate Travel Agent gave me the day before and I suddenly broke into tears. The epiphany of how realizing  much I was blessed with as a Fil-Am became more hard-hitting. It made me realize more how much of a bubble I lived in, more so than from my encounters in the Philippines. Yes, I had heard about other overseas Pilipino communities and occasionally bits on their struggles. But to hear it from themselves was nothing short of powerful.

Now arrival and passport control at Kish was an experience in of itself: as long as the lines were, it nonetheless moved and it moved fast, that is, until I came up. Upon seeing my US passport, I was escorted to the side while the officers took care of the remaining passengers. Eventually, I was all by myself in the immigration hall, growing more concerned, and eventually scared, as the minutes passed. What didn't help was that I was sharing the hall with Iranian soldiers who looked like they were enjoying the fear that I was emanating. Eventually, one of them looked directly at me and hand gestured his index finger, moving it across his neck. I began repeating to myself, "I'm gonna die today, aren't I? Am I going to be the next Robert Levinson?!"

In the end, their shenanigans were in jest, and they eventually came up to me to take a gander at my iPod (which was blasting Return to Innocence to calm my nerves, and whose music video inspired me to do a backtrack on my own life at the same moment) and to pick up a few extra English phrases. Disregarding their dark humor, they ended up being friendlier than most CBP officers I usually have to bear with when returning to the US! I was then ushered to a private room where I was given the Iranian equivalent of CBP's secondary screening. Understandably, it seemed suspicious for an American to stay in Kish for just a day and wanted to verify my intentions before sending me off. WikiTravel didn't exist when I visited but it's Kish entry gives a disclaimer that I wish I had received prior to visiting:

Beware: if you are Western, you may be sternly questioned as to the purpose of your visit.

Eventually I managed to join the rest of the expatriates in the town itself. I wandered around the areas where they would spend their days while waiting to return to their intended workplaces. I heard of a story of two Pilipinas who were unable to have their visas renewed, didn't have enough money for a fare to return to the Philippines, and ended up committing suicide. I never did follow up on it for authenticity, but there was one story that I remember earlier this year where another one did unfortunately choose to take her life.

Biding their time at the billiards in the Farabi Hotel.

Before heading back to the airport, I made a tour around the island which can be easily done within just a few hours. As I was inquiring about doing the tour, I noticed a flyer advertising the services in Tagalog, a break from all the Farsi that I was overwhelmed with. The island itself is beautiful, with peaceful beaches, ancient underground aqueducts, and a slower pace for those that want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Middle Eastern economic growth. But ever since this humbling experience, I'm reminded that it is also an island were many overseas workers still wait for their chance to return to job opportunities in order to provide for their families at homes.

And among those are Pilipinos who are thousands of miles away from home. I only managed to catch a quick glimpse of it, and admittedly it's small compared to what Malou Garcia experienced in her week there, Leah Quilongquilong who spent thirty three days, and the thousands of others who continue to wait in that limbo. Even my own half-brother--estranged until a couple years after my visit--had experienced Kish as an OFW (and admittedly quite frequently which unfortunately raised eyebrows with Israeli immigration officials later on as he went through a land border crossing from Jordan!).

A spring in the Underground City.

As I shake my head, having to work with Argentina's expanded reciprocal fee, waiting for another passport extension at the local office, or having to make a couple trips down to the Chinese consulate to process my visa, I try to remind myself that such inconveniences are petty compared what the Pilipino community in Kish goes through, alongside the greater struggles of millions of OFWs experience.

Seeing a familiar language was a sight for sore eyes, especially when I caught this at the hotel's front desk!

