Members of the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry share photos of their families back in the Philippines before starting their Bible study session on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Photos by Evan Boudreau

Ministry gives care to the caregivers

  • August 9, 2012

TORONTO - Each Sunday laughter, Tagalog chatter and tear-drenched tissues fill the pastor’s lounge at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

That’s where about 20 women meet each week for the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry that runs out of the parish in the Bathurst and Eglinton area of Toronto. All of the women have families in the Philippines that they have left behind to work as nannies in Toronto. The ministry was formed to help ease the suffering caused by separation from their loved ones thousands of kilometres away.

“Every day is a struggle for me because I am not happy any more,” said Riza San Pedro, a 34-year-old live-in caregiver. “What I am doing for me to cope is in the morning I’m just reading some passages in the Bible and sharing it with some of my friends through texts. Then in the evening I’m praying the rosary. That’s every day.”

Prior to coming to Canada in 2009, San Pedro worked as a nurse. Now she’s a nanny, a single mother of two and separated from everyone she knew back home in the Philippines — including her family who she supports by working abroad.

San Pedro came to Canada through the federal government’s Live-in Caregiver Program. Since her arrival, San Pedro has bounced from abusive employer to abusive employer while constantly seeking some sense of comfort.

“I was trying to find a church that could understand a caregiver like me and what I’m going through,” she said, a search that lead her to Our Lady of the Assumption and the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry which has helped her to rediscover dignified employment, self-esteem and friends she can relate to.

“All of them have their children in the Philippines. They’re all sacrificing over that and they have different ways of coping with that loneliness that they feel from being away from their children,” said Faye Arellano, the ministry’s volunteer co-ordinator. “It’s almost like an extended family (here). Everyone can relate to each other, even in their problems.”

Formed three years ago, the ministry was originally named the Grass Roots Hub but quickly rebranded itself as the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry to provide greater clarity for caregivers seeking a consoling outlet. This comforting happens through Bible study, socializing and accessing the Internet which many use to communicate with the family they’ve temporarily left behind.

“I take my hat off to them for having that strength and bravery to just focus on their purpose for coming here,” said Arellano, adding the women’s goal is permanent residency in Canada and eventually bringing their families here. “For most of them it’s that they want to provide their families with some food on the table and even the basic needs that their family requires.”

The government’s Live-in Caregiver Program, which underwent adjustments in 2010, offers what Manuela Gruber Hersch, president of the Association of Caregiver and Nanny Agencies Canada, called “a very generous immigration path to become permanent residents.” She says this with authority having emigrated from Austria as a live-in caregiver while a teenager — but things were much different then.

Today a six-month caregiver course is required before entering the immigration program. Graduates can then use agencies, such as those represented by Gruber Hersch, to find an employer in Canada who must pay travel costs at no penalty to the employee. Once here, employees must complete 3,900 hours of work, 10 per cent of which can be overtime based on a 37.5-hour work week, within a minimum of 22 months and maximum four years. Upon meeting these conditions, they can apply for an open work permit which allows them to move out of their employer’s home, and the caregiver industry if desired, as well as apply for permanent residency.

These reflect some of the policy changes that came into effect April 1, 2010 which sought “to protect live-in caregivers from abuse and exploitation and make their transition to permanent residence simpler,” said Bill Brown of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

As these policies were developed during Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s 2009 coast-to-coast consultations with caregiver agencies, media outlets began publicizing the struggles of these workers, who are almost exclusively women.

This heightened attention struck a nerve at Our Lady of the Assumption, prompting pastor Fr. Ben Ebcas Jr. to call upon his parishioners to form a ministry.

“He called a community meeting asking people what can we do about our suffering caregivers and that’s where I first started getting involved,” said Arellano. “We thought the church would be good to step into that, to step up to the plate, because as Catholics this is really the only way to live the Gospel challenge of really helping the marginalized. From there on it’s just built up.”

Now Arellano assists about 20 caregivers on any given Sunday, some who aren’t even Catholic but still find relief with the ministry. That number swells to more than 45 when events are held at the parish by the Archdiocesan Filipino Catholic Mission, of which the ministry is a branch.

While an absence of family is the common thread of sadness for these workers, it is not their only struggle. Many, like San Pedro, suffer work-related problems ranging from abusive conditions to self-esteem issues derived from a sense of social status demotion from becoming a nanny.

“Everyone would acknowledge that they are going through a tough time but alas, because of this faith that we believe in, even suffering takes on a different meaning,” said Arellano.


Four tales of hardship, separation

Meet four women from the Philippines working abroad as live-in caregivers. While their experiences in Toronto are different they share a hardship — sacrificing family life to provide for those they love and left behind.
This suffering brings them back to the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry every Sunday where they temporarily find relief from the pain. Here are but four stories of many as told to The Register’s Evan Boudreau: the good, the bad, the unjust and the tragic.

