Guest blogger Katrina Abarcar is a perpetually sleep-deprived mother and organizer with Katarungan: Center for Peace, Justice and Human Rights in the Philippines.
I watched The Learning for the first time in June at the Silverdocs documentary film festival in Maryland. I think I was one of the last four people to be allowed into the packed theatre. I came to the showing without any expectations — I just thought it would be a nice way to spend a Sunday without the kids and time alone with my husband. Luck was on my side that day because The Learning proved to be more than just a afternoon of entertainment.
I’ve worked side by side with immigrants and migrant workers for more than 15 years, advocating for their rights and for policy reform. It is rare to find a piece of art that so vividly and accurately captures the joy and pain experienced by migrants in their pursuit of the American dream. It is also rare to find a film that exposes the high social cost of forced migration without hitting you over the head. Although not the main focus, the film does not shy away from the reality of our globalized world, where you have your rich countries and poor countries, your haves and have nots.
For me, what was particularly powerful was coming out of the screening feeling a connection with the four characters. I felt deeply the motivation, the hardship and the sacrifice of the women. I also experienced a great sense of hope seeing the strength, tenacity, and resilience of these individuals and thinking there is still much hope for the Philippines if these attributes could be harnessed beyond the pursuit of individual and family interests and towards the needs of community and country. The organizer in me came out revitalized.
Less than two weeks after I saw the film, Filipino teachers from Prince George’s County in Maryland were in the news, as a settlement between their school system and the Department of Labor was made public. The Department of Labor had found the school system to be a willful violator of the H1-B foreign worker program and the settlement reached mandated the school system pay back wages owed to foreign teachers and a $100,000 penalty, and barred them from doing employment-based sponsorship for two years. For hundreds of Filipino teachers in Prince George’s County, this meant $4,000 in back wages, job termination, and possibly a trip back to the Philippines for themselves and their families.
People speculated that tough economic times and shrinking education budgets were behind the agreed upon settlement. And it made me wonder, could the same happen to the dedicated teachers in The Learning who worked tirelessly to serve their students and provide for their families? Could the same fate be handed to the estimated 19,000 other foreign teachers recruited to work in the United States?
It was the documentary that played a big role in moving me to work with the Prince George’s County teachers. And it was my recent work with the teachers that motivated me to get involved with groups across the United States, help organize community screenings of The Learning, open the public’s eye to the phenomenon and gather sympathy for any struggles that may erupt.