Intern Stephen Sneed shares the powerful story of Marianna*, part of our #ThankGodForWomen series. We are grateful for her willingness to share, and hope that by telling it, we increase awareness of global hurdles that prevent many women and girls from living out the full potential God has placed within them. (*Names have been changed)
A native Filipino and wife of an Iraqi refugee, Marianna’s journey to Memphis is unique. Sacrificing her beloved childhood island home and dreams instead for steady employment that would financially provide for her parents and brothers, Marianna would work for many years before finding love and starting a family, only to be caught in the crosshairs of an immigration nightmare before finally finding happiness and freedom in the United States.
Originally from a small island and fishing community in the Philippines, Marianna is the fifth of eight children, but the only daughter. She recalls having a strong support system at home and speaks fondly of her parents and brothers as she describes early memories. She recalls her life in the Philippines as good, but very hard because of the lack of resources and job opportunities. Her mother was a street vendor, selling fish and crustaceans in order to buy the family’s food, which mainly consisted of rice. Her father, a farmer, struggled during many seasons of Marianna’s childhood when crops would refuse to grow.
Hard work, frugality, and education were valued by Marianna’s parents. Through careful savings over years of hard labor, they were able to send a couple of her older brothers to college. But by her high school graduation, no money was left, and she had to find a way to support herself and help her family. Opportunities as a domestic worker enticed her to contracts in Manila and eventually Cyprus. She would be responsible for cleaning, cooking, and acting as a full-time nanny for more prominent families.
Working and saving for four years in Manila followed by five years in Cyprus, the days were long yet her work ethic was unwavering. Upon each paycheck, Marianna would send the money she could spare back to her family. When informed of her younger brother’s college aspirations, she pushed aside hopes for her own education and continued to sacrificially send support. Due to her tireless efforts and his diligent studying, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Extremely proud of him, Marianna is filled with gratitude when considering her role in helping him.
Away from her family and home for almost a decade, Marianna’s mother encouraged her to return home at the end of her contract. She enjoyed a restful reunion with her family for a couple of months before assessing the continued lack of employment opportunities at home, so she sought work abroad again. Through a connection with a relative in Lebanon, Marianna was granted documents for a domestic worker role similar to her jobs in Cyprus and Manila. She lived and worked with an employer family and transitioned well. However, at the end of her two year term, government regulations had changed: she could not renew her contract, nor had she earned enough money to return home.
A fellow Filipino woman compassionately provide Marianna with work at a Lebanese nail salon. This woman was more than just an employer to her, but a friend who fostered community: someone she considered to be family. During this new-found season of stability, Marianna met a man named Abdul* through the connection of a mutual friend. He was an Iraqi refugee who had fled Saddam Hussein’s army and escaped by foot to Syria. There he was granted refugee status with the UNHCR (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) and temporarily resettled in Lebanon. What began as a slow friendship, visiting once a week for two years, allowed them to truly get to know one another and lead into their biggest adventure either had ever been a part of: marriage.
With love in her eyes, Marianna joyfully described her wedding day. She smiled as she spoke of her husband and what a good man he was. However, because they were both so far from home on their big day, Marianna and Abdul were the only ones in attendance. Rainy and cold that afternoon, Marianna nevertheless saw it as a blessing and she still dreams of her walk down the aisle in her white dress.
In 2015, two years after she married Abdul, Marianna gave birth to their son, David*. But tears welled up in Marianna’s eyes as she pressed forward in our conversation to describe a series of events full of trial and great difficulty.
During the years Marianna worked at the nail salon, the Lebanese government required differing detailed worker permits and documentation dependent upon the type of immigrant or refugee employment. Marianna’s status and documentation as the wife of a refugee was what she thought she needed in order to continue working in the salon. However, only five months after David was born, men from Lebanon’s Immigration Services arrived at the nail salon and informed her that her permit was not valid. Arrested and taken to jail, Marianna’s infant son was left behind in his crib at the shop.
She recounted her imprisonment through tears. Small and overcrowded, it offered no sunlight or fresh air due to its location under a bridge. Many of her fellow inmates were guilty of serious offenses. Marianna struggled to understand why she had been taken there. She desperately needed to be with her baby and above all, feared the possibility of being deported to the Philippines without her son and husband. She cried and prayed to God to reunite her with her family.
After 15 days, a representative from the UNHCR negotiated her release. Her prayers were answered: she was joyfully reunited with her family and returned to work with the proper paperwork. But soon Marianna learned that her father had fallen ill back in the Philippines. She needed her passport in order to visit him, but it had been confiscated when she was arrested! Marianna was advised that in order to retrieve her passport she would have to sign for it in person. Complying, she nervously returned, but instead of receiving her passport, prison authorities detained her again, this time with no reason or explanation. She suffered in prison another 15 days before the UNHCR could intervene. Tragically, her father passed away while she was detained and she missed his funeral. She felt as though her whole world had been flipped upside down. Relieved to be with her son and husband, she realized Lebanon was no longer the safe haven needed to raise a child and build a future. Abdul and Marianna urgently pursued permanent refugee resettlement.
In January 2017, Marianna, Abdul and David received the joyful news that they were finally granted permanent resettlement to the United States. World Relief Memphis greeted them with love and support for their early months of transition to their new home and new culture. During that same time, we paired them with a Good Neighbor Team, a small group of caring volunteers to walk alongside them in friendship and support. Together with World Relief, their Volunteers, and such a welcoming city, they are happy, healthy, and finally moving forward as a family.
Some milestones to celebrate in their first year in Memphis include Abdul’s job at a Memphis factory. He takes a few minutes of his lunch break to FaceTime with Marianna and David. Marianna passed her driver’s test after practicing daily with a new local Filipino friend. David is happy, healthy, and hungry to learn. English is spoken in their home, and he has learned his ABCs, counting to ten, and is quick to tell you what sound a horse makes. Seeing Marianna with David as he sleepily walks around their apartment in his Sponge Bob pajamas, it is incredibly touching to observe how devoted and caring a mother she is after having served so many other families as a nanny, and sending her money back to the Philippines to help her family survive. Now home with her own son, she provides David with encouragement and the deepest love. American flags and red, white and blue decorations grace their hospitable first American apartment, where tasty recipes are shared and delicious food is served to visitors. Marianna, content after so many years of hardship and fear, beams with joy. Now that she, Abdul, and David are settled in the U.S., they are happy…and they are free.
– by Stephen Sneed
After reading Marianna’s story, can you identify the global giants she had to overcome? Some common obstacles for women and girls around the world include gender inequality, access to education, employment opportunities, and harmful belief systems – resulting in social, emotional, physical, and spiritual poverty.
Additionally, 22.5 million people have official refugee status due to persecution and conflict like Abdul. Less than 1% are approved for permanent resettlement in the U.S. and other countries.
Be part of welcoming them – and transforming communities at home and around the world. If you would like to learn more about Good Neighbor Teams or other ways to come alongside our refugee and immigrant community, please visit worldrelief.org/memphis/get-involved/volunteer.