Caregiver’s 'X Factor’ Victory Electrifies Filipino Community in Israel

Rose Fostanes has become a pop idol for local Filipinos, even if their children were rooting for the Israeli singer.

Rose Fostanes’ journey from anonymous caregiver to reality TV star began inside a south Tel Aviv karaoke bar, located a few doors down from a brothel and adjacent to a vacant lot that reeks of urine.

For the past three years Fostanes has performed regularly at Mommy’s Place, a popular hangout among Filipino workers who spend their weekends in Tel Aviv. She has also sung at numerous events in the Filipino community, building a loyal following that rallied behind her as she advanced on “X Factor Israel.” For these fans, and the Filipino community at large, Fostanes’ improbable victory on the show last week was a reflection of their unity and national pride – not to mention their knack for singing and karaoke.

“It’s very hard to beat the Filipinos,” said Ched Hacmon, the owner of a remittance business who recruited her Filipino clients to vote for Fostanes by text message and online. “We are number one in the world in texting and number one in karaoke.” Asked why Filipinos are so fond of karaoke, Hacmon said, “This is the cheapest way we have to entertain ourselves.”

Still, many Filipinos said they were surprised that the 47-year-old Fostanes – known in the community by her nickname “Osang” – won an Israeli singing competition, given that she is not Israeli and does not speak Hebrew. On the show’s Facebook page, some viewers dismissed the results as “fixed”; one complained that “the contestant who didn’t perform a single song in Hebrew won ‘X Factor Israel.’ This might be funny if it weren’t so sad.”

Brenda Mendaros, who looks after a 14-year-old handicapped girl in Ramat Gan, said Fostanes deserved to win because “she wasn’t afraid to share her talent, even though she’s a caregiver and she doesn’t have the look.”

There are approximately 30,000 Filipinos living in Israel, 90 percent of whom are women and working as caregivers for the elderly and physically challenged. Although the workers are scattered around the country, they gather nearly every Saturday night – their only time off, in most cases – at venues in Tel Aviv to recharge their batteries and celebrate their culture.

“The most important part of the culture is having events,” said Noa Galili, an Israeli advocate for the rights of Filipino children. “It’s very important for them to stay united, because a lot of them live abroad. They want to stay Filipinos, to keep that part of themselves intact.”

The events, which are organized under the auspices of the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel with support from the Philippine Embassy, include musical and dance performances, beauty pageants, sports tournaments, and celebrations for national and religious holidays.

There is usually a fund-raising component to each event, Galili said. In recent months, the community has raised thousands of shekels for schools, orphanages and the victims of natural disasters in the Philippines.

“This trait of helping out at home is really outstanding,” said Simi Salpeter, an Israeli man whose late wife, Montie, was one of the first Filipinos to organize cultural events for the community in the 1990s. “They are very nice, warm people with strong family ties. That’s why they became so loved here.”

While Filipino caregivers tend to form close bonds with their employers and their employers’ families, Salpeter said, the community is “quite closed to outsiders.”

He recalled the tense period in the early 2000s, when the Israeli government conducted regular raids on the residences of foreign workers in south Tel Aviv. (He admits to hiding many Filipinos in his home during this time.) Relations between the Filipino community and the government reached a nadir in 2005, when then Filipino ambassador Antonio Modena compared the tactics of the immigration authorities to those of the Gestapo. Modena later apologized for the comment.

Today, Salpeter said, the situation is much better, as more than 250 families have received residency permits and dozens of children born to Filipino or mixed couples have completed school and served in the Israel Defense Forces. (Some 260 families are still waiting for their cases to be reviewed by the Interior Ministry.)

Galili noted that the children from the community attend Israeli schools, speak Hebrew and have Israeli friends. In fact, some were disappointed that Fostanes beat out a younger Israeli singer on “X Factor.” “All the kids were like, ‘Why didn’t Eden Ben Zaken win?’” Galili said. “They are very much Israeli.”

Just after midnight on Thursday, Fostanes arrived at Mommy’s Place for a victory party thrown by Moovz, a gay social network launched in Israel last year. In addition to the support she received from Filipinos, Fostanes was embraced by Israel’s LGBT community after revealing on the show that she is a lesbian, according to Boyet Dalisay, the East Asia regional director for Moovz.

Clearly exhausted after a whirlwind day of media appearances, Fostanes dutifully posed for photos, sang a few bars of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and did a live interview, in Tagalog, for a morning television show in the Philippines.

“There is a sense of euphoria all over the country, in the Philippines, and in other expatriate communities worldwide because they’ve been watching the ‘X Factor’ and monitoring the progress of Rose,” said the current Filipino ambassador, Generoso D.G. Calonge, speaking at the party.

“I hope Israelis will realize that the Filipinos here who are mostly caregivers, some if not many of them also have a slightly different dimension to their lives, that they also have talents, that they can express themselves in other ways.”

The “X Factor” winner is entitled to a recording contract, but it was reported last week that Fostanes cannot make money as a singer in Israel because she has a special caregiver visa that prohibits other forms of employment. With characteristic warmth and humility, Fostanes told Haaretz she is not intent on pursuing a music career.

“If there is a chance that I can change my job, maybe I will talk to my employer and she will understand this,” she said. “But I think I don’t want to leave her because I love her so much.”

AFP
Daniel Bar-On