A Mother and Daughter’s Unlikely Journey as Migrant Workers

A Mother and Daughter’s Unlikely Journey as Migrant Workers

Seated in her eight-room apartment, in a wealthy section of Hong Kong, Kathryn Louey stared quietly at her copy of Xyza Bacani’s first book, “We Are Like Air,” studying the words and photographs carefully. When she finished, she sought out Xyza’s mother, Georgia, who was in another room of the apartment they share, and the two hugged and cried together.

These were not just tears of joy.

This book is largely about Georgia’s life story — as a Filipino domestic worker trafficked and mistreated in Singapore for two years before she ran away and found a safe haven with Ms. Louey, her kind and generous employer in Hong Kong, for the past 20 years.

It is also the story of Xyza, who at 8 years old was left behind to raise her younger siblings in a rural town in Nueva Vizcaya Province in the Philippines; a decade later, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a domestic worker in Ms. Louey’s home for nine years. The book also recounts Xyza’s unlikely journey from migrant domestic worker to street photographer to social documentarian telling the stories of migrant workers in Singapore, many of whom were abused, trafficked and swindled, as well as those in Hong Kong and New York.

In “We Are Like Air,” published by WE Press, Xyza focuses primarily on her family story.

Xyza recalls Georgia leaving abruptly with a small bag and 20 Philippine pesos (about 40 cents in American currency). Xyza’s father, Villamor, was away Monday through Friday as a construction worker, and Xyza did not know how to cook or care for her brother and sister.

“I was confused at first,” she said, “and then I missed her so much. I didn’t know what to do with my younger brother and sister.”

Before Georgia left the Philippines, Xyza said, Villamor had worked in Saudi Arabia for two years and was horribly mistreated. He escaped, but without the money his employer had promised, which meant the family’s farm in Nueva Vizcaya was at risk if it could not pay back a loan for its land. So in 1996, Georgia decided she would have to work as a domestic helper in Singapore to save the farm.

Despite being mistreated in Singapore and missing her children desperately, Georgia put on a brave front and wrote in occasional letters that she was doing well. The initial letter Xyza received contained a photo of her mother during their first Christmas season apart and sticks like a thorn in her memory.

“She was holding a gift next to a Christmas tree, and she was smiling,” Xyza recalled. “I felt really angry at her — that she had left us for a better life. I’m ashamed that I was angry at her for a very long time because I didn’t understand what she went through.”

Georgia eventually fled her difficult situation in Singapore and made her way to Hong Kong, where she found Ms. Louey, a wealthy Chinese-Australian woman. A decade later Xyza, who felt a responsibility to help her younger siblings go to college, asked to join her mother in her work.

It was difficult to rebuild a relationship after more than a decade apart. Xyza resented when Georgia tried to give her motherly advice or show her what to do at work. But she discovered that her mother always stayed in and never bought anything for herself so that she could send more money home.

“Slowly I realized how much she sacrificed for us,” Xyza said. “Then I became nicer to her and our relationship grew.”

Every week on her day off, Xyza explored Hong Kong, marveling at the kinetic city. In 2009, she asked Ms. Louey to buy her a camera. At first, Xyza took photos to show her mother what she was missing in Hong Kong by staying inside. But, slowly, photography became a form of expression, too.

Her Facebook stream of striking black-and-white street photos of Hong Kong caught the attention of the Filipino-American photographer Rick Rocamora in 2014. He sent her photos to the editors of Lens, and Kerri MacDonald wrote an article about Xyza in June 2014.

Xyza quickly became known as a “nanny photographer” — a modern-day Vivian Maier, the street photographer whom Xyza had never heard of. Her story, and photographs, also drew attention from migrant domestic workers, many of whom wrote to her that her success gave them hope.

Their emails and comments on social media drove Xyza to document her fellow migrant workers. She received a Magnum Foundation fellowship, which allowed her to work on documenting Filipino human trafficking survivors in New York City. In September 2015, the article was published in Lens.

Xyza’s next chapter was to document the trafficked migrant workers in Singapore, with a grant by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. While it was difficult at times to get access from employees, the migrant workers welcomed Xyza like a sister who understood them and with whom they could share intimate stories.

“People have a stereotype of migrant workers, but they are more than victims of circumstances — they are also champions of the family they serve and their families left behind who they support,” she said. “They are like air: They’re not seen but if they were not there, wealthy societies would not function.”

After her Singapore work was published in Lens in January 2017, Xyza realized there was one story left to cover: the story of her family in Hong Kong and in the Philippines. She started to photograph and interview them, learning more about her parents and herself during the process. It was like “staring in a mirror for too long,” she said. “You don’t always like what you see.”

“It’s the hardest work that I’ve ever done,” Xyza said. “When I’m photographing other people there is still some distance. I empathize with them, but the pain is not direct. When I was photographing my family, I share their pain, and there are many tears.”

It was so emotional for Xyza that some of her photos were blurry — not for artistic effect, but because her hands were shaking.

Her parents had rarely shared their experiences with their children, but making this book opened up floodgates of experiences and emotions — as well as many revealing conversations. The book and exhibit have also informed Ms. Louey about Georgia, the woman she has lived with for 20 years. After reading the book and seeing the photos, Ms. Louey realized how difficult it was for Georgia to be away from her husband, Villamor. She is now arranging for him to visit Hong Kong twice a year, Xyza said.

Making the book has taught Xyza the importance of being vulnerable and embracing her emotions while photographing.

“There’s a lot of childhood pain that came back,” she noted. “But then also forgiveness, which is the best part. Making this book has made the family closer now.

“We have a second chance.”

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