Xyza Bacani‘s story of having been left behind by her mother when she was only eight years old to work in Singapore is a story shared by many Filipino children of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). It was in fact this writer’s story, too. When I was 11 years old, my mother left me behind to work as an OFW in Saudi Arabia. There are over 10 million OFWs worldwide, so there are a lot children like Xyza, her two siblings and me who grew up or are growing up without a parent or both parents. That’s a lot of families living apart from each other.
That OFW diaspora is what’s highlighted in “We Are Like Air”, the debut book of international street and documentary photographer Xyza Bacani, who used to work as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. Its launch at the Ayala Museum was hosted by Fujifilm in partnership with Asia Society Philippines.
The book is very personal for Xyza because it chronicles her own family’s experience from the time her mother Georgia left in 1986 to provide a better life for them until the time she herself became a domestic worker at 18 years old. Migrant workers could not have found a better storyteller than Xyza who gained international acclaim for her black-and-white photos of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. She has won scholarship grants and several photography awards for her work, including the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellows award.
After chronicling other Filipinos’ lives, she has focused her lens on her own family. The text was also written by Xyza and it took her two years to finish the book. It is so personal that when she was asked to read some excerpts from the book, she stopped a couple of times because she got so emotional.
More than anything, Xyza hopes that the book will have an impact on the children of migrant workers and their families. Her message to OFWs and their children: “They need to be their own heroes, to think about themselves also. And for their families, they need to ask questions. The children should always communicate with their OFW parents. They need to understand that their parents left, not because they just want to leave, but because they want to give them a better life”.
She also revealed that she had separation anxiety because of her childhood experience of being left behind by her OFW mother, so she hopes that other OFW children will have a healthy outlook on their plight. She has become the unofficial spokesperson of many migrant workers and she continues to raise awareness for under-reported issues and stories relating to labor, migration, and human rights.
She explained, “Migration is happening and we cannot stop it, but what we can do is create a society where migrants are treated equally as human beings, protected from exploitation, and encouraged to grow. If we can do that, then their home and host countries will also benefit.”
Thus, she advises OFWs and their families to use their votes wisely in the upcoming elections: “Stop electing people who do not care for OFWs”. She also has this to say to politicians or groups using OFWs for their own interests: “Please stop saying that you are giving us a voice, that is bull****, we have a voice and you need to start listening to us.”
As a Fujifilm X-Photographer and XPPH Member, Xyza continues to inspire fellow Filipino photographers and migrant workers. She is also one of the BBC’s 100 Women of the World for 2015, and Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in 2016.
Xyza is happy about the feedback of the migrant community about her book. According to her, some OFW employers are buying the book as a gift to OFWs. The book is written in English, Basic Chinese, and Filipino. “We Are Like Air” retails for Php2,500 and is sold online at https://we-press.com/xyza/.