BEIRUT: Audience members swooned and loud whoops and cheers rang through the auditorium as Kenneth Tatoy’s honeyed voice echoed along its walls.
He sang “Muli,” or “Once Again,” a mellifluous melody about a man who tries to win back his love.
“Few in Lebanon have had the chance to see Filipinos as singers and dancers,” said Leah Basinang-Ruiz, the ambassador of the Philippines.
Hundreds of Filipinos gathered at the UNESCO Palace Sunday to celebrate 116 years since their country’s independence, with a cultural show featuring folk dances and singing competitions and a food exhibit showcasing the culinary tradition of the Philippines.
Ruiz said the Philippines’ cultural traditions often blended the influences of the country’s neighbors in Southeast Asia with those of Spain and the United States, both of which have ruled the archipelago.
“We are still a young nation,” she said, that nevertheless has managed a growth rate of over 7 percent despite the shattering Typhoon Haiyan that claimed over 5,000 lives late last year.
Ruiz said the independence day celebrations were crucial to strengthening the feelings of community and camaraderie among the population here, which numbers nearly 30,000 and plays a crucial role in powering the Philippines economy with remittances.
The scene at the celebration was jubilant, and crowds gathered at tables sporting traditional Filipino fare, from chewy Biko rice pudding with its base of coconut milk, and puto cupcakes, to soy sauce and vinegar-glazed chicken adobo and pancit bihon, a dish made with chicken breast, garlic, shallots, cabbage, carrots, green beans and rice noodles.
Carmelita Sawma, a Filipina from Manila who is married to a Lebanese man, said she served pancit bihon on birthdays because the rice noodles symbolized long life.
Sawma said the main challenge she faced acclimatizing to Lebanese society was discrimination – at malls, restaurants and on the street, people assume she is an uneducated domestic worker. But she said most of the domestic workers in Lebanon toiled to send their children to school and university and help their families.
Ruiz said the plight of domestic workers was the greatest challenge facing the community here. About 97 percent of Filipinos in Lebanon are female and of those, the vast majority work in households, while the rest work in skilled jobs, the farming sector and hospitality industries.
She said cooperation was ongoing with the Lebanese government to develop a new contract system that guarantees days off and allows Filipinas to change employers and stay in touch with their families. She hopes the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam will help bring the new system into force.
“For now, we are all together,” Ruiz said.