The good

Gina-At 46 years of age, Gina Magcalas has already spent half her life working abroad, including all 12 years of her son’s life.
“In the Philippines it’s hard to find a job,” said Magcalas, who holds a bachelor of commerce and specialized in accounting. “After I graduated I applied (for jobs) and they always asked you where is your background. How can I have ...  experience with a job if they will not accept me.”
This forced Magcalas to search elsewhere for work. She began working abroad as a nanny travelling to Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and now Canada, the furthest she’s been away from her son Ralph Jacob.
Magcalas medicates homesickness by cladding her living quarters with photos, most of them containing her son.
Despite this hardship of the heart, Magcalas considers herself fortunate.
“I’m one of the lucky nannies who came here (because) I have a good employer and nice accommodations,” said Magcalas, who lives with a middle-aged couple and their four-and-a-half-year-old son Finnigan. “My employer told me if I wanted to go home I can but I said I wanted to wait until I got my open work permit.”
So when Magcalas received her permit last December she immediately bought a plane ticket to attend her son’s elementary school graduation in April. It had been four years since they last saw each other.
Now back to work in her employer’s St. Clair Avenue West and Bathurst Street home, Magcalas is anxious to receive permanent residency status and sponsor her son’s immigration to Canada.

The bad

Riza-3When Riza San Pedro decided to come to Canada she mistakenly thought it would be a paradise.
“I’d heard that Canada is a very good country with more opportunities when it comes to jobs,” said San Pedro, who first worked abroad in Saudi Arabia as a nurse for five years. “But when I came here I was not so lucky because I struggled with employers. That first two years living here was like a living hell because I struggled to find a good employer.”
Her last employer restricted food consumption, had her sleeping near the furnace and required her to scrub 10 washrooms twice a week. Then when San Pedro gave her two weeks notice on a Tuesday, they told her to leave that Friday.
But hardship isn’t new to San Pedro.
“The reason why I left (the Philippines), well it’s kind of personal. I had a very bad marriage — a nightmare,” said San Pedro, 34. “When my second child was born that’s when (my husband and I) really got separated.”
Receiving no child support San Pedro knew that a nurse’s wage in the Philippines, about $400 a month, wouldn’t cut it. As a nurse in Saudi Arabia her wage tripled but the government offers only a six-year foreign worker’s permit. So San Pedro swallowed her pride, gave up her career and enrolled in the Canadian government’s Live-in Caregiver Program with the goal of permanent residency in Canada.
That was three years ago and due to her unstable employment, San Pedro still faces several years before she can sponsor her children, aged 11 and 9.
“It’s really frustrating,” she said with tears welling in her eyes. “Actually you cannot explain the feeling.”

The unjust

Winnie-2-When Winnie Cuento left her husband and three children in 2005 she never thought her   permanent residence status would be jeopardized by her eldest daughter.
“I received a letter (from the Canadian embassy in the Philippines) ... and they put your daughter is mentally retarded,” said Cuento, explaining why her permanent residency in Canada has been denied. “It’s hard for me because I know my daughter isn’t retarded. She is only a slow learner.”
When applying for permanent residency a medical evaluation of the applicant’s dependent family members is required to determine their potential strain on Canada’s social services. Regulation 72 (1)(e)(i) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations states “a foreign national in Canada becomes a permanent resident if, following an examination, it is established that they and their family members, whether accompanying or not, are not inadmissible.”
Another letter, sent by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, explained that her daughter’s medical condition, this time labelled developmental delay, “exceeded the average Canadian per capita health and social services cost, which is currently set at $4,806 per year.” According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, Cuento’s 16-year-old daughter would require Intensive Support Amount Level 2 special education, costing $12,000 per academic year, thus exceeding the average demand and making her inadmissible.
“It’s hard for me at this time because they refused my papers and I worked so hard,” said Cuento, who appealed the decision by submitting an “individualized plan to ensure that no excessive demand will be imposed on Canadian social services,” an option contained in the letter from CIC.
Despite offering to pay the education costs, Cuento’s appeal was denied. To make matters worse, her work permit expired.    

The tragic

Marife-The second time in six years Marife Gamino went home to the Philippines, she buried her eldest son Alfred.
“That was a very hard time when I saw him in a casket,” said Gamino, who began working abroad as a live-in caregiver in 2005 to support her family. “I was never expecting that to happen to me last year in 2011.”
A motorcycle accident hospitalized Alfred just months before he was to complete his degree in human resource management. Being halfway around the world in Canada, all Gamino could do was call.
“He could not move but I knew that he heard me when I called on the phone because my sister told me and my other son told me ... he cried when I talked to him on the phone,” said Gamino, 44.
Less than 24 hours later her son, then 20, died.
“Since that has happened . . . I am stuck crying.”
But tears won’t feed her three other children, husband and parents who she financially supports. So after the funeral Gamino said goodbye again and returned to her job in Canada. Her heavy heart finally got some relief on Dec. 7 — the date her late son would have turned 21 — when she received her open work permit after waiting 18 months.
“Now I’m still hoping for that permanent residence so I can bring my family,” said Gamino, who credits the Live-in Caregivers’ Ministry for her strength. “They were praying for me, for my family, so I kept strong. I’m still strong (and) today I still survive.”

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