Christmas In London, Finally

Christmas in London, Finally. Written by Lian Buan for SubSelfie.com.

The story starts at a high end hotel on Drury Lane in London one summer day in June of 1997. Regina ‘Regie’ Laborce, then 31 years old, was scrambling to get in contact with someone she knows in the United Kingdom. If they don’t answer their phones, she has nowhere else to go.

The fancy hotel was the last part of pretence. Her boyfriend at the time knew a fixer who worked her tourist papers to the UK like magic. It was an orchestrated plan of making her and her companions appear like rich Filipino businessmen coming to the UK for a conference. Their bank accounts were loaded in an instant, and they were set up with business papers signed by the Trade Department.

The fixer was going for the kill: strong documents to minimize talk between the Visa Officer and her clients. However if it comes to that, Regie was rehearsed. She needed a Tourist Visa to the UK to attend a Business Conference. Never mind that she struggled to speak English then — she had to convince the person behind the glass window, else she wastes more than P100,000 she loaned just to pay for everything.

So when she got to Drury Lane, there was no turning back. Their first destination was Scotland where an actual conference was taking place. Regie’s group of four stayed for two weeks before they made their way for London where the hotel on Drury Lane has already been booked, still part of the disguise as wealthy conference attendees wanting some bit of leisure time in London before heading home.

But they were not going home. They were going to bolt, joining an increasing statistic of undocumented Filipino migrants who had come to be known by three letters: TNT or Tago Nang Tagowhich in English means “Always Hiding.”

Running out of time and no returned phone calls as her days in Drury Lane wound down, the other woman in her group, Lorina, took Regie with her to relatives in Plaistow, situated on the outer parts of London where housing is cheaper.

It was 5:30 in the morning when the man who Regie would come to call ‘Manong (Uncle) Ben’ fetched them in Drury Lane. Uncle Ben had just finished his shift as a valet in a casino on Grosvenor Road in the rich district of Mayfair.

Regie bid goodbye to the two men in her group, one a dentist another a sales rep. She never saw them again. “Saan na kaya sila ngayon? (I wonder where they are now).” Regie wondered aloud as she recalled her story to me when I met her for lunch in Covent Garden a week before Christmas. She has been in London for nearly 20 years, but she is still unmistakably Filipino, with the distinct accent that never went away.

She resumed the story. She lived with Manong Ben, his wife and their two young sons in a two-bedroom in Plaistow. She and her friend slept in the living room.

For one month, she stayed in Plaistow rent-free. “Mabait naman sila, pero pakapalan na lang din talaga ng mukha, (The couple was very nice, but I knew I was overstaying their welcome),” Regie chuckled affectionately, “I looked after their kids, and sometimes I would buy them groceries.”

After two weeks, she found a job as a housekeeper near Victoria Station, where undocumented immigrants like her alight the trains from different parts of Europe. She considers herself lucky to have gotten a job so quick. The English, Regie said, were fond of hiring undocumented househelps to do away with paying their tax.

She was then earning £280 a week, which was her monthly salary as a helper in Taiwan where she worked before deciding to try for the UK. “British Pounds were the dream,” she told me.

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Regie in one of the homes she lived during 14 undocumented years in London.

New Country, New Baby

Just as she was settling with her job, ready to send remittances for her two-year-old  son from an estranged father, Regie found out she was two months pregnant with her new boyfriend she had left in the Philippines.

The baby’s father could not follow her to the UK because all the money had been spent sending Regie. And a man would not have the same luck as an undocumented migrant in the UK. “No one wants to hire a male for a domestic job,” Regie said.

Regie had planned to leave Plaistow to be a living-in help for her employer, but her pregnancy forced her to stay longer with Manong Ben. But instead of take it easy, she worked even harder.

Two weeks due na ko pero nagtatrabaho pa rin ako (I was still working two weeks before I was due to deliver),” Regie said. For fear of getting exposed to Immigration authorities, Regie could not register with an NHS practice. In a country with one of the best health systems in the world, Regie had to pay for expensive private health care.

When it was time to give birth, Manong Ben took her to a private facility where one of her Filipino friends, Merlyn, stayed by her bedside.

She named her daughter Maria Gienell, “Gie” from Regie and ‘nell’ from her father’s name, Arnel. Regie took her back to Plaistow where a bed had been set up in a small room that they shared with the two boys. There was no more space for a crib, so Regie slept with Gienell next to her in her small bed.

With more expenses expected for a new baby, Regie sought a living-in domestic work, which will pay so much more. She couldn’t find an employer that allows for her newborn to live with them, and she couldn’t leave her in Plaistow.

