For three days, Elizabeth Acerden waited for news of her husband and son in Tacloban city, one of the Philippine communities devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan on Nov. 8. As she washed dishes in faraway Beijing, she would pray for her family. She scanned pictures of the carnage the storm left in its wake, rendering neighborhoods she knew well unrecognizable. “All I saw was dead people,” she recalls. “I didn’t know if my family was one of them.”
On Monday night, Acerden’s nephew called with good news. Her son and husband were sheltering at Tacloban’s city hall. They had only the clothes on their backs, but they were alive. Her 23-year-old son, a university student, posted a message on Facebook. “I’m okay,” the message read. “Please tell my mom that I’m okay.” (Acerden’s niece is still missing.) Her house in Tacloban — a two-story structure she built three years ago just across the road from the sea with savings from her 16 years of work in Taiwan, Cyprus, the Middle East and China — was destroyed by the storm surge. “I can’t believe that it’s gone, but it’s just a material thing,” she says. “All that matters is that my son and husband are safe. We will figure out how to build a new life somehow.”
Across the world, Filipinos are scrambling for news of their loved ones. Other expatriates from the Philippines are gathering donations for Haiyan’s victims, holding prayer vigils at foreign churches and organizing canned-food drives. Telecom firms, like Australia’s Telstra, are offering free phone calls and text messages to the Philippines, in hopes that survivors of the storm, which is called Yolanda in the Philippines, will be able to connect with overseas Filipinos.
Around 1 in 10 Filipinos live abroad, compelled to work overseas to support their families back home. Their remittances equaled 8.5% of the country’s entire economic output in 2012, according to the Philippine central bank. In the first seven months of this year, Filipino expats sent home $13.9 billion, toiling as seamen, medical professionals, domestic helpers, builders and mine or oil workers, among other professions.
The largest Filipino community lives in the U.S., which once colonized the Asian island nation. But large populations are scattered all over the world: an estimated 250,000 each in Australia and Singapore, some 200,000 in the U.K. and 160,000 in Hong Kong. About 2 million work in the Middle East, while Filipinos now make up the biggest population of immigrants to Canada.
For any expatriate community, homesickness and cultural dislocation can be a constant. The number of natural disasters that befall the Philippines — typhoons, earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions — makes it only harder for Filipinos to be separated from their families. Last month, the Filipino Expat, a magazine based in the Netherlands, published an article about how to deal with the death of a loved one back in the Philippines. “One of our greatest fear as migrants living so far away from you is to receive that dreaded news that one of our family member or love one has died,” wrote Ana Angelica van Doorn. “The first reaction can be disbelief and then that guilty feeling of not being able to say goodbye. But it is one of the harsh realities that we need to accept when we decided to live abroad.”
But for Arnel Caliente, a kindergarten teacher in Beijing, there is no news yet. His elderly parents, a retired professor and elementary-school teacher, live just 10 meters from the shoreline in Biliran, an island on Supertyphoon Haiyan’s murderous path across the central Philippines. Caliente wants to return home to check on his family, but he knows another typhoon is coming and transportation networks are shattered. So he waits in China, desperate for word about his parents, calling anyone who might know their fate. “All I can do,” he says, “is pray.”