Syrian refugee finds home in Santa Maria, Bulacan

A Philippine municipality, one of 13 local signatories to the cities #WithRefugees campaign, has warmly welcomed a Syrian refugee, not only into the local community, but also in its own municipal staff.

© UNHCR/Althea Gonzales

Every day, Malek El Hashash carries with him a small red notebook where he jots down Filipino words and phrases he learns for future reference. A Syrian by birth, Malek arrived in the Philippines over six years ago after fleeing conflict zones, first in his homeland, and later on, in Gaza, Palestine.

He sought asylum in the Philippines and has now been living in the country with his wife and two young children in the municipality of Santa Maria, Bulacan.

Upon discovering that a refugee resided in Santa Maria, the Office of the Municipal Mayor Russel Pleyto immediately registered Malek and his family in the municipality and offered free immunization for the children.

Malek was also offered employment in the Management Information Systems (MIS) unit of the municipality following years of taking on odd jobs as a means to make ends meet for him and his family. In Syria, he operated a computer shop and possessed a degree in accounting — skills that now come in handy in his day-to-day work.

“I am so appreciative that the government accepted me to work here and this is so kind of the mayor as well to accept me to work in this place,” Malek says. “I’m so thankful for the government that helps us refugees.”

Kindness bridges borders

Malek’s supervisor, Aris Teves, says that he and his team are also appreciative of Malek’s different perspective in tinkering with computer programs and hardware. There are times when Malek’s and his approaches are not the same but they end up with similar results. Aris considers this a unique experience for both of them to learn from each other. He says that sometimes Malek has ideas that they have previously never thought of, and this helps them improve their work.

“Every day, everyone must learn from the people around him. I continue to learn also. I get more experience here and I am very happy to work here in the municipality.”

Outside the technical aspect of his work, Malek also makes it a point to learn more about his coworkers, the municipality, and the country. It is his dream to one day receive Filipino citizenship through naturalization, one of the ways by which a refugee reaches a durable solution in the Philippines.

Malek is starting the process by learning Filipino with the help of his colleagues at the MIS office. The notebook he carries to jot down phrases was a suggestion made by Aris.

Many more refugees like Malek could be given assistance and the chance to build a self-reliant life through the support of local governments. Even as the Cities #WithRefugees campaign expands in the Philippines, the national government, through the Department of the Interior and Local Government, has issued a Memorandum Circular on Local Government Assistance for Persons of Concern (POCs), which aims to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers have uniform access to basic services and assistance at the local level, even in times of public emergencies.