Merlyn was then married to a British man who she had one son with. Merlyn’s husband had a good job so she could afford to take care of her son at home. Regie has a number of friends who had come to England like she did and ended up with British men who gave them citizenships. When Regie speaks of these women, she takes a pause mid-sentence to say “They’re so lucky” with a soft sigh that indicates tiny signs of regret that she had not done the same. Instead she had gotten pregnant with a man who could not come to the country of her dreams, leaving her to fend for their unplanned child.

At the time, Merlyn was renting a flat in Edmonton in East London with enough space for a baby girl. Gienell was sent to live with her future Godmother while her mother lived in someone else’s home to look after someone else’s children.

This is a narrative shared by millions of Filipino families. Anywhere in the world you would find the stories of two kinds of children: the child in the Philippines growing up without a parent, and the child elsewhere being raised by their parent.

Regie and Gienell had a chance to live a different story. Gienell had a birthright to something a lot of people were risking everything to have: a British Passport and all the privileges that come with it.

Before 1983, all children born in the UK were automatically British citizens. After that, citizenship was only granted to UK-born children if at least one of her parents was either British or settled in Britain. Gienell had very slim chances of getting a British passport, and it would be exposing Regie to too much risks.

Gienell stayed with her Godmother in Edmonton for two years before Regie decided it was best to send her daughter back to the Philippines. Living costs for her would be cheaper back home, and Regie would be able to work more hours.

More importantly, the risk of exposure would be greatly reduced. The dream for British pounds would be kept alive.

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Gienell during her Christening in London

Gienell in London held by her godmother Lorina, Regie’s friend who made the journey with her to the UK.

Bye Bye Baby

Gienell lived with Regie’s parents in the small, sleepy town of Urdaneta until she was four years old when her father took her to live with him in the nearby province of Tarlac.

That he could not find a way to follow Regie to the UK was slowly killing the relationship. The difficulty to find good jobs in the Philippines has ingrained on Filipino families a culture of being economically-driven. Families are hardwired to always pick the more practical option; it’s why 2.4 million Filipinos today are overseas — there’s just more money abroad.

It did not sit well with Regie that Gienell’s father could not get himself to work abroad. Slowly they drifted apart, leaving Gienell with separated parents and a mother so faraway.

Gienell does not remember London at all; not her first room in Plaistow, not her second house in Edmonton, and not her mother.

“Nakita ko na lang noon sa picture, tapos pinaliwanag sa akin ni Papa ‘yung sitwasyon na hindi siya makakauwi dahil wala siyang papel,” Gienell said, who’s turning 19 this February. (I just remembered being shown her photo and Papa explaining Mama’s situation — that she couldn’t go home to the Philippines because she had no legal papers)

While living with her father, Regie kept her presence in Gienell’s life the only way that overseas Filipino parents know how: care packages. The only way to send love to your child back home was through a box filled with new toys and clothes.

Gienell beside her Lola when one of Regina's friends from London visited her.
Gienell beside her Lola when one of Regie’s friends from London visited her.
When Gienell turned 12, Regie sent her parents to Tarlac to bring her back to Urdaneta. After more than a decade in the UK, Regie had finished paying off loans and had managed to build her own house in the province, the sort of big house in the Philippines with fancy interiors and tilings that would leave onlookers no doubt that it is owned by somebody working overseas.

They would pass the house and simply say “Saudi” or “States (America)” to express the country where the home’s proud owner is working. They would marvel at the sight before going back to their own obsessions of one day leaving the country too, or raising their child well enough to be the ones to leave, so that maybe they can also have a house that neighbors would point to in awe.

Gienell had that type of house. Even though she had been uprooted twice with no mother or father in sight, Gienell knew she was luckier than a lot of other kids where she was from. It’s how children of overseas Filipinos are raised — to learn to see perspective in the economic comfort that comes with not having your family by your side.

In 2009, Gienell’s grandfather, Regie’s father, died to a heart attack. Regie could not come home.

Siyempre, napakasakit sa akin ‘nun,” Regie said. (Of course it was very painful for me.)

Winters in London were bearable as Regina counted down the years to be able to apply for Amnesty.
Winters in London were bearable as Regie counted down the years to be able to apply for Amnesty.

Legal Status

What kept Regie going was that in two years, she would have been in London for 14 years, and eligible to apply for Amnesty. She was one of the last undocumented migrants allowed to apply for settlement in the UK before Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, changed the rules increasing the grace period from 14 to 20 years.

