By the time we reach Praça de Figueira, Ofelia’s photochromic lenses have turned purple. It’s a windy morning in early fall, but the sun is keeping the plaza at a pleasant temperature. Ofelia’s excited to participate but confesses showing up took some convincing from her sister. She says she’s not sure there’s a story to tell but seems eager to talk as we press record.
As we begin our conversation, Ofelia shares it’s been six years since she left her native Philippines. When we ask why she left, she warns us the reason is far from joyous. In 2004, her husband died of cancer at the age of 40. Now a widow, Ofelia became the sole provider and caretaker for the three sons he left behind: a seven-year-old, a six-year-old, and a 9-month-old baby.
“At the beginning it was fine,” she says. “My sister helped me, and, since the kids were small, so were the expenses. But as they got older, my salary wasn’t enough.”
Ofelia started searching for new opportunities, trying to find a way to make ends meet as a single mother. That’s when her sister suggested she moved to Portugal with her. It was a tough decision, leaving her kids behind in the Philippines, but her sister insisted, “I can invite you here, and then you can decide whether you want to work or go back,” she would tell her.
In the end, Ofelia chose to stay and work, driven by the possibility of giving her children a better quality of life. “When I first got here, I worked as a caregiver. I had previous experience, but it’s difficult to work with people who are bigger than you when you’re the one supposed to carry them,” she says.
It took a couple of career switches until Ofelia found a job she truly enjoyed. She now works in domestic services and finds the pay is good, and the schedules are flexible. As Ofelia explains the details of her working week, there is a triumphant air about her. Yet, her voice cracks as she thinks back on her family.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced was leaving my kids. I remember thinking I was too emotional, but I feel all mothers are. I cried a lot, and I still do. I didn’t see them for three years when I first came because I needed to sort out my paperwork. I still long for them, but now I go home yearly, so at least I have that time to be with them,” she shares.
Although there are seven thousand miles between them and a seven-hour time gap, Ofelia still manages to be a present mother. She calls her children every day and is in touch with all their teachers so she can make sure they’re doing good in school. Her youngest son, now 15, is an honor student. “At least with that, I forget that I work so hard. It makes me stronger,” she tells him.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced was leaving my kids. I remember thinking I was too emotional, but I feel all mothers are. I cried a lot, and I still do.
Of course, it’s not all rainbows. “It has been devasting,” Ofelia shares, “whenever I hear, ‘Mom, I’m sick,’ because I can’t be there. All I can do is tell them to go to the doctor. They have to take care of each other.”
For Ofelia, missing home is a disadvantage of going abroad, especially when it comes to the language. Although she has friends in Portugal, she fears it’s not the same. She misses her culture and bonding with her friends.
“It has been devasting whenever I hear, ‘Mom, I’m sick,’ because I can’t be there. All I can do is tell them to go to the doctor. They have to take care of each other.”
Despite the challenges, she does grow fonder of Lisbon every day. “There are good people here, good food, and beautiful places. The weather is also great. We don’t have winter in my country, so it’s nice. I’m beginning to like it, really,” she says. “Also, the pollution. The air here is so clean compared to the Philippines. Good for people with asthma. My three kids have asthma, like their father. Still, when I think about my country, I feel lonely.”
Ofelia gets to visit home every year, but still wishes she could spend Christmas with her kids. Right now, it’s hard to get enough days off work to make the trip during the holiday season.
As we take her pictures, Ofelia poses willingly. She’s happy to be out and about, walking down streets as our photographer snaps a few shots from across the road. “I hope they turn out good,” she jokes, “I’m still single!”.