Bayanihan, in the Filipino language of Tagalog, describes the collective spirit of coming together to help one another in times of need. The word has origins in a practice in rural areas of the Philippines, when people join together to literally lift and move a fellow community member’s home, often to avoid climate disasters like typhoons. It’s that community spirit of rebuilding together in the face of disaster that a new Filipino community center in Portland seeks to embody, in the face of a great disaster of our time: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Filipino Bayanihan Center opened its doors in Southeast Portland earlier this summer to provide an array of resources and a community gathering place for Oregon’s growing Filipino population. Its opening is the latest step in COVID-19 response efforts that began in 2020, when community leaders realized how drastically the pandemic was affecting Filipinos in Oregon, especially migrant and overseas workers.
A centerpiece of the Bayanihan Center’s efforts is a community-based health program, which seeks to identify and respond holistically to the health needs of Filipino community members. There’s also the weekly Kalusugan Community Pantry, which provides fresh local produce grown by Filipino small farmers, bread, and bus passes for pick up every Thursday free of charge. Talakayan at Kapehan (discussion and coffee time) provides an opportunity for Filipinos across generations to have community conversations on topics ranging from mental health, to antiracism, to Filipino rights. These are only a few of the center’s planned offerings so far.
“It’s that Bayanihan spirit that allows communities to rebuild and rehabilitate,” says volunteer staff member Adrianne Sebastian. “That we’re able to do that in Portland and Oregon is just a testament to what our community really stands for, regardless of how far away we are from the Philippines.”
Sebastian works closely with the center’s community health program, drawing from her own experience as a health care worker: She’s a naturopathic physician based in Portland. She talked with OPB about the Bayanihan Center’s work, and about the support Filipinos in Oregon need to weather the pandemic. Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Jenn Chávez: This center grew out of work that you and others were doing to provide aid to the Filipino community earlier in the pandemic. As COVID-19 was coming on last year, how did you see it impacting Filipinos in Oregon?
Adrianne Sebastian: For us, we really started to understand, who was the most impacted in our community? Who was it that was experiencing the most job loss? Who was it that was contracting COVID at the highest rate? Who those people were, are new migrants, overseas Filipino workers. They were also our essential front-line workers. Filipinos are part of various industries all across the state, but are often not disaggregated in the data and the information. It was really a community campaign: various community organizations, grassroots organizations, Filipino small businesses, nursing associations, really having initial discussions about how we could support those that were most affected in our community. And so, it was that rallying spirit that you described that really started a lot of our food delivery programs, finding resources for wraparound services to help those that were contracting COVID find their way towards quarantine, being able to still afford rent in quarantine, having to support people that had to temporarily separate from their families. And also, uncover[ing] some in the community that were neglected, because they were kind of in this middle ground, where they had migrated from the Philippines, were on temporary work visas or student visas, and were pretty much stranded, without knowing how to navigate how to get repatriated back home.
Chávez: I know you’re closely involved with the Bayanihan Center’s community-based health program in particular. What are some of the health-related resources you’re offering now that the center is open?
Sebastian: Well, it really starts with, are we addressing the most immediate and thinking about the long-term needs of the community? Part of that is launching a health impact survey and a needs assessment survey that also asks about the economic impacts during this pandemic. We are also helping those in our community access vaccinations. Right now, we’re really prioritizing the vaccination of seafarers that are docked at the Portland and Vancouver ports. We also are working with caregivers to learn and investigate what their migration stories are. Being that a great deal of Filipinos work in the health industry, as caregivers but also as nurses: are they experiencing the protections and health and safety standards that should be upheld in the workplace? Really advocating for their rights as well.
Chávez: The situation in the Philippines right now with the COVID-19 pandemic is very different than in the United States. Vaccine access and vaccination rates are much lower there. I think maybe around 10% of the country has been vaccinated. Does the pandemic in the Philippines, and how it has been handled by President Rodrigo Duterte, affect your work serving Filipinos in Oregon?
Sebastian: Oh, absolutely. Our center really is prioritizing overseas Filipino workers that are still citizens of the Philippines that are oftentimes experiencing neglect and lack of transparency about when they can return home, what it looks like to return home. Can they access the vaccine? What are the costs of being able to go home and quarantine once they arrive back in the Philippines? They’ve been neglected by the Philippine state. They’ve been promised assistance and stipends, and they haven’t received that, and they’re also not able to receive the stipends that were awarded to U.S. citizens. Because of the increased militarized response overseas, it makes it all the more difficult for our communities to even consider going back home. And it’s such a critical year, because it is an election year for the Duterte government, overseas Filipinos being a huge part of that population that has voting power.
Chávez: You, yourself, are a health care worker as well. You’re a naturopathic physician based in Portland. And you also had the experience of growing up in a migrant community in the San Francisco Bay Area. What has your own journey taught you about health care access and health care needs for Filipinos in the U.S.?
Sebastian: What I’ve experienced with navigating these systems, alongside my family and alongside community members, is just the difficulty to understand and make autonomous decisions. Especially when language barriers are involved, especially operating in a system that has to turn a profit. More people in the community are going into medical debt, or are not sure how to navigate insurance. A lot of the decisions made about their health are within this pharmaceutical model, which is very different from what is traditionally known or made available back home in the Philippines. There’s efforts to hire more advocates and medical interpreters in the clinic setting, but there’s just a lot more that needs to be done. And so really, our center is trying to create a community-based health model in which we can help direct community members to places where they can speak the same languages with their primary care providers, or they can access mental health, and a place to talk about the trauma of migration or the difficulty in the workplace. [We want to] be able to offer community solutions to some of those problems.
Listen to the conversation with Adrianne Sebastian using the audio player at the top of this page.