When Lily Angelical's brother died of hunger in the Philippines, she vowed to pull her family out of poverty and help others to do the same. Now Lily, who has worked in Switzerland for 27 years, has received her country's top award for her commitment.This content was published on February 2, 2001 - 13:59
The prize awarded to Lily in Manila in December, is recognition for more than two decades of efforts to help Filipino workers abroad and people in her home community back in the Philippines.
Lily is proud of having received the award even though she has almost no formal education - she had to drop out of school because of poverty - and has worked in Bern as a domestic helper since 1973.
She believes the award proves that everyone has something to offer, if only they want to.
"I am a role model," she told swissinfo. "I am glad that finally a woman who is a domestic helper and from a grassroots organisation has received this award. If I can do it, others can follow suit."
Although her salary as a domestic worker is modest, Lily has managed to send money regularly to destitute people in her home area in the Philippines.
She has also devoted her energies to helping other Filipinos working as domestic workers in Europe, and has represented them at several international conferences.
Lily's determination and success in escaping the cycle of poverty explain why she is so passionate about what she does. The eldest of 10 children, she said she was selling goods on the streets at the age of 10 in order to raise a little extra money to feed the family.
But real poverty began when her parents separated and her mother took the children to a sugar plantation, where she worked 12 hours a day for two pesos.
"That was hardly enough for rice and some salted fish," she said. "Later on, my brother got sick and nobody cared. The doctors in the hospitals ignored my mother, so she went home with a dying child, and then my brother died...
"I then promised myself that nobody in my family would ever die again just because there's no food. It sticks in my mind, until today, so that when I go home I have to give something to the poor."
Lily said memories of the pleasure brought by a meal of rice and a bit of fish are still so vivid that she feels the need to share whatever she has.
"When I was home for Christmas, I gave food away to 350 families: for each family I wrapped up two kilos of rice and put in tinned sardines and a packet of instant noodles. And I feel so good. You can see how people were so pleased, so happy. They were so grateful to have even this - that's how poverty is."
In Switzerland, Lily has worked for ambassadors and their families ever since she arrived in the country. Although she has never had difficulties with her employers, she said the conditions for many domestic workers are terrible, particularly in Geneva.
That is why she became involved in helping other Filipino women working in Switzerland, as many are in the country illegally and are abused by diplomats who know they have immunity from prosecution.
Her efforts are targeted at encouraging domestic workers to find out about their rights. She says it is an uphill battle to persuade many of them that even if they are illegal immigrants, they have rights, including a minimum wage and children's allowances, payments during sickness and pregnancy, and free legal aid.
Lily represented Filipino domestic workers in Europe at various international conferences, such as the NGO forum held in Beijing in 1995 to coincide with the United Nations' conference on women.
Now 62, Lily is due to retire soon. Although she has managed to bring most of her immediate family to live in Switzerland, she plans to return to the Philippines once her working days are over.
"There are so many needs," she says by way of explanation.
Lily says she is very grateful for all the help she has received from friends in Switzerland, and is considering setting up a foundation to channel the help into support for her activities when she returns to the Philippines.
Undaunted by the task she is taking on, she is strengthened by the vision of what could be achieved if even every Filipino living abroad could be persuaded do more.
"Every little kindness makes a difference to these people. It gives them hope. If you send one or two children to school, you have the hope that some day, somehow, these children will be good citizens; perhaps they will become president of the Philippines, and they will know how to rule the country and really look after the problems and needs of the poor people."
by Malcolm Shearmur
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