Maria-Luisa "Malou" Abenoja

Born: Manila, PI

Migrated: 1991

Before moving to the US, I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect. When we were young, people would say that America is so amazing and there are a lot of opportunities, which is true. But that kind of a description does not prepare you for America. It only gives you high hopes. So I was scared, you know? But I knew I had to go so that I could support my family. I am the oldest of seven kids. I had to help my siblings finish school and if I had stayed on the Philippines, I never would have been able to do that. The work was so hard, but the pay was not enough for survival. Can you imagine? I would be taking care of 20 patients with active TB, but my pay is only 700 pesos for 2 weeks. It was not enough to live on my own, let alone send my brothers and sisters to school and support my mom. I was in Saudi Arabia for a while and it was nice, but as the money started to lessen, I knew I had to leave again.

I had some friends who found out about a recruitment agency that was hiring nurses to go work in the United States. There were a lot of AIDS patients in the hospital that was recruiting, and at the time, they still didn’t know the mode of contraction of HIV so the hospital was losing a lot of nurses. There was a nursing shortage! So they sent recruiters to the Philippines because we are very well known for having a lot of good nurses. I applied for work through the agency and got a working visa for New York. In the weeks before leaving, the other nurses and I attended prep classes that went over American culture and where to find resources. The presenter asked, “Where are you going to in the States?” I said, “New York City.” And they tell you where the Filipino American centers are, where there is a high concentration of Filipinos, and the places you can go to for help or support. One of the things they prepared us for is culture shock. I didn’t believe that I would experience such a thing, but when I got to New York, it was so different and fast paced. In the hospital you have so many people observing what you’re doing and giving you orders. I didn’t like it at all and I got so homesick! I called my sister who lived in Michigan and told her that I just wanted to go home. It’s too hard to be here. But she encouraged me to stay because it was still better to be here than to go back home. The work was hard, but the money was good. The recruitment agency provided a place to live and my roommates were some of the other nurses who immigrated with me. I didn’t have to worry about my basic needs and I was able to support my family back home. Even then, I was still very homesick. There wasn’t a very large Filipino community where I was and I felt very lonely.

My working visa was good for New York and for Michigan, so after one year, I moved to Detroit to be with my sister and auntie. I loved Michigan! There were more Filipinos there and I was living with my sister so I felt a lot better. I had so many friends in the hospital! When we had weekends off, we would get in my brother-in-law’s car and just drive to so many different places. I really enjoyed my time there.

I met my husband through a friend and we were pen pals for a while. He lived in Seattle with his family, and they were well-established there. After we got married and I was pregnant with my daughter, we discussed our living situation and who would move where. My husband was worried about me living in Michigan without very much familial support. My in-laws were living with him and would be able to take care of our daughter while we were at work. But I was still on a working visa in Michigan and I couldn’t just leave. I gave birth to my daughter in Washington then after 3 months, went back to Michigan to work again and become a permanent US resident. At first, the lead physician didn’t want to let me move. But I would bring my baby to work and tell him “Look at my daughter. She’s 6 months old now and she’s growing up apart from her dad.” Eventually I got his approval and I was able to move to Seattle.

About a year and a half later, I had my son. We worked hard so that our kids always had what they needed. We faced many obstacles, but you don’t really think about how hard you’re struggling when you have such a strong goal in mind. Also, that is just the culture of our people: to work hard so that you can achieve your goals. So that later on you can enjoy the fruit of your labor, knowing that your children are able to stand on their own. It is my greatest wish that my kids finish school and are able to live independently and sustainably. That will be the most rewarding feeling and is worth moving across the world for.