Maria Vida Villasanta seldom makes it to church though she's Catholic; but she goes to a synagogue nearly every day. That's because the life of Villasanta, 44, who left her home in the Philippines so she could put her three children through college, revolves around an elderly Jewish couple in Jerusalem. And the social life of her charges - a 91-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease and an 85-year-old woman with a pacemaker - revolves around their visits to a Jerusalem synagogue that holds activities for the aged, like group singing and mild exercise.
Villasanta spends six days a week waking up the couple, cooking their food and preparing them for bed. Back home, her own husband and children - aged 21, 18 and 15 - make do without her. She speaks to them once a month, gets a cellular text message from them once a day, and thinks about them all the time. She sends them more than 80 per cent of her US $600 salary so her two oldest children, both boys, can continue studying agriculture and nursing. Her youngest, a girl, wants to be either a doctor or a lawyer.
Last December, Villasanta missed the sight of festive trees and decorative lights - signs of Christmas that are mostly absent in Israel. But now she tries not to think of home so she won't feel too lonely. Christmas, she said as other Filipino workers chatted and snacked outside the synagogue while their employers were indoors, is the day when "you feel homesick because of the children you left in the Philippines".
Villasanta is one of an estimated 35,000 Filipinos working in Israel, about 80 per cent of whom are women, according to the Philippines Embassy in Israel. A majority of them are caregivers for the elderly.
Life can be lonely and uncertain for Filipinos in Israel, where migrant workers are discouraged from having their family in the country and where female caregivers are sometimes sexually harassed. But at the same time, the many Filipinos in the country help ensure that there is a community network - centered around church and social activities like Christmas parties, a beauty pageant and a basketball tournament - for those who want to make use of it.
Father Angelo Ison, a Franciscan priest who was born in the Philippines and has been living in Israel since 1991, views loneliness and insecurity - especially that stemming from what he calls "the martyrdom of the Filipino mothers" - as the most prevalent problem faced by Filipina workers in Israel.
"Sometimes, if you're alone, you want to cry because you remember your family in the Philippines, and then it's Christmas - it's very lonely," said Loida Espiritu, 37, a caregiver in Jerusalem.
For some Filipinas, though, homesickness takes a back seat to fear of unwanted advances. According to estimates by Israeli workers' rights groups, Kav LaOved and Mesila, about a quarter of Filipino workers have been sexually harassed in Israel. Complaints of harassment, aid group workers said, can range from an elderly male employer or an employer's son trying to get a glimpse of the caregiver in the shower to an incident of rape. Sometimes the workers feel they have to give in to sexual demands to avoid being deported.
Unlike most foreign workers, Filipina caregivers generally receive room and board from their employers. Although Israeli law mandates that caregivers be paid extra for living in - about $1,100 a month - they are often paid about $550 or $600 a month, aid workers said. Not only is this about half what they are entitled to receive, but it is even less than the approximately $850 they are supposed to receive per month for a full-time job that does not require round-the-clock availability.
Despite the violation of Israeli law, many Filipinas seem content with their wages here - about four times the $150 monthly salary for professional nurses in the Philippines and double the $300 salary for doctors there, according to 2004 data from the Philippines Bureau of Labour and Employment Statistics. However, the workers here also have to pay off the approximately $3,000 to $5,000 they pay placement agencies in the Philippines to bring them overseas in the first place.
As a rule, Filipino workers are not granted visas if they have a spouse or children in the country, because the government sees this as a sign that they want to settle here permanently, said Shira Inbar, who answers laborers' questions for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli non-governmental organization.
This instability in family life is reinforced by the uncertainty that accompanies the transient nature of migrant labor. Caregivers are allowed to work in Israel for up to five years, unless an employer they have been with for at least a year says s/he depends on the worker's care; in such a case, the worker is allowed to stay indefinitely but cannot change employers.
Marilou, 37, came from the Philippines six years ago and is now in limbo. Her second employer, an 81-year-old woman, died a few weeks ago, rendering Marilou an illegal alien. She plans to substitute for another caregiver until January or February, at which point she hopes to land a job in London. For now, though, she's hiding at the Jerusalem home of her aunt.
Despite her fears, though, Marilou made it to Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, a church and pontifical institute in Jerusalem, on the first Sunday of Advent. There she attended mass, partook of the homemade lunch set out in a courtyard at the centre, and socialized with the approximately 25 women who had come to church for an extended day of pre-Christmas worship.
Aside from church services in several cities that are geared toward Filipinos, workers from the Philippines are also served by two weekly newspapers in English and Tagalog, 17 Filipino social organizations under the umbrella of the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel, and an embassy that takes an active role in the local community. Indeed, aid workers say Filipinos tend to be in a better situation than migrant laborers from other countries due to their strong, organized community in Israel.
For Jo Anne Gonzaga, as for many Filipinas in Israel, friends, communal life and even employers have come to fill - to a large extent - the place of family. Like Villasanta, she misses the glittering lights that signal the approach of Christmas back home.
But two days before Christmas, Gonzaga, 40, who presides over the Federation of Filipino Communities, will be busy injecting some Christmas spirit, in the form of holiday decorations, in a Jerusalem restaurant where up to 180 Filipinos are slated to attend a Christmas party fundraiser organized by the federation. The $2,000 that Gonzaga expects to raise will go toward rice, canned goods and other relief items for victims of a deadly typhoon that hit the Philippines in early December. For Gonzaga, for now, that is enough.