LA UNION, Philippines: Arceli Nucos has returned home.
It's been a long journey for the 57-year-old over the last year. A journey of physical and mental recovery, after a car crash outside a shopping mall in Singapore last December left the foreign domestic worker injured and her sister Arlyn dead.
Speaking to CNA from her hometown of Caba in the northern Philippines, Arceli recalled the fatal car crash at Lucky Plaza on Dec 29 last year that left two dead and four injured.
WATCH: Every step a miracle, says Filipino migrant worker who survived Lucky Plaza crash in Singapore
Despite the heartbreak of losing her sister, she said she is not one to wallow in grudges and despair, because there is just too much to be grateful for.
“My employer, loved ones and my sister-in-law always visited me. God is with me. Fellow domestic workers visited during their day off. My employers visited when they had time. My nurses were kind, many of them Filipinos,” she said, smiling.
"Think positively. Even when I was in the hospital, I didn't treat it as a problem. Fight on."
After being discharged from the hospital, Arceli stayed with her employer for a month. They welcomed her back with a cake.
"I couldn’t work. My employer had to take care of me," said Arceli.
Arceli was on her day off, out with friends and family when the crash happened.
Ms Abigail Danao Leste, 41, and Arlyn, 50, were taken to the hospital, where they died from their injuries.
Besides Arceli, the other three injured were Ms Laila Flores Laudencia and cousins Ms Egnal Layugan Limbauan and Ms Demet Limbauan Limbauan.
Chong Kim Hoe, the 64-year-old driver, was charged in September this year under the Road Traffic Act for dangerous driving causing death, dangerous driving causing grievous hurt and dangerous driving causing hurt.
After the impact, Arceli found herself unable to move, and she looked towards her sister, who was also motionless.
"I was calling out Arlyn's name. I was asking for her help," Arceli said.
As she lay on the pavement, Arceli heard a faint voice saying "manang" and nothing more. She was sure it was her younger sister Arlyn – her jolly, talkative best friend.
"Manang" is a term of endearment for an older sister in their mother tongue Ilocano, the third most spoken native language in the Philippines.
That was the last time Arceli heard Arlyn's voice.
In her first few days at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Arceli was visited and assisted by her sister-in-law Rose. Arceli could not talk yet but could hear people around her.
Rose was the latest in the family to migrate to Singapore as a foreign domestic worker for the same employer that Arceli and Arlyn had worked for since 1990.
“The kids I helped raise have grown and married (with kids of their own). I was also going to take care of their children,” Arceli said fondly of their long-time employer.
On Arceli's seventh day in hospital, now able to talk, she asked about her sister. The doctor confirmed that Arlyn had died after the crash.
Rose travelled to the Philippines with Arlyn's remains on the first day of the year. Her eyes were swollen from crying when she arrived at the Clark International Airport in Pampanga, about 110km northwest of the Philippines' capital Manila.
A few government officials in charge of overseas Filipino workers' welfare were present as Arceli's younger siblings Reynaldo and Alice waited for Arlyn's remains.
"Arlyn Nucos needs to be honoured as an overseas foreign worker of 30 years in Singapore," said Mr Hans Leo Cacdac, head of the Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
"In difficulty and exhaustion, she served as her family's' breadwinner," he added.
Dusk had turned to night when a small crane appeared on the cargo platform. The casket had arrived.
Alice retreated to the vehicle that OWWA helped provide for their travel. Reynaldo rode with Arlyn's casket in a van as it was transported to their home province of La Union.
Reynaldo's group stopped by the funeral home to prepare Arlyn's body for the wake, which drew crowds and loud cries.
Rose then travelled back to Singapore to help Arceli. It was not the reunion they hoped for.
READ: 'Now that she’s gone, it makes us worry for our future': Lucky Plaza accident victim Arlyn Nucos buried in hometown
LOCAL JOBS GENERATION
The Nucos' hometown Caba is in the province of La Union, one of the Philippines’ largest overseas worker-sending provinces.
Small towns like Caba have seen the transition of residences from small huts to relatively larger homes thanks to the remittances of overseas foreign workers, a major driver of the country’s economy.
In 2019, remittances to the Philippines by Filipino expatriates hit a historic high of US$33.5 billion, boosting household income and consumption, and accounting for 9.3 per cent of GDP, said the Philippines’ central bank.
