Austria, now, is on its second wave of CoVid-19 infections. The capital city of Vienna has now been declared as a high risk area. Surrounding countries like Germany and Switzerland raised the red flag to its citizens wishing to travel to Vindobona.
It’s a gloomy yearend for the tourism industry but most of all a nightmare for those working in the health sector. There are, of course, many FilipinX working in hospitals, sanatoriums, clinics, or hospices around the city.
I stumbled upon a news clip dated January 1981 (the paper aged almost yellow-brown) of the locally published Kurier Sunday magazine edition here in Austria which featured Filipina Nurses – their frustrations, their goals, their homesickness.
Pinay nurses came to Central Europe – in a strange landlocked country called Österreich, where German is the official language. An entirely different ballgame.
The clip reported 2000 Pinay Nurses working for Viennese Hospitals around the metropolitan. The Austrian Health Ministry realized the need for medical workers contacted the Philippine Government to supply them with the needed manpower between the 1970s and 80s. During this time, the Philippines was already a forerunner in producing nurses – destined to work mostly in the US or in some other foreign country.
The first batch of Filipina nurses came to Austria in 1973. The second wave arrived a year after. And more waves of migrant Pinoy nurses followed.
Around 46 years ago, about a dozen young women were captured by the local news as they came out on the arrival hall of the old Airport, emulating their exotic smiles.
Most of them unknowingly wore thick winter clothes – some even wearing winter-jackets as they landed on that hot summer day. Most of them took only their faith, courage and that ever lingering Pinoy resiliency.
Mrs. Elizabeth Boczek (maiden name Verzo) now retired, used to work as hospital midwife in the nearby Municipality of Baden. She narrated her life changing story as one of those first health professional migrants who came in 1974.
She was amiable enough to accept an interview. Here are some excerpts.
How did you know about work placements for Austria?
Mrs. E Boczek: I didn’t really know where Austria was. All I knew was there was a job placement somewhere foreign and I was determined to work anywhere, anyhow. I was a fresh graduate in Manila and I wanted to help my mother financially. She only needed to sign a ‘parental consent’ since during that time I was turning 20 years old.
What were your expectations of the working area?
Mrs. E Boczek: Back then we were just rounded up by a private recruiter agency. We were briefed of what to bring but what to expect — not really. All we were thinking was, we wanted to fly to the assignment and earn a living.
How was your first week in Austria?
Mrs. E Boczek: We were assigned sleeping quarters, dorm-type rooms only for the staff (Krankenschwesterheim). We as a group always went around together around the hospital grounds or to shop nearby. It was an unfamiliar place and store hours were limited during the day. Learning the German language was hard. It was like we were back in primary school. We had German lessons and subjects every week after we landed. Translating was very hard.
How were you treated as workers?
Mrs. E Boczek: We were treated fairly even though the work contract only stated one year. We were working long hours. Around 12 hours per shift. The first year passed; the city hospital committee evaluated us and we’re happy with our general performance. They said we were very friendly and always smiling. Our contract was extended to another 3 years and then we were fully accepted to a longer employment term. We were even incited to apply for Austrian citizenship afterward.
How was the dream of earning a living?
Mrs. E Boczek : Ang Hirap ! (It was hard!) Sending money to Pinas was tiresome especially during the 70s and 80s. Austria had another currency called Schilling. We had to change it to US Dollars first before we can send the money to Pinas. And there were no money remittances way back then. We had to go to the bank. And the fees of sending money were quite high. But how can you go back home when you earn double the wage here compared to Pinas? Ang baba masyado ng sweldo sa atin! So we stretched more Pinoy patience.
How did you fully integrate into Austrian culture and society?
Mrs. E Boczek: The job helped. But it took years before I really got adjusted to the local life. Back then we had to queue in phone booths to call our loved ones in Pinas. It was depressing. And when winter sets in – the more depressing it was. It was very cold, inches of deep snow, skies always grey.
From the start, we were just contract workers but in 1979 the Vienna City Government acknowledged and recognized our Philippine diplomas or qualifications and we were ‘upgraded’. By then, I moved to an available post outside the city as I met an Austrian man – but that’s another story…(ends up laughing).
Did you ever feel discriminated against? As a foreign-looking woman working in a hospital?
Mrs. E Boczek: No. Austrians especially the ones in the countryside are very nice. And because Pinays work in one of the most important sectors in Austrian society – there is somehow respect attributed to us Filipinos. We came to work and not just ask money from the Austrian government. We looked different and they are quite interested in our culture. Especially when I married a local, my in-laws were very helpful and supportive.
Were there chances of upgrading your employment status?
Mrs. E Boczek: Oh yes, after some years the government offered more further training. And there was an increased pay every two years. With regard to equal pay rights, yes to some degree.
Any regrets as to the decision of coming to Vienna 46 years ago?
Mrs. E Boczek : Naahh. No. Kung walang tiyaga, walang din nilaga. (No sweat, no gain). It was hard but it was worth it.
As I ended the interview, it made me ponder on the plight of nurses throughout the years. Many Pinay nurses have settled here in Vienna and established families and had successful careers.
I recall, almost all of my aunts and female cousins from my mother’s side migrated to the States or any other English-speaking country to work as nurses. All celebrated in their individual endeavors.
But what about now, as the pandemic tolled on many of the nurses and health workers worldwide?
Recently, the International Council of Nurses reported more than a thousand deaths. A video produced by a Philippine broadcast company shown through the net indicated the Philippine nurses as being the lowest paid in Southeast Asia.
It is a sad thought, that many nurses may not be as fortunate as Mrs. Boczek. Times were different. Back then, a nurse or medical personnel was well respected and highly valued in society. Nowadays, we hear of reports health staff either discriminated, prejudiced, or feared upon as vectors of diseases.
There were reports of Pinoy nurses in the UK being transferred to CoVid patient wards, thus getting infected in the process. It is heartbreaking to watch Pinoy nurses lose their lives as they swore to hold the line of defense.
Early this year the 12th of May 2020 was International Nurses Day. It was supposed to honor the modern-day ‘Florence Nightingales’.
An old high school classmate now a registered nurse based in the US described how a modern Nightingale works – ‘With this profession, you need a heart of steel. When someone dies, you grieve for a minute and continue with the next patient. Death becomes a daily routine – you’re calloused with it.’
The year 2020 will have to be renamed the Year of the HealthWorkers as the sinister virus claimed many medical professionals.
The battle rages on and the plight remains perilous. For how long – no one knows.