To reach out to our kababayans in the United States who are afflicted by the global health crisis, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, in cooperation with the Philippine Consulate General (PCG) in Los Angeles, successfully conducted the Online Ugnayan sa Los Angeles on October 22 (Thursday), which started at 8:00 p.m. (Los Angeles Time) via Zoom and FB Live.

Home to more than 400,000 Filipino-Americans, the City of Angels is the second stop of the CFO Ugnayan Series for this year, right after Japan. The Ugnayan also had participants from cities and states under the jurisdiction of the Philippine Consulate, such as San Diego, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

The US is the most badly hit country in the world by the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), having 8 million confirmed cases and around 220,000 casualties as of October 2020, according to the latest data of World Health Organization. About 800,000 of these cases are reported in California. That is why the theme of the Ugnayan – #WeRiseAsOne” – focused on the Philippine Government’s response to the pandemic concerning Filipinos overseas and the initiatives of the Filipino community in assisting our kababayans overseas.

In his keynote message, Secretary Acosta first thanked our overseas Filipinos – the modern-day heroes – for their immense contribution to Philippine development. He then comprehensively discussed the current health situation in the country and how President Rodrigo Duterte directed a whole of government approach in addressing the pandemic. This included signing of Bayanihan to Heal as One Act I and II, imposition of travel bans and setting of health protocols to healthcare, food provision and livelihood assistance to affected Filipinos. Special government assistance programs for OFs were also set in place such as repatriation program and free RT-PCR test for returning OFWs; DOLE’s “Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) Program”; OWWA’s “Hatid-Sundo Program”, “OFW Kalinga Program”, and “Tulong Marino Program”; TESDAs online courses on skills training and upgrading; and DSWD/DOLE/DA’s “Social Amelioration Program” (SAP).

Consul General Cruz, in his message, highlighted four calls of action for every Filipino-Americans, namely: to continue giving back to the Philippines, contribute to Filipino community building, be cultural ambassadors of the country, and to visit the Philippines when the pandemic is over.

Resource speakers from LA, Arizona, Nevada and San Diego include distinguished Filipino community leaders, legal experts and Presidential Awardees who shared how the Filipino American community has been affected by, and how they are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how their respective organizations have been assisting Filipinos. In general, several annual activities of the Filipino community were cancelled, including medical missions to the Philippines; several small establishments closed and many lost their jobs, especially those working in hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.

Ms. Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, Executive Director of Pilipino Workers Center (PWC) of Southern California shared how the Historic Filipinotown group activated nationwide care program for working families and domestic workers affected by the pandemic. PWC initiated setting up of COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide care meals, emergency assistance, virtual town halls, temporary housing and access to COVID-19 testing centers of disadvantaged workers and frontliners.

Ms. Ana Alma de Garriz, Chairperson of the Council of Filipino Organizations in Arizona, a non-profit organization with over 17 member organizations (including the Philippine Nurses Association), shared the various humanitarian activities of the member organizations. These include “meals on wheels”, health wellness activities and information dissemination, virtual mental health support, and giving of face shields and face masks to healthcare workers in Arizona.

Multi-awarded civic leader in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community, Ms. Gloria Caoile, and President of the Filipino American Political Organization with Equal Representation in Nevada, Ms. Amie Belmonte jointly gave a presentation how they pooled resources and mobilized the Filipino community leaders in Nevada during the time of the pandemic. They launched the Bayanihan Project in Las Vegas, a fund-raising activity targeting the most vulnerable sectors – seniors, unemployed and underemployed and homeless youth – as beneficiaries of food assistance program; some poor families in the Philippines were also included. They also provided free masks and face shields to healthcare workers in hospitals in Las Vegas.

Los Angeles based lawyer and champion of the rights of minorities Atty. Joe Sayas, gave some practical legal advice for those having employment-related problems due to the pandemic. He cited state and federal laws protecting employees during these unprecedented situations.

Honorary Consul to San Diego, Atty. Audie de Castro, discussed the services of the newly established Pag-Asa Law Clinic, the first Filipino based legal clinic composed of volunteer advocates and attorneys serving Filipinos regardless of legal status and the greater community in Southern California. Most of the legal issues they are handling include rising cases of domestic violence within the Filipino community and housing problems of low-income families.

Mr. Eric Lachica, a Filipino community partnership specialist of the US Census Bureau in Los Angeles County stated significant statistical results of the 2020 US Census – the estimated 4 million Filipino Americans in the US, with more than half a million living in the Greater LA. He also discussed the advantages for the Filipino community in participating in the census since the data determines the number of congressional seats given to a State and is the basis of Federal and State funding allocation.

Philippine–side speakers, on the other hand, include Immigration Officer Carlo Magno Salazar of the Philippine Bureau of Immigration who discussed international travel restrictions and requirements for inbound and outbound passengers; CFO Director Marita del Rosario-Apattad who gave an overview of the current situation of the Exchange Visitor Program participants who were affected by the closure of their host institutions/ establishments in the US and how the CFO provided food and accommodation assistance to repatriated J1 participants during the time they were quarantined in Manila; and CFO’s Mr. Rodrigo Garcia, Jr. who encouraged qualified Filipino community members to join CFO’s biennial search for Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas, Migration Advocacy and Media Awards, and Youth Leaders in the Diaspora (YouLead). He also promoted the Lingkod sa Kapwa Pilipino Program, which has helped thru financial aid and philanthropic donations, several marginalized and underserved communities in the Philippines.

Some of the queries and issues raised during the open forum include procedure in applying for dual citizenship, timeline in the easing of travel restrictions for former Filipinos going to the Philippines, impact of COVID-19 to job opportunities especially for newly arrived immigrants, and ways of strengthening Philippine-US diaspora relations.

The Online Ugnayan was formally closed by CFO Usec. Astravel Pimentel-Naik, who gave the synthesis and ways forward. She encouraged everyone to trust the men and women in the government, and give support so that we will all reap the rewards of our unity.

Ugnayan sa LA was co-hosted by Ms. Joanna Lyn Rodriguez of CFO and Vice Consul Joan Macrise Corrado of PCG LA.

The Online Ugnayan sa Los Angeles, which is second in the series of webinars being organized by the CFO, has 5,000 combined Zoom and FB participants, reaching about 29,000 users from the United States, Philippines and other countries through Facebook livestream.

The next Online Ugnayan will be held for South Korea on November 8 and Hawaii on November 22.