The Story of Isabel Grace Villegas
As told to Janina Marie Rivera
A House Maid in Europe
I knelt on the bathroom floor, tears flowing from my eyes. “Lord, hindi ako tamad na estudyante. Nag-aral po ako ng mabuti. Do I deserve this?” I didn’t know I was being watched through the CCTV.
As I wept, I remembered my brother who taught me how to clean toilets. His first assignment as a deckhand was to clean the toilets of a ship. I was certainly not in a ship, but I was in the bathroom of a stranger’s house in faraway Europe where I had applied as a humble house maid.
Back in the Philippines, life was different. I was a licensed professional pre-school teacher and a nurse in the province of Concepcion, Iloilo. I had also been trained in the United States as a missionary, having received expert instruction in the area of tribal missions where our targets were the poorest of the poor in Asia.
So what was I doing in Europe? And of all professions, why was I a domestic worker? Let me start from the beginning:
My Humble Beginnings
I come from a family of eight siblings—all whom have three or four different professions. My father made a living as a fisherman, while my mother stayed at home as a housewife. They were both Christians.
“My sisters and I”
At the age of seven, I suffered asthma and therefore stayed only in three places: the house, the school, and the church. However, I was advised to walk, so I would go to our farm to breathe. Because I did this, I encountered fish vendors, farmers, and herders all the time. I developed a desire to teach them, and this desire became the foundation for the purpose of my life.
One day, while still in elementary school, I passed by a church. There was a prayer meeting going on, and I decided to sit at the back. I saw an old man crying, so I asked him what his problem was. He said in our dialect, “I want to read a verse out loud, but I don’t know how to read the Bible.” This stirred something in my heart, and I said to myself, “Perhaps every weekend, I could come and teach this man and other people how to read!”
I did this and started to grow fond of teaching—yes, at 7 years old. I felt joy in my heart!
Growing in My Calling
While I was in my sixth grade at elementary school, I was given the privilege to go to Cambodia and Thailand as a volunteer missionary to the Akha tribe. This was made possible through a family friend who was a doctor. God spoke to my heart, saying, “You must become a teacher and a nurse.” I therefore learned how to massage people effectively and read their vital signs. Among the Akha, there were HIV positive patients, including children. It was their hope that missionaries clothe them, feed them, and share the Gospel to them.
Then tragedy struck. My father was diagnosed with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver; this rendered him bedridden for seventeen years. My mother, meanwhile, developed bone cancer. She also had a stroke and was operated on in the right kidney. Like my father, she became bedridden, but for fifteen years.
“Wheeling my Tatay, Jesus Dignadice Villegas”
“My Nanay, Neri Punsalan Villagas”
As my siblings and I grew into professionals, we knew that we could not afford the medical bills unless some of us went outside the country to work. We had to be responsible since our parents needed medicine.
Leaving the Country for Work
I decided to go to Europe. It was a place where I could earn higher wages. It also seemed to be an environmentally conducive continent to nurse my asthma.
I flew to Vienna, Austria, where I was privileged to do office work with the United Nations under an American scientist. However, I stayed in this job for only one month because the scientist was directed back to the United States.
This left me in Europe to survive. I couldn’t use my teaching license or my nursing skills because I was only licensed in the Philippines. I therefore looked for jobs as a household helper. I also looked for opportunities in language tutorial since I knew how to speak German, English, and Spanish. I looked for anything that could give me income! Sometimes, I would volunteer in orphanages or in hospices for the aged. I would receive small gifts out of these, but they were not enough to sustain me or pay my parents’ medical bills.
I was advised to apply as a household helper to diplomats and ambassadors because they paid higher than average families.
“At the Mozart Monument in Vienna”
Finding Work as a Household Help
I found work with a Jew who was married to a very rich German wife. However, she was like Hitler; she didn’t want me to eat. I would work for more than 24 hours. Normally, a helper would get 20-30 Euros in a day, but I was only paid 5 Euros a day. I decided to look for other jobs.
As I started to apply for other work, I prayed: “Lord, I only want to work Mondays to Fridays. I want to rest on Saturdays and then go to church on Sundays. I do not want to compromise my Sundays. They are for You.”
