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Community of Hope celebrates 19th anniversary

Southeast Asian workers honor migrant advocacy group; center promotes reintegration and savings program for itinerants

Community of Hope celebrates 19th anniversary
Workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam came together last Sunday to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the Hope Workers' Center in Jhongli City.Showcasing their diverse cultures through dance, music and food, migrants honored the Reverend Peter O'Neill - director of the Hope Workers' Center - and his team of social workers and volunteers for their accomplishments in the past year.

In addition to O'Neill, the center relies on its social workers and a cadre of talented people including Edward Tan of the Philippines, Sophia Zhou of Vietnam, Mary Ye of Indonesia, Akkraporn Bunchongsilp of Thailand, and Anastasia Wu and Allison Lee of Taiwan. Satchana Panthirat acts as shelter supervisor while Sister Doris Zahra serves as the center's assistant director. Beth Sabado, a Columban Missionary pastoral worker from the Philippines, also plays an integral role in the center's operations.

Community leaders Michael Cuenca of the Philippines, Phan Cha of Thailand, Pham Thi Thuy Linh and Le Thi Mong Duy of Vietnam, and Aan of Indonesia have also been actively supporting the center's programs.

"We hope that you will always look at the Hope Workers' Center as your home in Taiwan," O'Neill, wearing a colorful sarong at the party, told last Sunday's crowd. The celebration featured a sumptuous buffet of Thai salad, Vietnamese noodles, Filipino-style pancit (stir-fried noodles), sticky rice, and menudo (meat and liver stew); an entertainment program; and a lucky draw.

Providing counseling, temporary shelter, and aid to distressed foreign workers, the center is encouraging more migrants - regardless of creed and nationality - to get involved, to stand united, and to have their voices heard.

Last year, the church-backed labor advocacy group provided assistance to 3,879 migrants involved in 502 cases. Those workers' problems ranged from illegal deductions and brokers' fees to "no work, no pay" arrangements and tax refunds.

In 2004, the center handled 461 cases and provided aid to 2,229 migrants.

"We always have a big number of Filipinos coming to the center," O'Neill said. "In the past year, more migrants from Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia started dropping by the HWC too."

The priest and his team are actively reaching out to various migrant communities in Taoyuan.

"It still takes longer for Indonesians to trust the center because majority of the workers are Muslims, and this center is in a Catholic church," he explained. "Also, Taiwan's two-and-a-half-year ban on Indonesian workers was only lifted in April 2005, and the workers are only starting to come back to Taiwan."

Mary Ye, an Indonesian social worker, spends her weekends meeting with migrants at restaurants, parks, and train stations, O'Neill said.

"On January 29, we are having a New Year celebration for our Indonesian friends, and on January 30, the center will host a New Year party for Vietnamese workers," the priest said.

"Off (Akkraporn), our Thai social worker, has also succeeded in strengthening the Thai group. In fact, we now have a group comprising Thai vegetarian Buddhists that is actively taking part in the center's activities. We told them they are free to use the center's facilities."

To date, the center's network of volunteers is comprised of 20 Vietnamese, 30 Thais, 30 Indonesians, and 150 Filipinos, O'Neill said.

"The good thing about Filipinos is they are very welcoming of workers from other countries," he added.

The Hope Workers' Center also gave its reintegration program for Filipino migrants a big push in 2005 with the help of Unlad Kabayan Migrant Services Foundation, Inc. Unlad Kabayan is a non-government, non-profit organization established in the Philippines in 1996 to respond to the urgent need for migrants to plan and organize their return. It started as a special program of the Asian Migrant Center in Hong Kong in 1994.

The NGO organizes savings associations - Migrant Savings for Alternative Investment or MSAI - as a capital build-up mechanism for the establishment of income-generating activities in the Philippines.

Unlad assists in making business feasibility studies and business plans, provides technical training and product development, facilitates technology transfer, and helps to access financial support, marketing linkages and other services. Unlad Kabayan's Credit Program also enables enterprises to avail themselves of supplemental capital and production loans.

To date, three Filipino reintegration savings group, with a combined membership of 45 individuals, have been formed with the help of the Hope Workers' Center.

"Every business decision is decided by the migrants themselves," said O'Neill. "Unlad Kabayan provides them with advice, training, project studies, and even auditing and accounting services. This NGO also sends people to rice farms or piggeries to monitor, review and evaluate reintegration projects."

The first reintegration project under HWC's watch that took off was a rice mill and farm in Barangay Matin-ao, Mainit, Surigao del Norte in southern Philippines. The venture, Matin-ao Rice Center and Farm Services, is steadily expanding.

Ten enterprising Filipino migrants provided the capital outlay for the project.

"They took out a loan and bought the farm for a million pesos. They have since paid off their loan, so the land is 100 percent theirs," O'Neill said.

Migrants who want to invest in the Matin-ao Rice Center and Farm Services are welcomed to do so. Every quarter, the project's management team - led by former caregiver Elsa Belarmino-Villamor - produces a financial report that is reviewed by Unlad Kabayan's accounting team. A copy of the report is then forwarded to the HWC, and the farm's migrant investors.

"We sit down with stakeholders and explain the report to them," O'Neill said. "Every investor is also involved in the decision-making process. If the management team is thinking of purchasing additional machinery, palay (rice), or a piece of land, they cannot do so without the approval of their shareholders."

Last year, Belarmino-Villamor visited Taiwan and met with Filipinos who were interested in setting up similar livelihood projects in the Philippines, said the priest.

The HWC is also encouraging Thais, Vietnamese, and Indonesians to form their own savings groups, and establish their own businesses in their respective countries, O'Neill continued. Such projects, he said, could help generate jobs and incomes for the unemployed, and support the livelihood of poor farmers and workers in the communities.

"It is important however that we find an NGO partner just like Unlad Kabayan in those countries," he said. "It's critical to the success of the program."

Right now, O'Neill and his team are educating migrants on the importance of developing a "saving" mentality and a culture of entrepreneurship.

"Once enough money is saved, migrants can look into the possibility of investing in existing businesses or starting their own ventures," he said. "Those projects provide migrants with alternative sources of income and jobs for their communities."

The Hope Workers Center is located at 3F, No. 65, Chang Chiang Road, Jhongli City, Taoyuan, Taiwan 320. If you need help, just ring (03) 425-5416, or send your fax to (03) 427-1092. You may also write them an e-mail at hopemw@ms16.hinet.net