Gienell Laborce was born in London in 1997. For every Filipino family gambling their fortune to send or take their children overseas, Gienell had a birthright to this privilege, in the UK no less, where education, health and shelter are benefits accessible to many if not all.
But she was born to an undocumented Filipino domestic helper who had just arrived in Britain. Her mother, Regie, believed it would be better for Gienell to return to the Philippines while she remained in the UK working, rather than risk both of them getting deported empty-handed.
Gienell lived with Regie's parents in Urdaneta City in Pangasinan until she was 4 years old. Her father then took her to live with him in nearby Tarlac.
The difficulty to find good jobs in the Philippines has ingrained in Filipino families a culture of being economically-driven. Families are hardwired to always pick the more practical option; this is why 2.4 million Filipinos are overseas – there's just more money abroad.
It did not sit well with Regie that Gienell's father could not get himself to work abroad. Slowly they drifted apart, leaving Gienell with separated parents and a mother so far away.
Growing up motherless
Gienell does not remember London at all; not her first room in Plaistow, not her second house in Edmonton, and not her mother.
"Nakita ko na lang noon sa picture, tapos pinaliwanag sa akin ni Papa 'yung sitwasyon na hindi siya makakauwi dahil wala siyang papel (I just remembered being shown her photo and Papa explaining Mama's situation – that she couldn't come home to the Philippines because she had no legal papers)," said Gienell who's turning 19 in February next year.
While Gienell lived with her father, her mother remained present in her life the only way overseas Filipino parents know how: through care packages. The only way to send love to your child back home was through a box filled with new toys and clothes.
When Gienell turned 12, Regie sent her parents to Tarlac to bring her back to Urdaneta. After more than a decade in the UK, Regie had finished paying off loans and had managed to build her own house in the province, the sort of big house in the Philippines with fancy interiors and tilings that would leave onlookers no doubt that it is owned by somebody working overseas.
They would pass the house and simply say "Saudi" or "States (America)" to express the country where the home's proud owner was probably working. They would marvel at the sight before going back to their own obsessions of one day leaving the country too, or raising their children well enough to be the ones to leave, so that maybe they too can have a house that neighbors would point to in awe.
Gienell had that type of house. Even though she had been uprooted twice with no mother or father in sight, Gienell knew she was luckier than a lot of other kids in her city. It's how children of overseas Filipinos are raised – to learn to see perspective in the economic comfort that comes with not having your family by your side.
In 2009, Regie's father died to a heart attack. Regie could not come home. "Siyempre, napakasakit sa akin noon (Of course it was very painful for me)," she said.
What kept Regie going was that in two years, she would have been in London for 14 years, and eligible to apply for amnesty. She was one of the last undocumented migrants allowed to apply for settlement in the UK before Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, changed the rules increasing the grace period from 14 to 20 years.
"Lagi ko iniisip malapit na malapit na, noong naka-7 years ako sabi ko kalahati na lang (I would always tell myself you're so close, especially when I reached the 7-year mark I thought then, I'm halfway there)!" Regie said.
At last, a chance to live in London freely. And she took it, even if it meant paying £4,000 in solicitor's fees to secure an indefinite leave to remain visa, which allows her to stay and work legally in the UK long enough to be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Gienell was then nearing 18 so Regie had to act fast if she wanted to petition her daughter to the UK without grief. Her older son, Marco, was already over 18, making it difficult for him to join Regie. This was a chance only for Gienell to take, a second shot to be with her mother to make up for lost time.
For that, Regie had to shell out another £4,000. But it was then or never.
In the 3 years since obtaining her legal papers, Regie was able to come back to the Philippines thrice: in 2012 for Marco's college graduation, 2014 for Marco's wedding and Gienell's high school graduation, and last year to take Gienell to the UK.
The first time Regie came back to the Philippines, Gienell can barely speak to her. She remembers picking her mother up at the airport but not recognizing her. She said she had to remind herself that the woman she was seeing was her mother before she could get herself to come near her.
"Nahihiya talaga siya sa akin noong una (She was very shy towards me at first)," Regie said.
They had to fit all the years they missed in a matter of months. Regie had no choice but to skip the childhood stages in a mother-daughter relationship and jump straight into adolescence where she talks to Gienell about moving, uprooting her for the third time. Immediately, Gienell had to start sorting her documents to apply for a UK visa.
Like Regie, living in London had become Gienell's dream too. Growing up knowing of her mother's sacrifices to obtain legal status in the UK, Gienell had developed her own aspirations for the country that had given her everything but had also taken her mother away from her.
For her, London does not mean a broken family; it means opportunity. It means she doesn't have to hide like her mother, that she can get a better job, and she can start helping her family at such a young age.
"Alam ko na napakamura pa ng edad ko para sa responsibilidad na hinaharap ko pero dahil sa sitwasyon ng aking pamilya, kinakailangan kong gawin bilang ako ang anak at ako ang may mas malaking tsansang tumulong," Gienell said.
(I know that I'm still very young to bear such a responsibility, but due to my family's situation, I have to step up because I'm the child and I am in a better position to help.)
Together in London, finally
Gienell and Regie flew to the UK in January 2016. They rent a flat in Wandsworth Road, near their work and Gienell's school.
Regie works as a kitchen assistant at a primary school. During her first weeks, she was constantly getting a dressing down. One of her superiors even told her she had no common sense. But she had conditioned herself to always see the silver lining. "Ngayon meron na kong payslip, meron na kong NHS (I now have a payslip, I now have NHS)," Regina declared with a big smile.
Gienell is taking her GCSEs, a course required for pre-university credits, at the Westminster Kingsway College while working part time in Oxford Circus – two days a week in River Island, and one day at McDonald's. This allowed her to help with the expenses back home, especially as her older brother Marco had two young children who need support.
I asked Regie how she's doing with her new job. She said, "Oras-oras naiisip ko pa rin, ang hirap talagang kumita ng pounds (Every hour, I think about how hard it is to earn pounds)!"
At 19, Gienell has adopted the same work ethic. When I asked about her plans for Christmas, she told me she would return to work for Boxing Day. She clapped her hands and exclaimed, "Double pay!"
Christmas in London is special for many reasons. There's the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park where people would happily drink hot chocolate or mulled wine for twice the price. There are the lights over the roads in Oxford Street designed like angels watching over the merry-goers. There are the shopping sales, parties, and television specials that Brits wait for all year long.
For Regie and Gienell, it's special simply because they are finally celebrating it together in the country they have longed to call their own. It was a long way down, but here they are now. – Rappler.com