Lebanon’s Filipinas Serve for Friendship and Unity

Filipinas “serve” for friendship and unityVolleyball matchs allow workers to blow off steam

Bazaar set in the backyard of Hamra Church

By Cagil Kasapoglu

Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: A hot Sunday afternoon for Lebanese “madames” might mean a good day of shopping at the air-conditioned City Mall near Dora, while Filipina domestic workers enjoy their only day off next door, with a ball and a net, sweating to win … thanks to PhilBall. Their Sundays of volleyball begin with a community gathering at the Saint Francois Church in Hamra, where the Filipinas set up a small market in the backyard, and do a brisk business in Filipino food items, ladies underwear and romance books.While waiting for the religious ceremonies to start, they pamper themselves with manicures and pedicures, and get their hair done. In the afternoon, they board the minibuses they’ve rented and head for Michel Murr Stadium next to the Dora highway, to participate in their unique volleyball tournament. High-volume cheers, laughs and screams surround the players as the Filipinas blow off steam, after long and hard days of work at their Lebanese homes.The summer sporting tournament for Filipino workers is organized by PhilBall, a non-profit organization founded by Gemma Justo from the Philippines, who first came to Lebanon in 1993 with a recruitment agency.

Since 2002, the organization has been active in uniting the Philippine nationals for social and sporting activities, so they can get the most out of their free time on their single day off, if they’re lucky enough to have one.

While difficult working conditions for domestics are a common complaint in Lebanon, Justo said she had her own complaints, about the way her countrywomen behaved during their spare time.

“I saw that Filipino workers were living like in a prison,” Justo told The Daily Star. “They were going to dirty discos, and gambling to pass their time. This could not be our lives. Then I decided to unite them all and make them enjoy their lives.”

Starting with a Filipino basketball team for men, the idea was expanded to women. In 2004, 11 Filipina teams, grouped by the neighborhood in which they work, were registered to take part in the volleyball tournaments that are held every Sunday.

People often remark on Filipinas’ transformation from wearing the uniforms of domestics during the week to high-fashion weekend attire. But at the stadium, there’s another, equally enthusiastic change: the high-heeled shoes and shiny earrings disappear, and the volleyball uniforms come out.

Plastic bottles are emptied and used as noise batons, beaten against the floor and other suitable surfaces. Native foods are unpacked and energy drinks sipped, as the Filipinas get prepared to confront their neighbors, rivals and and friends on the courts.

“I have been waiting all week for this day. I was thinking about my moves even when I was working at the house,” said Sarahanie Bustamante, a young member of WEVAL team, from Hamra.

Although her team lost against the Bakod squad from Dora on Sunday, she still hopes her team will get a chance to take part in the finals, which will take place at the same stadium, on September 6.

 Some of the team names are generic – Horizon and Eagles – and others take more time to decipher: Bakod means “fence” in Tagalog, and WEVAL stands for Western Visayas Association in Lebanon, referring to a region back home.

PhilBall!

The logo of the volleyball organization shows a Filipina girl playing volleyball, placed between the “I” and “SERVE” in the phrase “I SERVE for Friendship and Unity.” And judging by the beginning of each hotly-contested point on the court, Filipinas “serve” well.

“It is very surprising to see how high the interest of Filipinas in volleyball is,” said Johnny Lakis, one of the official referees tasked with monitoring play on Sunday. “In Lebanon there are only seven official teams registered in the women’s league but here, there are eleven teams competing.”

The event is sponsored by IREMIT Global Remittances Company, which helps Filipinos around the world send home remittances to their families. The company’s slogans are tacked up on the walls where the Filipino Men’s Basketball League games take place, on the upper floor of Michel Murr Stadium: “Value your HARD-EARNED money.”

Meanwhile, the Filipino Men’s Basketball League, which is also run by PhilBall, has encountered an issue that sometimes bedevils the organizers of international professional football and basketball teams: what should be done about “imports?”

“We allow only one Lebanese-Filipino person on each basketball team,” says Justo, referring to the noticeably taller Filipino players of Lebanese origin.

Volleyball and basketball are only two activities organized by PhilBall. After the finals in September, Justo promises that other activities, such as bowling, and dart tournaments, will be on the way, to offer more to the Filipino community in Lebanon.

After a long day of serving for friendship, unity and volleyball at the stadium, the Filipina crowds return to their Lebanese homes, this time to serve some of the people shopping next door.

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star

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