What It’s Like Being a Migrant Worker Caught Between Israel-Gaza Violence

Filipinos describe fleeing to bomb shelters. But the jobs are lifelines for their families.

May 19 2021, 12:02pm

Filipino agriculture worker Vejay Ellano was waiting for his shuttle after a day’s work in the southern Israeli town of Sderot when he saw something streak through the sky. A loud air raid siren went off indicating rocket-fire from nearby Gaza, and he and his coworkers started sprinting to reach a bomb shelter in a greenhouse.

“It was a traumatizing experience,” the 25-year-old told VICE World News about the incident on May 10, when hostilities between Israel and the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza began escalating. In a video he shared from that day, the men can be seen running for cover.

“It’s like the ground was going to swallow us whole. The siren was so loud and the rockets made everything shake. We ran as fast as we could and we kept thinking, ‘what if we don’t make it on time?’”

Long-running tensions in Jerusalem this month sparked some of the conflict’s worst violence in seven years. Israeli airstrikes have killed 217 Palestinians in Gaza, including 63 children. Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel, killing 12 people. 

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Among victims in Israel are migrant workers from Asia, which the country has come to rely on more heavily since the second Intifada. According to some estimates, more than half of foreign workers in Israel have come from Asian countries, including China, Thailand, the Philippines, India and Nepal. They work in a variety of professions, from agriculture to caregiving.

But during flare-ups they can find themselves near the front lines of fighting while trying to carry out their work safely. Two Thai farm workers were killed and eight others wounded in what was described as a rocket strike from Gaza this week. Media reports also said an Indian woman who was working as a house caretaker in Israel for seven years was killed by a rocket from the coastal territory.

“It’s like the ground was going to swallow us whole. The siren was so loud and the rockets made everything shake. We ran as fast as we could and we kept thinking, ‘what if we don’t make it on time?’”

Sderot is less than a mile from Gaza, and the terrible din of war has made Ellano and his flatmates lose sleep, worrying they could be caught in the middle.

During an interview with VICE World News, he appeared visibly shaken as sounds of explosions could be heard. Ellano said a woman was killed in a nearby building, and Israeli’s anti-missile Iron Dome system intercepted a rocket right above where they were sleeping.

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“Our beds were shaking,” he said. 

But this horrifying experience is not enough to send Ellano—the only one who graduated from college in his family—back to the Philippines, where relatives rely on his paycheck.

“My family is worried for me and they told me to come home,” he said. “But I told them, I will be jobless in the Philippines and we need the money as we have a lot of debts back home.”

It’s a similar situation for 24-year-old Filipino Jerald Patani, who also works at a farm in Sderot. The money he earns in Israel goes a long way back home, so he would rather stay, despite the risk to his life. Access to bomb shelters gives him some comfort.

“I think as long as you follow the protocol and you stay alert all the time, you will be safe,” Patani told VICE World News.

The eldest of six children and the breadwinner of his family in the northern Philippines, Patani said if his government determines the situation is unsafe for foreign workers, he will return.

A Palestinian elderly man walks past a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City, on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: MOHAMMED ABED, AFP via Getty Images

The Philippine government said there are nearly 30,000 Filipinos living and working in Israel. There are also 411 Filipinos in its Palestinian Territories, mostly in the West Bank and a smaller number in Gaza, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). As of Wednesday, there were no reports of deaths among Filipino workers. 

The prospect of returning home to a country whose economy has been battered by the pandemic slowdown may also be an incentive to put up with the risks in Israel, where foreign workers can also get vaccinated.

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“So far, no Filipino in Israel has signified any desire for repatriation at this time, while only a handful of Filipino nationals (less than 10) in the Palestinian territories have expressed that they wish to be repatriated,” said the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy in an e-mail. 

According to a Filipino community leader in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, many overseas workers have become so accustomed to the fighting that it has become almost routine.

“We go to the bomb shelters at least eight times a day for at least 10 to 15 minutes. We know the drill,” said Geoffrey Olayan, a caregiver who has worked in Israel for 15 years, told VICE World News.

“If there was no Iron Dome, Filipinos would not stay here,” he added, referring to Israel’s advanced anti-missile system.

The Philippine government said that contingency plans are in place if the situation descends into even more violence. But talks of truce between the two parties are backed by several countries. 

“We are praying that we will remain safe and we are praying for the war to end. We pray for peace so that no one would have to die anymore,” Patani said. 

Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter and Instagram

Tagged:

palestine, gaza, Philippines, migrant workers, worldnews

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