I searched for house maid openings with other ambassadors and consuls. There were good job offers presented, but Saturdays and/or Sundays would always be asked of me, causing me to decline the offers. All the while, my parents’ medical condition—particularly my father’s— grew worse.
Despite declining the job offers, I would tell my interviewers that if I found someone who fit their terms, I would recommend them. This left favor from them toward me. I felt sad I declined, yet many times on the train as I traveled back to where I lodged, God reminded me of particular people who needed work. I would refer this person and that person, and then hear about their job acceptance and joy.
I was often told not to be choosy with jobs. However, I had a specific prayer request, and I wanted to stick to it. Again and again, I would go to other ambassadors. Always, I would request for my Sundays to be free. And always, I would get a NO. On the fifth offer, I had a pivotal moment.
At the trail of the Austrian train that goes to the province. I would get down here to transfer to the other train station back to the city.
Tested Again and Again
The salary offered to me was good. The employer was kind. But this time, I was challenged. This potential employer told me frankly she didn’t believe in God. “Why should you go to church on Sundays?” she asked. “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t want you to go to church on Sundays because God is not real!”
I weighed my choice heavily— even telling myself that perhaps I could take this job so that the employer could realize that God was real! But God spoke to my heart, “Why should you go through with this? Stick to Sundays off!” My heart and mind fought with each other. I cried so hard. My heart did not want to lose Sundays. My mind wanted the job. But still, I had to say NO to the job offer.
While in the train en route to where I lived, I hid my tears in my bonnet. When I looked up, my eyes were drawn to another teary-eyed woman. She had no slippers, no sandals, and no shoes in the freezing winter. She was looking at me, confused. There was something wrong.
“Are you a Filipina?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Ate! Tulungan mo po ako! Ginahasa ako ng employer kong Arabo!”
I was stunned. “Saan ka pupunta ngayon?” I asked.
“Di ko po alam,” the woman said.
I realized that this lady could have the job I had just turned down. “Let’s get down the train. I know the right job for you!” I said.
“Are you sure?”
I answered, “I have a place to go home to; you don’t. And I have a deal for you… fix your papers for this job and whatever happens— if you get pregnant from the rape— don’t kill the baby!”
We headed toward the earlier employer, and she was taken in.
Despite this, I was still so sad. I prayed, “I know you are God, you are King! Please attend to my cry!” I was at the end of my rope. All the work offers were so good, but I declined all of them.
A Job Opportunity
At exactly 9:30PM of that same day, I received a call. “Somebody referred your name, “ said the person at the other end of the line. “Are you interested to work for us?”
I immediately answered, “Yes!” I didn’t know the details, but I felt sure that this was God’s answer to my prayer.
The next day, I took care to dress well, fix my hair, and apply make-up on my face. I went to my job interview. My potential employer looked so simple. She had no make-up on and no jewelry. She bluntly asked, “Are you sure you want to work with me?”
“Yes, ma’m. Any kind of work.”
She grabbed a mop from the floor and said, “Okay, I’ll show you your work place.” She brought me to the bathroom.
And my first assignment?
“Clean the toilet for two hours,” she said.
Isabel Grace Villegas
What happens next to Isabel? Does she secure this particular job, even if it means cleaning toilets? And who is this blunt but simple employer? Find out in PART 2 of Isabel’s story, “A Job Please–But Not on Sundays, Lord!”
Writer’s Note: The story of Isabel Villegas comes in many parts. In fact, job hunting is only one slice of her highly interesting life. Isabel is currently in the Philippines due to the lockdown brought by Covid-19. She is the Founder of Kayang Kayang Missions International, Inc., which provides basic medical and livelihood services to unreached communities and tribes in the Philippines. Because of what she does at Kayang Kayang, Isabel has been awarded by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Naval Forces, and the Special Forces of Philippine Military. Isabel has also been awarded for her work by the governments of Sweden and Thailand. This information, of course, is altogether another story in the life of Isabel.
Janina Marie Rivera is the author of the book, A Night Bird Sings of Blindness and Fear and has co-authored the devotional, Dawns, published by OMF Literature. She is a contributing poet in the books Joyful Light and Whitmanthology: on Loss and Grief by Various Authors. She is the Editor-in-Chief of One Voice Magazine.