It seems like a miracle -- or at least a statistical unlikelihood -- that none of the Filipino workers onboard the cargo ship Ocean lost anyone in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Thousands of people were killed and millions were left homeless after the storm ravaged the nation's 7,100 islands on November 6.
Filipinos make up 45 percent of the seafarers who come into Port Everglades and 20 to 30 percent of that occupation worldwide. Many are college-educated and have to complete years of certification to hit the water.
If other countries have a brain drain, though, the Philippines has a brawn drain. The nation ships its men abroad and expects them to wire hard-earned wages back to their communities every payday using MoneyGram. After working onboard for a ten-month stretch, they might get to visit home for a three-week vacation.
Last Thursday, 18 of these workers sat around their ship's dining room comparing damages. The general agreement was that one man, Norberto Tamayo, had the worst luck of this seemingly blessed bunch. The 54-year-old, who has a bachelor's in marine transportation, had to rebuild his father's house after getting wind that the roof had blown off. This set him back about a grand, or a month's worth of wages. It's no big deal, he says, and it's already being taken care of.
Robin Merrill, who worked as a missionary in the Philippines for 15 years and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, attempts to explain the crew members' almost shocking humility. They've become inured, she says, to disaster. After speaking with the boat workers in their native Tagalog, she learns that the typhoon hit their pockets harder than they'd let on to a Western reporter.
"Everything they've been stuck on the ships doing has been wiped out," she explains. "Now they have to spend even more time onboard to rebuild everything."
Biding their time for most of the year so they can return to a country that's now in ruins, these laborers sleep on small cots and underneath small pictures of the Virgin Mary they've tacked on their walls. Religious iconography is sometime adjacent to images that provide a different kind of comfort -- like posters of Shakira.
Many of the men who dock in Port Everglades have no U.S. visa, which means they can't get off their ships. For the past five years, Alfredo Polanco has run errands for these men, grabbing them a taste of home in the form of Nagraya crackernuts and Red Horse beer, which are sold nearby at the Seafarer's House. He is an employee of a nonprofit and interfaith ministry that is devoted to improving the lives of seafarers. Since the storm, they've given pastoral care to 409 Filipino crew members and boarded 18 cargo ships to give away phone cards.
Polanco was the second to offer up the theory that nothing ruffles this proud people who manage to stay buoyant despite the worst news. "These guys," he says with a look around, "nothing bothers them."
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So far, the port chaplain of the Seafarer's House, Father Ronald Perkins, says he's dealt with individuals who have had up to 30 family members missing at one time. If you'd like to help Seafarer's House provide relief to these men -- many of whom won't see the families they support for a number of months -- contact him at email@example.com.
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