Basketball court provides welcome respite for Filipino migrants in Jordan

Intense competition sidelines, for a few hours, concerns about a difficult life of long hours, low pay.

Nicholas Seeley
Change of Pace: Filipino basketball players scrambled in a championship game between the Workers Association of Wadi Saqra and Dynamic in Amman, Jordan. The games are taken very seriously.

On a Friday afternoon, the rundown basketball court behind the Bishop's elementary school in Jabal Amman echoes with excited shouting. The basketball team from the Worker's Association of Wadi Saqra (WAWS) has been slowly building up a lead against the Dynamics, but it's a close game. Play is aggressive; fouls are common.

About 100 people are gathered to watch, but the atmosphere is as charged as a Final Four matchup – perhaps because the players and audience are migrant workers from the Philippines, and this game is one of their few escapes from a difficult and lonely life.

In the summer, the men play basketball, while the women play volleyball. In the winter a bowling league takes over, along with billiards and chess tournaments. The teams represent various Filipino social clubs, which come together to organize the events. Some clubs even have cheerleading squads to bolster their players.

Championship games are packed. Only trophies are at stake – no money – but the games are taken incredibly seriously. Leaving a volleyball team can mean your friends may never speak to you again – at least not for a year or so.

"Without this kind of activity, I think we would die here," says Noli Pugay, the coach of the WAWS basketball team, which won the 2008 championship.

Close to 900,000 Filipinos go abroad to work every year, according to Philippines government estimates. At the end of 2007, there were 8.7 million Filipinos living abroad; they sent home $14.5 billion in remittances. In 2003, the United Nations estimated that 175 million people around the world were migrants, most driven by economic concerns.

Officially, about 15,000 Filipino work in Jordan, but many more may have overstayed their visas or been brought by agencies that avoid the usual legal channels.

They take all kinds of jobs, but the largest share are domestic workers: maids, cooks, nannies, and drivers. They come for wages of about $210 a month, sometimes less. Some are locked up in the homes or factories of their employers, where they sometimes face abuse and are not paid.

The ones trafficked here illegally can face huge fines when they want to leave. Those who avoid those problems often find Amman a dry, desolate expanse of urban sprawl, with little to offer by way of entertainment or social space.

"Our government pushes us to work abroad," says Mr. Pugay. He notes that it's hard to find a job in the Philippines. "We are so overpopulated, there are so many skilled people looking for a job," he goes on. "They taught us work abroad is good; they don't know how hard it is, especially in this place.... It's burdensome and tiring and [it makes you] homesick. [With sports], we just try to lessen that."

Romeo Bautista works as a housekeeper in the home of a wealthy Jordanian. He has a better life than many: he's married, and gets a good salary and a full day off each week. But that's it.

The WAWS club is his social life, he says. For one afternoon a week, in the middle of summer, Mr. Bautista is a star, the MVP of the champion basketball team.

His wife, Michelle, works with him. Once, she was one of those women who was locked in her employer's home. They withheld her salary; she couldn't go out, talk on the phone, or even write letters. Kept like a prisoner, she first saw Romeo – where else? From her balcony.

At first, the couple had to meet secretly. Pugay, who has been friends with Bautista for years, explains how the two men smuggled Michelle a cellphone, so they could make plans to meet. Eventually, with some help from Bautista's employer, Michelle's employers were convinced to let her change jobs.

It's a better life, but still a difficult one – primarily because their 5-year-old son has to live with Michelle's mother in the Philippines. For parents like the Bautistas, migration becomes a kind of exile.

"I cannot tell you how many years I will stay here," Romeo Bautista says sadly.

Back home, he could never earn the money he's making in Jordan. Like many migrants here, he hopes to save enough to start his own business when he returns home one day.

But he knows time isn't on his side.

"I miss my family ... especially my son. He is growing without us," he says. "I want to have more kids, but I want to be able to give them what they need."

Bautista has been in Jordan for eight years and says he would go home the minute he got a chance. It's no wonder he, and so many other workers, invest so much energy in their clubs and sports.

For many of his countrymen, game day will be their only day off, and sometimes they don't even get that. The sports teams have to be extra large, Pugay says, because it's common for players not to be allowed out of work to make a game.

For those who make it, the game is an escape, a social scene, a place to speak your own language, and get a taste of home. On the sidelines, women from the sports clubs sell hard-to-find Asian vegetables and hot Filipino food – a treat for the many workers who aren't allowed to cook in the houses where they live. It's an entire life, crammed into a few hours of a Friday.

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