“Lagi ko iniisip malapit na malapit na, nung naka 7 years ako sabi ko kalahati na lang!” Regie said. (I would always tell myself you’re so close, especially when I reached the 7-year mark I thought then, I’m already halfway!)

At last, a chance to live in London freely. And she took it, even if it meant paying £4,000 in solicitor fees to secure an Indefinite Leave to Remain Visa, which allows her to stay and work legally in the UK long enough to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Gienell was then nearing 18 years old so Regie had to act fast if she wanted to petition her daughter to the UK without grief. Her older son Marco was already over 18, making it difficult for him to join Regie. This was a chance only for Gienell to take, a second shot to be with her mother to make up for the last time.

For that, Regie had to shell out another £4,000. But it was then or never.

In the three years since obtaining her legal papers, Regie was able to come back to the Philippines thrice: in 2012 for Marco’s college graduation, 2014 for Marco’s wedding and Gienell’s high school graduation, and last year to take Gienell to the UK.

The first time Regie came back to the Philippines, Gienell can barely speak to her. She remembers picking her mother up at the airport but not recognizing her. She said she had to remind herself that the woman she was seeing was her mother before she could get herself to come near her.

“Nahihiya talaga siya sa akin noong una,” Regie said. (She was very shy towards me at first.)

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They had to fit all the years they missed in a matter of months. Regie did not have a choice but to skip the childhood stages in a mother-daughter relationship and jump straight into adolescence where she talks to Gienell about moving, uprooting her for the third time.

Immediately, Gienell had to start sorting her documents to apply for a visa to the UK.

London had become not only Regie’s dreams but Gienell’s too. Growing up knowing of her mother’s sacrifices for a legal status in the UK, Gienell had developed her own sense of aspirations for the country that for her had given everything she had, even though it was also responsible for everything she did not have.

For her, London does not mean a broken family; it means opportunity. It means she doesn’t have to hide like her mother did, that she can get a better job, and that she could start helping her family at such a young age.

Alam ko na napakamura pa ng edad ko para sa responsibilidad na hinaharap ko pero dahil sa sitwasyon ng aking pamilya, kinakailangan kong gawin bilang ako ang anak at ako ang may mas malaking tiyansang tumulong,” Gienell said. (I know that I’m so young to be bearing this responsibility, but due to my family’s situation I have to step up because I’m the child and I am in a better position to help.)

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Gienell is currently taking her A Levels in London.

Gienell with her Godmother Merlyn during her debutante's party that she got to celebrate in London.
Gienell with her Godmother Merlyn during her debutante’s party that she got to celebrate in London.
Gienell and Regie flew to the UK together last January. They rent a flat in Wandsworth Road, near their work and Gienell’s school.

Regie works as a kitchen assistant at a primary school. During her first weeks, she was constantly getting the dressing down from her superiors, one even telling her she had no common sense. But she had conditioned herself to always see the silver lining: “Ngayon meron na kong payslip, meron na kong NHS,” Regie declared with a big smile. (I now have a payslip, I now have NHS)”

Gienell is taking her A-Levels, a course required for pre-University credits, at the Westminster Kingsway College while working part time in Oxford Circus: 2 days a week in River Island, and one day a week at McDonald’s. It allows her to help with the expenses back home, especially that her older brother Marco have two young children who need support.

I asked Regie how she’s doing with her new job, she said: “Oras oras naiisip ko pa rin, ang hirap talagang kumita ng pounds!” (I still think to myself every hour of every day: it’s so difficult to earn pounds!)

Gienell, at a tender age of 19, has adopted the same work ethic. When I asked what her plans for Christmas were, she told me she would return to work for Boxing Day, and with a clap of hands she exclaimed: “Double Pay!!”

Christmas in London is special for many reasons. There’s the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park where people would happily drink hot chocolate or mulled wine for twice the price. There are the lights over the roads in Oxford Street designed like angels watching over the merry-goers. There are the shopping sales, parties and television specials awaited all yearlong by the Brits.

For Regie and Gienell, it’s special simply because they are finally celebrating it together in the country they have longed to call their own. It was a long way down, but here they are now.

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[Entry 192, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Lian Nami Buan.
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Great article 🙂 I myself have always wanted to see England. To live there would have to be a miracle for me. Still, i am young after all…who knows…i could actually live there. But i don’t see myself living in such a beautiful country for a long time…Seeing your photos..your living arrangements are not much..and based on my friends stories about life in the UK…it’s quite tough…nevertheless…i like your article. I got a lot of new insights about your life and its connection with living abroad.

    Liked by 1 person

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