After nearly 20 years working as a helper in S'pore, I finally bought my family a home

This International Migrants Day, we share the story of Ruby Nazareno and her journey to giving her family a permanent place to call home.

Mothership | December 18, 2021, 01:28 PM

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PERSPECTIVE: "I thought I would be happy at the prospect [of becoming a landowner], but really, all I felt was deep relief. I no longer had to worry if my parents, siblings and niece were going to be made homeless."

As a child, Ruby Nazareno dreamt of becoming a nurse. But despite her dedication in school, she ended up needing to work in factories — later becoming a domestic worker overseas — in order to support her family in the Philippines. 

"Kung May Tiyaga, May Nilaga (If You Persevere, You Can Achieve Anything)" is an essay by Nazareno about her journey buying a plot of land for her family, after many years of barely making ends meet and risking being kicked out of the home they were renting. 

The essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet? Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives that define them, as well as Singapore's collective future.

By Ruby Nazareno

There are many Filipinos who work as domestic workers; the internet reports that there are about 250,000 of us here in Singapore.

But while many of us have settled into work-life here, most of us did not dream of becoming a domestic helper. I didn’t.

Dreamt of becoming a nurse

I was born in 1972 in a small village called Santa Cruz Laguna, several hours outside of Manila. Actually, about a quarter to a half an hour by tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar) to the bus station, then about three and a half hours by bus to Manila, depending on traffic.

Manila is expensive, so I largely grew up never quite leaving my village.

Growing up, I was considered lucky by village standards: my family lived in a small house and I got to go to school. I dreamt of becoming a nurse — my aunty was a nurse and it was a job that had good prospects, she said.

So I worked hard in school and did decently well. I even graduated from high school. Not everyone in my village did.

I wished I could have studied beyond high school but money became tighter for my family — cost of living was getting higher and I had two younger siblings who also dreamt of going to school. So, as the eldest child, I went straight to work after graduation. My first job was in a potato chip packing factory, then later, at a television components factory.

The financial needs of my family grew and I heard of the opportunity to go to Taiwan to work in a factory. The pay was good there, people said. I was quite excited to go, but paperwork issues saw me needing to change my plans.

When my Taiwan plan fell through, I took a role at a hardware shop where I got to learn to do administration and operations work. It was a job but the pay was pittance.

Became a domestic helper in Kuwait

An opportunity to go to Kuwait to work as a live-in helper came up which paid better, so I took it up. I stayed there for two and a half years.

You would think that life in Kuwait would seem exciting, but it was anything but. It was hard to work there — my employer was quite difficult and unfairly demanding. Plus, the Kuwaiti houses were all really, really big. And the weather was very harsh: hot and dry.

I toughed out the duration of my contract and chose to return home instead of extending.

We should have been in a better financial situation but our old house was torn down by the government and we had to rent a new place that was far more expensive.

We didn’t have money to buy our own land even though we were all working—my father was a driver for a construction materials company and my mother sold fruits and I had some savings from my time in Kuwait.

My two siblings were still in school — I hoped that they would, perhaps, have better prospects than me.

I dreamt of my family finally being able to own our own house, but that was a mountain that seemed too high to climb. We were barely making ends meet.

Started working in Singapore but couldn't send much money home

I had another aunty who was working in Singapore and after a brief break back home to see my parents and siblings, I chose to join my aunty.

I came to Singapore in 2000. The first family I worked for lived in Jurong. And while I was happier in Singapore, I still didn’t earn a lot — the agency fees I had to pay were quite high but I tried my best to save whatever I could, to send back home.

But the truth is, between helping to raise my brother and the constant rising rental rates and poor exchange rates of the Peso, all the money I sent back — plus what my parents earned — was barely enough for my family. Added to that, my sister had split from her husband and was a single mother who came to live with us with her young child.

My family was always on the verge of being kicked off the rental property. It was a tiring way to live. I realised the only way I could really change things for my family was to find a way to own our own land. But I didn’t think I could ever save enough to even afford the down payment.

There is a saying in Tagalog: Kung may tiyaga, may nilaga. It means, if you persevere, you can achieve anything.

So I hid that dream deep in my heart and focused on working hard and saving as much as I could.

Took out government loan

Not only is it expensive to own land in my village, but there aren’t always land parcels available for purchase even if you have the money.

In 2015, I finally found a small land parcel available for purchase slightly further out from where we lived in an area called Barangay Palasan. But even after being thrifty all these years, I was still far from what I needed to buy the land.

I decided to take a bank loan via the Pag-IBIG fund, designed as a national savings programme and an affordable shelter financing for the Filipino worker.

Under this loan repayment programme, I had to pay back a set amount every month without fail. If I missed even one month, or was short on funds for a particular month, the whole quantum sum would reset and I’d have to restart repayment all over again. The monies I had paid till then would be forfeited.

Finally able to provide a home for my family

Almost a decade later, and thanks to a bridging loan from my employer, I was finally able to pay off my bank loan entirely. I no longer had the fear of my loan resetting hanging over my head.

I thought I would be happy at the prospect, but really, all I felt was deep relief. I no longer had to worry if my parents, siblings and niece were going to be made homeless. I finally became a land owner.

Nazareno's home, after many years of hard work. Photo courtesy of Ruby Nazareno.

My land parcel is small, but it's enough for my family.

And really, that is enough for me.

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Top photos courtesy of Ruby Nazareno.