Fil-Aussie volunteers drive development in the Philippines

Australian Volunteers Program staff member Barbara Fortunato reflects on the value that diaspora volunteers can bring to community development in the Philippines. Barbara talks about the experiences of six Australian-Filipino volunteers on the program from 2008 to current day.

Lydia Jovero was 30-years-old, a young wife and mother, when she migrated to Australia in 1980 in search of a better life and opportunities. For Annamarie Reyes, the move to Australia came when her parents decided to uproot the family during the turmoil of martial law in the 1970s.

Manila, Philippines
Boracay White Beach in day 985286231
White Beach, Borocay, Philippines

Lydia and Annamarie are back in the Philippines today. They are among the Fil-Aussies on the Australian Volunteers Program. 

For Lydia, volunteering is a way of giving back to the country where she studied and started her career. Having grown up in an entrepreneurial family, she is now in her element developing livelihood projects in collaboration with the Federation of Persons with Disabilities in Ifugao province.

Annamarie’s journey back to her roots took longer. As a journalist, she returned to cover the Philippine elections in 2010 and was struck by the sight of an army tank at a polling station. She was also bothered by how the conflict escalated into violence. She wanted to explore her Filipino heritage and understand the country better, but family responsibilities and a fulfilling career kept her moored in Australia. 

When her daughter volunteered in Palawan, an archipelagic province in the country’s west, and sent home stories of change and development from her environmental organisation, Annamarie decided to take the plunge herself. By stroke of luck, her volunteer assignment was also in Palawan, as a media officer at a non-government organisation addressing reproductive health in the community.

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Australian volunteer Annamarie Reyes (far right) with youth advocates during social media training in Palawan, Philippines. Supplied: Annamarie Reyes
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Australian volunteer Annamarie Reyes (second from right) with facilitators during a youth community outreach workshop, as part of her volunteer assignment in Palawan. Philippines. Supplied: Annamarie Reyes

Like Annamarie, Melizza Yao left the Philippines as a child. After seven years of working in the disability sector, she was looking for change. When a friend showed her an advert for a volunteer occupational therapist in Naga City, it seemed like serendipity, as Melizza was part of the Naga Spirit Dragonboat Team in Australia. “I thought ‘what the heck?’ and applied for it.”

Diana Juskov, born and raised in Australia to mixed parents, felt such a strong connection with her Filipino roots that, “it seemed like a no-brainer to go to the Philippines and share skills with people who feel like extended family”. Diana has volunteered twice in the Philippines, assigned as a social worker engaging with young people on both occasions.

These volunteers found many advantages to being Fil-Aussies. Their looks allowed them to blend in easily both at work and with their local communities, and the presence of family was a huge bonus. Australian volunteer Hazel Maglantay, for example, made the most of long weekends, visiting extended family members she had only met briefly before. Knowing the language was another big advantage.

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Australian volunteer Melizza Yao at a local eatery while on assignment in the Philippines. Left to right: Melizza, her colleagues Tin Depone and Lorna. Supplied: Melizza Yao
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Australian volunteer Melizza Yao (far right) at the National Teachers Day celebration with her colleague Edna San Jose (far left) and a ‘Muse’ (middle) representing the Naga City province. Supplied: Melizza Yao

But Fil-Aussies have had to learn how to temper the direct speech they normally use in Australia in order to build trust and relationship. They realised Filipinos are sometimes uncomfortable with feedback, and had to be careful not to unwittingly offend colleagues. “I definitely needed to hold my tongue in a lot of situations,” Diana admits.    

Their partner organisations have also had to learn not to presume that Filipino roots mean Fil-Aussies fully understand the local context. Mina, executive director of a farm school that has hosted many Australian volunteers, also notes that Fil-Aussies have individual personalities – there’s no single mould or template.

What was common to all was the need to re-adjust to the Philippines. Meetings invariably started late and were less structured than what the volunteers were used to in Australia, and there was a different leadership style in their partner organisations. The confusing requirements when dealing with the elaborate government bureaucracy was another frequently cited frustration.

“I had these high hopes that I wouldn’t worry about a settling-in period, but I disappointed myself. It took me a long time to adjust culturally, but more than anything I had to put in more effort to both understand and un-learn how I should work in this context,” Hazel says.

Volunteers had to let go of their standards for comfort. Hazel Cabrera found it challenging to adjust to the heat, mosquitoes, and pollution in the city. Annamarie was almost run over by a driver who didn’t respect the pedestrian crossing. 

Lydia had not been to Ifugao before and admits what she knew about the province was gleaned from the 1996 film, Mumbaki. Lydia loves living in Ifugao today. She is not fazed by the erratic supply of water, nor does she miss the malls in big cities. But the long prayers before meetings were a surprise, and she balked when asked to lead these.

But having become accustomed to local norms, the Fil-Aussie volunteers also found themselves re-adjusting when they returned to Australia. Used to the pushing and shoving in the crowded market in Palawan, Annamarie now found Australians, “almost too civilised and well-behaved”, despite the long queues. Unlike in the Philippines, where friends and neighbours often pop into each other’s houses, she realised she wasn’t entirely welcome when she showed up at an Australian friend’s home without warning, even if she did bring a bottle of wine.

All Fil-Aussies agree that volunteering in the Philippines has allowed them to learn about local culture and development issues in much greater depth than they had in previous visits to the homeland. Annamarie learned creative approaches to dealing with bureaucracy and restrictions from her partner organisation, and the role played by family and personal relationships in ensuring effective strategies. These are lessons she expects to bring back to community development programs in Australia.

“The Philippines is like an onion to me,” she says. “There are many layers you slowly discover and peel, and I’ve touched only the outer layer.” Annamarie encourages her Australian friends to go beyond superficial images presented in the media and try to grasp the underlying conditions to truly understand Filipinos.

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Group yoga – run by Australian volunteer Diana Juskov as part of a youth leadership camp in Tacadang, a village she trekked eight hours to get to. Photo: Diana Juskov
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Australian volunteer Diana Juskov (left) with her colleague Roland Pisia, with the flyer of the foster care program they worked together on. Supplied: Diana Juskov

Volunteering also offered new insights to Hazel.

“Volunteering is not just helping; it enriches you as a person. The learning I’ve had is hard to measure,” says Hazel, who relishes bouncing ideas off her manager Mina. “The students inspire me endlessly.” 

“I feel so fulfilled,” Lydia repeatedly says. At an age where other retirees take it easy, she remains active and has continually undertaken research to develop product lines suitable for the People with Disabilities (PWD) Association. “I’ve encouraged my brother and a friend to volunteer when they retire.”

Leaving the Philippines again may be more difficult this time around for many Fil-Aussie volunteers. It was definitely the biggest challenge for Diana, who felt an immense sadness even after her return to Australia, where she longed for the Filipino community.

As such, many Fil-Aussie volunteers find a balance, by comfortably straddling both worlds. 

Hazel pokes fun at herself, saying “When I’m in the Philippines, I miss good cheese. And when I’m in Australia, I miss dried fish.”