For this and more, overseas workers who often endure distant relationships with their family members are regarded as modern-day heroes in the country.
La Union has the biggest share of households where at least 50 per cent of their income comes from migrant workers' remittances, said a 2012 report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“Remittances from abroad contributed roughly a fifth of total household income in the province,” read the report.
“Since there are very limited off-farm employment opportunities, many La Union residents are then forced to look for jobs outside of the province, particularly in other countries,” the report read.
At Arlyn's wake, there were stories of her and Arceli’s generosity: The medical operation they subsidised, the family house whose renovation they paid for, and four college educations they funded even though the two of them did not finish college.
Such trade-offs have become the reality for Filipino families relying on overseas workers who are breadwinners.
Arlyn left home to be a domestic worker in Singapore at the age of 20 and, for more than half of her life, would only vacation every two years in the Philippines.
The same is the case for many long-term Filipino migrant workers whose contracts usually last two years before being renewed.
Loved ones, especially those younger than the 50-year-old Arlyn, have little memory of time spent with her apart from airport pick-ups and short vacations of 15 days to 3 months every two years.
"She was jolly and good to loved ones. When I picked her up at the airport, she doesn't sleep on the (journey home). Very cheerful person,” said Arlyn's cousin Henry Picar at her wake.
Focused on sending money back home, Arceli and Arlyn stayed single and financially supported not only their siblings but their nieces and nephews as well.
The Nucos family is now better off than they were three decades ago when Arceli and Arlyn left for Singapore, thanks to their sacrifices.
Arlyn migrated a few months ahead of Arceli.
"Our mum died. Our father was a farmer and fisherman. Because of poverty, she grabbed the opportunity to be a domestic worker in Singapore,” recalled their sister Alice, who is now a licensed teacher and the only one among the siblings who finished college.
Arlyn had wanted to retire in their picturesque seaside town, and had intended to fund a catering business to sustain her retirement so she can be home for good.
“The main driver for them to take the migration option is because the wages in the country are not competitive. It’s very low. It cannot survive a family of five, for example,” explained Ms Ellene Sana, director of the Centre for Migrant Advocacy.
In instances of an overseas worker’s death, a livelihood cash assistance of US$300 is available to either the surviving parent or spouse if the deceased was an active OWWA member. As much as US$100 is also granted for the schooling of the surviving eldest child. Membership costs US$25.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower requires employers of foreign domestic workers to provide a mandatory rest day weekly or equivalent compensation, and to buy medical insurance for the workers.
Arceli’s medical insurance became a valuable cost saving measure that she was able to benefit from. Her physical therapy sessions could still be reimbursed.
It has been an uphill journey of recovery for Arceli amid a pandemic year.
"I was told my wounds would take time to heal ... I spent 10 months in the hospital,” Arceli said.
If Arlyn was alive, Arceli said her sister would tell her to find joy in the here and now. Self-pity, said Arceli, would get her nowhere.
"She would probably tell me, ‘Fight on, manang. Keep doing what you’ve always done. Be strong’,” said Arceli.
Her younger brother Reynaldo is in awe of Arceli's strength of character.
“I am inspired by my older sister because she keeps on fighting no matter the adversity,” Reynaldo said, holding back his tears.
He is worried for Arceli, but his older sister would always just tell them she is fine whenever they speak over the phone.
She said boredom was already her toughest enemy. “The hardest part is not doing anything, because I’m used to working. I was just in bed for so long,” she said, laughing.
“I was just lying, sitting, lying again and then sleeping. When I was still well, I could work all day long. I’m hardworking that way. I don’t like being idle,” said Arceli.
Reynaldo said he and his children will care for Arceli. “For all her sacrifices for us, we will give back twofold in her time of need,” he said.
While they grew up poor, Reynaldo said they were taught by their fisherfolk-parents to have each other's back.
“We didn’t expect this to happen to her, but that’s life. That is how life is. What’s done is done. We will just support each other,” Reynaldo added.
Arceli believes her story is not so much a story of loss but of survival. This is her second chance at life, she added, and that every single step she takes today, even without perfect gait, is already a miracle.
She said her younger sister Arlyn would agree.