Filipinos lay down roots in Jordan through the Catholic religion

Father Gerry Masangya blesses the communion wine during Sunday mass at the Annunciation Church, Jabal Al Weibdeh, Amman on April 10, 2022. (Photos: Matthew Petti/Jordan News)
Guitars are not a typical part of services in Arab Catholic churches, but every Sunday, guitar music rings through the halls of the Annunciation Church in Jabal Al Weibdeh where El Shaddai Choir performs for a largely foreign Catholic audience.اضافة اعلان

The choir was founded by members of Amman’s growing Filipino immigrant community. Filipino workers in Jordan can spend years or even decades away from home. They have started to lay down roots through local Catholic institutions, bringing a piece of the Philippines to the Kingdom and creating a small home away from home.

“When you arrive in this country, even if you are professionals, people (think) that you are just house maids,” said Melissa Elemia, an immigrant from Mindanao who leads the choir.

A Lenten Cross with the Arabic world for “prayer,” “fasting,” and “charity” at the Annunciation Church, Jabal Al Weibdeh, Amman.

“Some in our community may live in difficult circumstances, but we help each other, we are really one,” she added.

The Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem recently recognized the growing presence of Filipino Catholics in Jordan, setting up a special chaplaincy for Filipino immigrants in 2017. Father Gerry Masangya, a Filipino priest, currently serves as chaplain.

The choir is a branch of El Shaddai Fellowship, a Catholic charismatic group that claims 8 million members in the Philippines (and several in Amman).

Charismatic Catholicism is a movement that emphasizes personal relationships with Jesus Christ, connection to the Holy Spirit, and emotional experiences. Founded in the US in the 1960s, the movement soon spread around the world, particularly in non-European countries.

The program for Philippine Catholic services at the Annunciation Church, Jabal Al Weibdeh, Amman on April 10, 2022.

Elemia said she joined El Shaddai Fellowship three decades ago; “we are trying to help people hear the word of God”.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Elemia and her teenage daughter Jamcee took responsibility for music at church services attended by Filipinos. (The previous musicians passed away or left Jordan during the pandemic, she explained.) And so El Shaddai Choir was born.

On the second Sunday of Lent, I attended mass at the Annunciation Church. The priest and the altar boy walked up to the pulpit to the sound of Jamcee’s guitar and the singing of the congregation. Sweet-sounding chords accompanied many parts of the service. The congregation lined up for communion to the song Amazing Grace, then cleared out of the church to another hymn.

Father Gerry Masangya with Filipina choir leader Melissa Elemia and church guitarist Jamcee Elemia at the Annunciation Church, Jabal Al Weibdeh, Amman.

Masangya gave a sermon about the “complicated situations” that migrant workers often find themselves in. He read a passage from the Book of John — “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” — and explained that people in the community should not spread judgmental rumors about each other’s conduct.

The service was in English rather than Tagalog, the Philippines national language. That is because many immigrants from other communities come to services at the church, according to Masangya.

The Filipino presence in Jordan has grown dramatically over the past few decades. In 1990, the Philippines restricted Jordanian employers from recruiting Filipino workers, due to reports of worker abuse. But after the restrictions were lifted in 2005, the Filipino diaspora in Jordan grew dramatically.

The Jordanian government went from issuing 5,000 work permits for Filipino citizens in 2004 to 15,000 in 2009, according to a 2011 study by the Migration Policy Institute.

The Philippines Embassy’s records show that there now are 26,000 to 28,000 Filipinos in Jordan, but Masangya says that official statistics may not include the full picture, because many Filipinos work illegally. In a speech last year, Philippines Ambassador Akmad Sakam estimated that there are over 38,000 Filipinos in the Kingdom.

Father Gerry Masangya walks towards the pulpit at the beginning of Sunday mass at the Annunciation Church, Jabal Al Weibdeh, Amman on April 10, 2022.

Overall, the Filipino diaspora is one of the largest in the world. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs estimated that there were 7.9 million Filipinos abroad in 2015, nearly ten percent of the total Philippines population.

“Filipinos are spread around the world… not only in Asia, not only in America, but in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa as well,” Masangya said.

“You name it, there’s a Philippine community!”

Masangya’s predecessor, Father Gerald Metal, left Jordan to minister to Filipino workers on Diego Garcia, a tiny Indian Ocean island that serves as a British air base. Masangya came to Jordan in 2021, after a brief stay in South Korea.

Many Filipinos in Jordan work as domestic help under the kafala sponsorship system, which has been criticized for enabling exploitative and even abusive working conditions. Even under a good employer, doing manual labor thousands of miles away from home for years takes a toll on workers.

To help meet the needs of the community, Filipino diaspora leaders meet every Friday at the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the local branch of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Jabal Hussein.

The mission is not just a place for Filipinos to organize for their own interests, but also a way for the Filipino community to give back to society.

Elisa Estrada, a Filipina lay member of the Teresian Sisters, helps run the mission’s library, which serves as a community center for immigrant and refugee communities from around the world. The Filipino community meetings usually conclude with a meal open to members of the general public. Unfortunately, the meals have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Estrada.

The library now offers plates of onions and salt as protection against the virus.

“Do not be surprised at the onions, it’s the natural way,” Estrada said.

“Thank God, in three years we haven’t been infected.”

Outside of religious services, the Filipino diaspora also organizes weekend trips, volleyball matches, and disco nights. When Jordan News first spoke to Elemia, she was preparing for an El Shaddai outing to Aqaba.

There is probably no better sign of how Filipinos made Jordan a second home than Elemia’s daughter.

Jamcee speaks English and Arabic better than Tagalog. She has visited the Philippines three times in her life — and had fun every time — but feels that “Jordan, definitely Jordan” is more of a home.

“I just think about it as if I have two families,” Jamcee said.

Read more Around Jordan 
Jordan News