Ate Travel Agent's words still echo through my trips, and have helped me appreciate the freedom and ability that I have to travel. I may have been given an extra treatment by Iranian immigration but it pales to what much of the world has to do to get an American visa, and even then entry into the US is not guaranteed, as what was seen with Carina Yonzon Grande who was denied entry in Seattle by CBP after a longhaul flight from Manila and an extensive secondary screening process that made my 30 minute immigration backroom interview made Iranian officers seem like peanuts. (At least the Iranians were polite and courteous, that is with the joke about cutting my head off notwithstanding.) I was able to essentially go in and out of Kish as I pleased whereas many OFWs still hang in that legal limbo, waiting for the day when they can return to their exhausting jobs and providing valuable remittances that make up ten percent of the Philippine GDP.

And this experience is amongst several that I use encourage fellow Americans, Fil-Am and otherwise--to not only express--but also appreciate that same freedom. Hopefully through such appreciation and expression, we can be inspired to help out and become more involved with issues that involve Pilipinos at home, in the Philippines, and in the many communities across the world.

Photo credit (top photo): Gulf News

Behind Closed Doors: A Hidden Gem on a College Campus - Mental Health

In the Fil-Am community, there is a cultural mistrust against seeking mental health help. Among teens and young adults, who may fear shame from their community and peers for seeking help, this problem is also quite prevalent. Unfortunately, college students are at a high risk of facing high levels of stress and mental health illness. However, students also have the most resources available to them during their undergraduate (and graduate) years. One of these resources, which is considerably underutilized on campuses across the nation, is the school’s counseling center. The stigma that 'seeking help from a counselor means that you’re admitting defeat or weakness' often deters students from seeking help. Students dread being embarrassed and shamed. Some students even fear risking their academic career, and may choose to carry on silently with their struggle. However, choosing to get help and talk to a mental health professional can be a very positive and life-saving experience.

Why are college students depressed?

depressed maleDepression is increasingly more common among college students. For many students who go off to college, it can be an extremely trying transition period. Students have to get accustomed to new surroundings, influences and peers - all without close supervision or parental guidance.

This is a critical time of growth for college students, as they are learning responsibilities that they may not have had experience with before in the past. Students are becoming more independent, having to manage their time, and steering toward their future careers. Often, they don’t know the importance of taking care of their mental health, or don't know the steps to do so in a college setting. It's crucial that college students remember that they are not alone in whatever they are facing.

According to an Associated Press-mtvU poll, about four in ten college students are experiencing depression. Students who need mental health attention should not be afraid to get help. There’s nothing shameful about it, and it doesn’t make that person weak or incapable of dealing with their issues. Rather, making the decision to ask for help shows great strength and self-awareness.

What are the advantages to going to a counseling center during college?

  1. Services are free. While some students do inquire about mental health services at their counseling center, others don’t always know where to get help. Also, beyond college, it becomes more difficult to get help, especially when dealing with mental health coverage and insurance plans. Simply put, it is expensive to receive mental health help after college.
  2. Those who reach out and take advantage of  counseling services experience a considerable decrease in their stress levels and worries.
  3. Students can still turn their life around and steer toward a healthier life, even if they feel like they have done too much damage to their academic (and professional) record and relationships with others. Anything that has fallen by the wayside can still be salvaged and improved.
  4. Students will be able to access more resources, especially if they need more intensive help. This includes getting outside counseling, receiving medical attention, or meeting with other mental health professionals.

What are some signs that someone should seek help?

  • feeling down or hopeless
  • violence and hostility
  • suicidal thoughts
  • self-harming actions
  • changes in eating habits
  • not sleeping enough
  • not attending class
  • not enjoying things that you used to
  • substance abuse 
  • social anxiety
  • academic stress
  • conflict at home

Are there alternatives to the counseling center?

  • Call the national suicide prevention line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Talk to someone you trust: parent, family member, teacher, primary care physician, spiritual leader
  • Seek additional support here.
  • Read more information here.
  • If you want to get involved with mental health on your campus or in the community, contact your local Active Minds chapter or NAMI chapter.


Photo credits: The Guardian and and Sujen Man

Behind Closed Doors: A Letter to Gabrielle Molina

Gabby Molina committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates. On May 22nd, Gabrielle Molina, a 12-year-old Fil-Am from Queens, NY, took her life. She left behind an apologetic note to her family, which explained that she endured relentless bullying, both at school and on the internet.

Gabby's story is not an anomaly. Across the country, and the globe, bullying has become quite commonplace. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 43% of all teens in America are victims of bullying. This includes cyberbullying, which is done over the internet and through other digital means.

The accessibility and anonymity associated with the internet allows hurtful messages to be sent and seen instantaneously. Thus, the internet incubates open battlegrounds for bickering, name-calling, and downright nasty arguments. These attacks appear on social media sites, comment sections and forums.  Today, kids and teens have technology at their disposal, and can engage in unethical conduct, often without care or knowledge of the consequences. In the wrong hands, this technology becomes dangerous, and in Gabby's case, deadly.

Though we cannot blame Gabby's peers entirely for her passing, they did trigger her decision. As kids, we're taught the following phrase: "Sticks and stones may break my bones,  but words will never hurt me." But what if this isn't the case? Our words certainly have the ability to inflict greater pain than we intend.

In addition to cyberbullying, we must consider the state of Gabby's mental well-being. Kids and teens, like adults, may be living with a mental illness. Often overlooked or unidentified, these illnesses intensify, especially without attention or proper treatment.

As mental health becomes more visible in today's media, I'd like to send out a plea for help. Earlier this month, President Obama held the National Conference on Mental Health. The conference brought various mental health professionals and advocates together, in hopes of addressing the conversation at a national level. While there has been some criticism of the conference, I have faith that we're headed in the right direction. In addition to the conference, the Obama administration launched, a comprehensive site for those seeking mental health services and resources. Furthermore, there are many other organizations out there that have been supporting and advocating for those living with a mental illness. My hope is that this conversation continues, and is not forgotten by the media. I believe it is up to us to equip ourselves with the right attitude and knowledge in order to truly change our culture's perception of mental health. We have to realize that anyone around us could be suffering in silence. By understanding the stereotypes and stigmas against mental health, we can help our friends, family, and even ourselves, during difficult times.

In the meantime, here's a letter I wrote to Gabby. It's signed "The World." I hope you will all join me in being part of that world.

Dear Gabby,


We’ll never know how much you suffered nor will we know the truth. We’ll never know just how hard you tried to live freely in your youth. We know it must have been hard to fight the demons deep within. We know you couldn’t take the pain, nor the hell you were living in. But there are some things that you should know, even if it may be too late. Please know that we are sorry that you endured such cruelty and hate.


We apologize that we did not filter the toxins from our freedom of speech. The jagged grains tossed from our own hands went beyond our reach. For the poisonous words and bullying crept right into your very heart; You were physically and mentally tortured, your peace was ripped apart. We apologize that we’ve progressed to this: crimes can reach us in our homes. Perhaps unwelcomed claims and criticisms are worse than sticks and stones.


We apologize that our society has taught us how to turn a blind eye, For media and pop culture tells us to keep quiet when all else goes awry. We know cultural expectations left you amongst many doubts and fears, And that you were afraid ask for our help, lest a soul witness your tears. We are aware that we did not help you, we may have ignored the signs. We are sorry we did not think to look beyond the curtains nor the blinds.


We hope one day you’ll forgive us, and that you do not blame yourself. Because we’re all responsible for each other’s happiness and health. For now is the time to be courageous for those who have only an ounce of hope. It is us who must speak out, and broaden our conversation and our scope. We should help others out of the darkness, the shadows and the grief. We will stand up for all, friend or foe, who cannot find their own relief.


For each of us have been touched by mental pain, illness, or misdirection. So we have the responsibility to elevate and change our perception. We must encourage those around us to find the solace that they seek. We must be a beacon for those who’ve fought until their body’s left them weak. It is our hearts you have touched, though it’s been a tearful goodbye. We know we might not erase the stigma, but hey, it’s worth a try.


With Love, The World

Photo credit: Classic Soul Radio